Everyone should be able to easily compare the costs of common medical procedures. No reporter would dispute this, but it took Jeanne Pinder to do something about it.
After a successful career at The New York Times, she took a buyout — a choice many journalists may have to make at least once in their careers. Afterward, she won a “Shark Tank”-style pitch contest in front of New York venture capitalists and internet experts that enabled her to launch ClearHealthCosts.com, a service-focused publication dedicated to bringing transparency to the healthcare marketplace.
It’s a noble mission that, from a business perspective, has yielded partnerships with newsrooms including CBS News and the Philadelphia Inquirer. But it is also changing lives. Work with CBS News, for example, brought about state-level changes in the New York State surprise and emergency billing law. In New Orleans, one reader saved $3,786 on an MRI.
I chatted with Jeanne about her career, how tapping her journalism DNA led to a rewarding next chapter, and what happens when she’s told, “You can’t do that.”
Dawn Wotapka: Tell me about ClearHealthCosts.com.
Jeanne: We are a no-longer-startup bringing transparency to the healthcare marketplace by telling people what stuff costs. Find us at ClearHealthCosts.
Dawn: What led you to start this site?
Jeanne: I volunteered for a buyout from The New York Times in 2009, after almost 25 years. I was looking for my next act and was invited to join an entrepreneurial journalism class at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
A prerequisite: We had to have an idea for a business that had journalism DNA. I racked my brain and came up with this. I thought we should be able to understand our health care bills. Simple, right?
Dawn: What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way?
Jeanne: Apparently, I am very motivated when people tell me “You can’t do that.” My reaction to that: “Just watch me.”
Dawn: Why do you think there have traditionally been so few entrepreneurs in journalism?
Jeanne: There is a widespread belief that the business model in journalism is challenged if not broken. To a large degree, that’s true but journalism is looking for new business models. Journalism is important to our democracy – it’s hard work to save it, but save it we must.
Dawn: I’ve noticed that changing lately. Why now?
Jeanne: Other people apparently agree that we need to save it!
There’s a lot of new non-profit journalism. It is entrepreneurial, but it’s a different kind of entrepreneurship than straight-on for-profit journalism like big news organizations – The New York Times, Washington Post, etc.
I’ve also been seeing a lot of small for-profit startups. Many of them are in smaller markets, where formerly print papers ruled. But now the economics of print don’t work as well. So for a small, nimble online startup, there is plenty of opportunity – especially in local news.
Dawn: How do you partner with other news organizations? Is there money involved?
Jeanne: We partner on long-running, consumer-friendly investigations about health costs. We tell stories of how people have been screwed in healthcare, and how they have avoided this – how they have saved money, so others can too. It’s local-focused: How to save money in San Francisco, New Orleans, Miami, New York. Read more here.
We have partnered with some of the nation’s most prestigious news organizations: CBS News, WNYC public radio / Gothamist in New York; the Philadelphia Inquirer; KQED public radio in San Francisco; WVUE Fox 8 Live and NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, to name a few. We serve as their domain experts and help them do great journalism about health costs, helping people navigate the healthcare marketplace and similar topics. We collect and display data, tell people’s stories and hold their healthcare providers accountable.
We save people a ton of money, won a bunch of prizes, and have enjoyed great conversations with our community members, as well as the journalists who are our partners. We’ve gotten legislation passed – the Texas governor just signed a bill that grew out of one of our partnerships there.
Dawn: I noticed that you’ve received several impressive grants. What role do they play in your business?
Jeanne: Our initial series of grants allowed us to get off the ground. We weren’t sure what the business model would be and those grants were really important in giving us time to figure that out. Also, generous grants have sustained some of our partnerships.
I’m also very grateful to a small number of angel investors who believed in me and gave support to help us launch.
Dawn: Do you take pitches from PR people? If so, how can they pitch you?
Jeanne: Of course! They can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dawn: Do you work with freelance writers? If so, how can they pitch you?
Jeanne: Of course! They can read our pitch guide and then email me.
Dawn: You were a TED speaker. What was that like?
Jeanne: I was very fortunate to be chosen as a TED resident in 2018. We had an amazing group of people and very smart coaching on how to deliver a TED talk. My talk went on the front page of TED.com, and it’s now received well over 2 million views. I could not be more grateful to the TED people, and also to my cohort of fellow residents.
Dawn: Let’s go back in time. What got you interested in journalism?
Jeanne: I got my first job in journalism at 13 as a cub reporter at The Grinnell Herald-Register, my family’s twice-weekly community newspaper in Grinnell, Iowa. I grew up in newspapering and have always loved journalism.
I did try to get away by majoring in Russian and going to graduate school in Slavic linguistics to become an academic, but it turns out I’m not a great academic. I’m a much better journalist.
It was that Russian background, and the fact that I had lived in the Soviet Union, that brought me ultimately to The Times as an expert on Soviet and East European affairs in the mid-1980s.
Dawn: You left The New York Times and then came back. Why?
Jeanne: I moved back to Iowa to work at the family paper for about four years between my two stints at the Times. About four years in, The Times called and asked me to come back, so I went.
Dawn: Who mentored you along the way?
Jeanne: Pre-startup, I had an amazing group of colleagues at The Des Moines Register and at The New York Times. At The Times, one of my bosses, Joe Lelyveld, was an inspiration and a mentor, and I will always be grateful for his wisdom, honesty and deep morality – and his no-bullshit approach to just about everything.
In startup-land, I’ve been lucky enough to be a member of several supportive groups of women and non-binary folks at the nexus of media, startups, tech, and related vectors. One of them, The List, has been really important for resources, advice, strategies and friendships. Also at the very beginning, the folks at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism taught me a lot about how to do a startup. I would not be here without these people.
Dawn: What is your most memorable story?
Jeanne: I was on the foreign desk at The New York Times when the Berlin Wall went down. I am a scholar of Soviet and East European affairs, so of course that was of enormous importance. Also, way back, when I was leaving employment at The Grinnell Herald Register, and starting at the Associated Press in Des Moines, I almost got killed by a tornado near my hometown, Grinnell. I had to turn around and go out and cover it. That was a great lesson in crisis journalism in the face of adversity.
Dawn: What advice do you give to young journalists?
Jeanne: This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s a great time to be a journalist. There are lots of opportunities that did not exist when I was starting out. If you’re a young journalist and want to get some clips, or just schmooze, email me and let’s see if we can put something together!
Dawn: What do you wish you’d known when you started out?
Jeanne: Our health care system is protected by an unbelievably robust web of secrecy and interlocking relationships that preserve the income of the institutions that run it – hospitals, insurers, Big Pharma and the various middlemen. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.
Regulators and lawmakers are compromised because of campaign finance dollars and the revolving door between government and industry. This all takes place at the expense of patients, or as we like to call them, PEOPLE, who want to get well and preserve their health.
Instead, the healthcare industry extracts money from us. Your government is paying extra health dollars instead of helping the environment and fixing potholes. Your employer is paying extra health dollars instead of higher wages. You and your family are paying extra health dollars instead of a vacation, a car – sometimes even just putting food on the table.
It is clear to me that all the parties think they’re doing the right thing: Making money for the hospital, the insurer, the company, is what that C-suite exec and his workers are doing. But the sum total of all this behavior is that we are in the worst physical health of any developed nation, and we pay much, much more. Because people don’t think they have the money to go to the doctor, small problems become big ones. Chronic conditions persist, untreated. People die.
It’s a national travesty. We must do better as a nation.
Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who loves to read and write. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. Be sure to connect with Dawn on LinkedIn.