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Lessons from ProPublica
Paul Steiger is one of the men I admire the most in my profession. Five years ago, at the age of 65, and after a 16-year tenure as the Wall Street Journal’s managing editor, he seized the opportunity to create a new form of investigative journalism. Steiger created ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom dedicated to the public interest and to deep dive reporting. He hired a bunch of young staffers (coached by seasoned editors and reporters) that could help him lift data journalism and computer-assisted reporting to the highest level. Thanks to wisely managed partnerships, he gave ProPublica a wide audience and the quality and breadth of his newsroom’s reporting landed it scores of awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. ProPublica was the first online news organization to receive such a seal of approval.
All this in five years, with now 33 journalists. Kudos.
Last wednesday, at the end of quick hop to New York, I paid Paul Steiger a visit. His corner office nests on the 23rd floor of Broadway, overlooking Wall Street’s canyons and Manhattan’s southern tip. At 70, Steiger has a twinkle in the eye that you don’t often find in reporters half his age. Especially when he speaks about ProPublica’s most shining journalistic moments.
In late 2006, the Sandler Foundation, approached Steiger with a wish to allocate a fraction of its immense wealth to the funding of investigative reporting. The newsman made four recommendations:
– The first one was to rely on a permanent staff as opposed to hired guns. “To do the kind of journalism we wanted to do, you must have people comfortable enough to stay on the story as long as needed. You also must accept dry holes. Freelancers will starve in such conditions!”
– Two, for the biggest stories, he wanted to partner with one or two large news organizations that could be granted some exclusivity over a short period of time in exchange for good visibility.
– Three, in order to guarantee the widest reach, Paul Steiger wanted to distribute the material freely on the web.
– Four, he would solely be responsible for content; funders or other contributors would not be involved in selecting stories. (Actually, on ProPublica’s first board meeting, none of the financial backers knew what the newsroom was working on.)
The partnership proved to be a great idea and expanded much farther than anticipated. It relied quite a lot on Paul Steiger’s and Stephen Engelberg’s personal connections (Engelberg is ProPublica’s editor-in-chief.) Quite often, Steiger explained, once a story neared completion, he’d place a call directly to a key editor in a major publications. “Sometimes, I could feel the excitement over the phone”, he laughs. He had to be very careful not to say too much before hammering the deal. I asked him how he handles confidential sources: “Well, we do not mind giving sources’ names to editors and lawyers, but less so to beat reporters… You know, reporters are human, and they might be tempted to call the sources themselves…”
Cooperation with other medias turned out to breed an unexpected advantage: transforming good national stories into a local ones. The best example, is the Dollars for Docs project. In a nutshell: a sizable portion of pharmaceutical firms operating in the United States are now required to reveal all direct contributions to doctors. (It’ll be 100% next year.) Needless to say, they complied reluctantly, providing a sloppy, almost useless database. As a result, the two reporters assigned to the subject were at a loss when it came to retrieve relevant data. Then, a young ProPublica in-house data specialist joined the team and solved the puzzle in a few weeks. The story was published by ProPublica’s five partners: The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, PBS, NPR and Consumer Reports. Why Consumer Reports? “Because they had polling capabilities”, Steiger said. “Pharmaceuticals companies were saying patients didn’t mind if doctors got fees from them, we proved patients actually care…” After a few days for the key partners’ exclusivity window, the database was released on the web on October 19, 2010. In an easily searchable way, it showed the status of 17,000 doctors receiving a total of $750 million. A small stimulus to keep the flow of prescriptions smooth and steady — and to contribute to the indecent cost of healthcare in America.
Then the local mechanics kicked in. In the months afterwards, no less than 125 local outlets picked up the story, extracting relevant local information from the database and adding context. That’s one of the most interesting aspects of ProPublica’s work: its ability to cause a national interest story to percolate down to the local news organizations which, in turn, will give the story more depth by connecting it to its relevant community. (ProPublica now has 78 partners)
I asked Paul Steiger if he believes this model could be translated into a classic business. After all, why not gather half a dozen non-competiting news outlets, happy to split the price of large journalistic projects — each costing from $100,000 to $200,000 to produce — in addition to a small fee from local news? Paul Steiger says it cannot be made to work. To sum it up, by asking a newspaper or a TV network to pay, ProPublica would directly compete with their clients’ internal economics. Inevitably, someone will say, hey, last year, we paid x thousands dollars in fees for ProPublica’s stories, that’s the equivalent of y staffers. Not to mention the state of the news industry with, in fact, very few companies willing (and able) to pay extra editorial costs. The consequence would be a down spiral: deprived of the vast audience it now enjoys, the organization would have a hard time attracting clients for its content, nor would it be able to attract donations. Fact is, such syndication doesn’t work. California Watch, which operates on the same beat as ProPublica, burns more than $2 million a year but collects less than… $30,000 dollars in syndication fees.
That’s why ProPublica plans to stick to its original structure. Next year, Paul Steiger will step down as ProPublica’s editor-in-chief and chief executive, he’ll become executive chairman, a position in which he will spend most of his time raising money for the organization. As it stands today, ProPublica is on a sound path. The first two years of operation were solely funded by the Sandler family, for about $10 million a year. This year their contribution will be down to $4 million, with $6m coming from other sources. In 2013, the breakdown will be $3m and $7 million. Not only did ProPublica put itself at the forefront of the public interest, high quality, digitally boosted, modern journalism, but it also created a sustainable way to support it.