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From AJR,   January/February 2000  issue

Small but Mighty Watchdogs   


By Kent German
Kent German is a former editorial assistant at American Journalism Review.     

Afew days before Kirsten Boyd Goldberg learned her newsletter had won an award for watchdog journalism, she bought a watchdog of her own--a Belgian shepherd.

"It's kind of a joke around here: We got an award for being a watchdog just after we bought a real one," says Goldberg, editor and publisher of the Cancer Letter.

This weekly cancer news and information newsletter, published out of Goldberg's Washington, D.C., basement, is the 1999 recipient of the Robert D.G. Lewis Award for Watchdog Journalism from the Society of Professional Journalists' D.C. chapter.

The award honored a five-part investigative series written by Editor Paul Goldberg, Kirsten's husband, which critically examined a cancer treatment program developed by a Houston doctor. The series found that there wasn't proof the treatment program was working.

The Cancer Letter's staff consists only of the Goldbergs and one editorial assistant. With a focus on the intersection of science, politics and economics, its readership ranges from researchers to health company employees to staffers of cancer advocacy groups. The newsletter accepts no advertising and is supported solely by subscriptions. Kirsten would not disclose circulation figures.

Her father, Jerry Boyd, started the newsletter in 1973 after covering the National Cancer Institute for FDC Reports. "He saw a void of information that scientists needed," she says.

Like her father, Kirsten has no medical training. She worked for two years as a staff writer with Education Week before joining the newsletter in 1989, a year before Boyd retired. Paul, a former reporter with the Wichita Eagle, came on board in 1992. Since her arrival, Kirsten has continued her father's mission of covering cancer through investigative reporting.

The newsletter "has given me the opportunity to cross boundaries," she says. "It's really innovative journalism."

The husband and wife team also publish a monthly supplement, Business and Regulatory Report, which focuses on industry and regulatory affairs, and another newsletter, Clinical Cancer Letter, which looks at clinical trials and research.

Besides the SPJ award, the Cancer Letter (online at www.cancerletter.com) won a third place award for investigative reporting from the Newsletter Publishers Foundation in 1999.

"Its nice to get that recognition," Kirsten says. "Especially when there's not a lot of journalism like ours out there."