ProPublica has become a significant enough part of the journalism firmament that it’s hard to think of it as a startup.
But five years ago today, when the investigative journalism site first began publishing, there were a lot of question marks surrounding the venture. This was a new news organization launching during a terrible recession that was destroying journalists’ jobs across the country. It was relying on foundation dollars, not advertising, to stay afloat. And it was making a bet on the Internet and partnerships — not its own printing press or broadcast tower — to deliver their reporting. “I don’t think to those people who were joining in May, June, July of 2008, that any of them could feel entirely certain this was going to be a sort of thriving concern five years later,” ProPublica editor Stephen Engelberg told me.
It’s obviously a different story today, as ProPublica has grown its staff, broadened its funding sources, and forged partnerships with many dozens of news organizations. It took less than five years for ProPublica to win two Pulitzer Prizes. Today ProPublica is known as much for its investigations as it is for the use of data for news applications and experiments with reader engagement through channels like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. But in the beginning, it was tough to imagine any of that. I spoke with Engelberg and ProPublica president Richard Tofel about the early days of the website, how they’ve incorporated the use of data and social media into their reporting, how to measure the impact of investigations, and the health of nonprofit journalism. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
We had barely assembled a staff five years ago. It was kind of unclear to us to what extent being a new brand would get our calls returned and questions answered. I had the joy of calling from The New York Times and the larger challenge of calling from The Oregonian, which is a respected regional newspaper, and that was a big difference. I kind of imagined our reporters would be spending many years of their lives explaining what ProPublica meant, who we were and what we did. It didn’t turn out that way. Interestingly, it turns out that in a world where any blogger can bring down a CEO, people pay attention to inquiries from all sorts of people.
I think we were very fortunate in being able to establish a reputation for fair and hard-hitting reporting very early on. The other big surprise, we didn’t really imagine when we started was the power, and journalistic value of data applications. We had the very good fortune to hire Scott Klein from The Nation to be our chief of development. He had a vision, which I don’t think any of us fully understood when we started, that you could use the new technologies to create these massive data applications like Dollars for Docs, or our dialysis app, or what we’re doing now with doctors prescribing drugs. I don’t think any of us imagined how powerful, popular, and important journalistically that could be.
One of the things that resulted from that, which has been fascinating, is that those applications turned out to be a way to leverage our journalism. We always wondered: With 18 reporters, how much of a dent could we make in a problem that was obviously many times larger than that? One of the things that’s happened is you have a lot of local, regional, and sometimes national publications using our data to do their own stories.
The other thing that I think was a question mark is we had begun to assemble a staff, but these days it’s easy to forget what a kind of leap in the dark it was to leave a struggling, but established, news organization for a startup like ProPublica. Today, people talk about ProPublica and it’s obvious it’s going to survive and it fills this niche and we’re out raising money. But I don’t think to those people who were joining in May, June, July of 2008 that any of them could feel entirely certain this was going to be a sort of thriving concern five years later. They did something that was courageous, visionary, and were very grateful for it.
We went out and felt from the very beginning we had to have a staff publication. There was a lot of talk back in ’08 that you could do this by hiring a network of freelancers around the country. We didn’t think that suited investigative reporting. You needed people that would take risks and have something of a safety net under them in the form of a staff job. And we wanted to recruit some of the best in the country. In order to do that we had to persuade them that this would work. Which was very much a question.
And as Steve indicated, diversifying our funding has obviously been a big thing. We had a number of early supporters in addition to the Sandler foundation, particularly the McArthur Foundation. But the Sandler Foundation was the vast majority of the funding. Last year, they were down to 39 percent of the funding, and this year it’ll be below a third, we think. That’s a very, very big difference.
Yes, there are more people going for a slice of the pie, but I think the pie in this area is growing, and I think the research suggests that’s the case. With individual and grassroots in general, I think the better known you are, and the more of a track record you have, where you can demonstrate particular impact from the work — sure, that makes it easier. As you’re better known, you’ve got the opportunity to get the message to more people.
We were founded in January of ’08. We opened our doors to an empty building and hired staff in the March, April, May, June, July period. By September, we had the economic meltdown. The world continued to change very radically in journalism. News organizations were far more willing, first of all, to directly collaborate, and second of all, to use material that was not their own.
I had a conversation with an editor at a top regional newspaper yesterday, and she basically said, “Couldn’t you just produce thousand-word stories, or a thousand-word versions of every story you do so that we could run them in our Sunday section?” The underlying thing here is that a lot of these people are cutting back supplemental wire services, cutting back on staff. So content from outside, far from being a radical thought, is now very helpful. I think this notion that you can get ideas for investigations of your own, from organizations like us, might have been seen as a point of pride. I think people now realize that you need all the help you can get. And if you can get it from a nonprofit, if we are creating a database that no one regional newspaper can possibly create on its own, and it has applicability for all 50 states, why wouldn’t you help yourself? I don’t think that was something that we entirely foresaw, but it’s been fantastic. It’s turned out to be a major part of how we have impact.
We always knew we wanted stories, and initially we would start with a kind of aggregation thing. We would do stories that had minimal additional heft to them. We would simply pull together what others had done. We thought that would work well on our site. It didn’t turn out to.
Turns out that if you want to do stories, even of a short form, on a site like ours, you need to add value. You have people, like say, Justin Elliot, who manages fairly routinely and in much shorter form than our deep dives, to break news and bring to light things you don’t know. I think that remains the key. It’s very difficult. I don’t want to say we’ve entirely cut the Gordian Knot here, because we are constantly talking about this and try to strike a balance.
I have, myself, always dreamed, when I was at a newspaper, of really trying to harness the potential of the crowd. It’s very challenging. We’ve done a number of experiments on this. I think we’re finding a way to do it. When you give people discrete tasks, like we did with Free the Files — clear things that can benefit an investigation — or when you really create from scratch a community, as we have with this patient harm Facebook group, I think you can begin to get things of real journalistic value.
People look at Wikipedia and say, “Look at that, we’ve created an encyclopedia with the wisdom of the hive, can’t we do investigative journalism that way?” I wish it were that simple. Some of the refinements we’ve come to over the last few years have made real progress in this direction. It’s very exciting. When you can engage a large group of people in furthering your journalism, your journalism is better and deeper, more interesting and more informed.
We now know that’s not true. We now know there is an important audience for news that’s reported in depth and done well. I think the rise in the interest of long form, the rise of various new formats like Kindle Singles, is a harbinger of something more. If you look around the field of journalism writ large, it’s true you do see a lot of decay and decline in certain sectors, like traditional print. But if you also look around you see new entrants that are coming in and following in the principles of quality and in-depth journalism. Look at the Al Jazeera English business plan, or what Univision is trying to do, and they’re talking about doing quality journalism and pouring money into it.
We remain optimistic about the potential for audience interest in investigative journalism, and really the possibilities of continuing to publish stories that make a difference, that people care about. I think people are more engaged than a lot of the cynics would have anticipated.
We can sort of track these things. It’s never going to be as perfect a metric as some might like, but I think it is actually quite measurable and trackable.
Image by Andrew Eick used under a Creative Commons license.