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June 10, 2013, 3:09 p.m.
Business Models
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ProPublica at five: How the nonprofit collaborates, builds apps, and measures impact

Five years after launch, ProPublica’s Stephen Engelberg and Richard Tofel reflect on the nonprofit’s early days, getting readers involved in investigations, and the health of nonprofit journalism.

birthdaycakeccProPublica 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.

Justin Ellis: Congratulations on turning five. How have things changed since those early days? What’s one of the biggest differences?
Stephen Engelberg: The single biggest thing that’s changed is we went from, five years ago, a fairly large and intriguing question mark to something that clearly really works and is established. When we started this thing, when we posted our first story five years ago, we really could not be certain that other organizations, partnerships, would work, or that people would take our material. Since then we’ve published all over the place, from The New York Times and Washington Post to The Atlantic magazine, NPR, This American Life, Frontline, Los Angeles Times. I think that was a significant step that was unclear when we started.

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.

Richard Tofel: Dollars for Docs — now more than 170 separate news organizations have done local stories based on that data around the country. The database has been tapped into the tune of 5.74 million pageviews.
Engelberg: I think none of us could have imagined that, first of all, we could even have gathered that data. Remember, it was scrapped from the websites of 14 different pharma companies, and having to write 14 different scrapers. That’s a phrase, frankly, when we started five years ago, I had never even heard. I don’t think any of us could imagine that it could be done, how it could be done, or we could do it with the kind of lean staff that we have. But Scott and his team had a tremendous commitment to this work, which I think has paid off very handsomely for us.

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.

Tofel: The only two things I would add are, first, social media. We looked the other day — at the end of June 2008, we had 58 followers on Twitter. Today, we have 217,000. That sort of gives you a sense. I’m not sure I had personally heard of Twitter, honestly, in June 2008. That’s a big change, not just for us, but for the news business as a whole.

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.

Ellis: But the other side of that is there’s more competition for those dollars today. There’s a growing number of nonprofit news organizations. Does it become easy to get funding as you mature and people can see the work you’ve done?
Tofel: I suppose it’s more competitive in some sense — particularly, for instance, some of the institutional foundations have started in the last year or two to give grants to some of the struggling for-profits. So in that sense, we’re competing for those funds with a wider circle. On the other hand, and I think outweighing that, there’s a much greater recognition in philanthropy, both in institutional and families, of the need.

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.

Ellis: You said that collaborating with other news outlets seemed risky at the time. But one of the interesting things to come out of that is that your national stories get turned into local stories. Was that a surprise or planned? How does that give the investigations ongoing life?
Engelberg: I don’t think I anticipated the power of that. To tell a brief story: Paul [Steiger] had the insight originally of this collaboration model built upon the notion the original story would be exclusive, but then would be available on the web to all. I had been at The New York Times 18 years and The Oregonian for six — I was very skeptical that major news organizations, for reasons of ego, pride, or whatever, would be willing to take controversial work from outsiders. These aren’t just stories — they’re investigative stories, they’re hard-hitting stories. And Paul said to me, I remember it quite vividly, “Things have changed a little since you’ve been away.” In those six years, things had changed.

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.

Ellis: You’ve found a kind of alchemy of being able to do the long-term investigations, which can be slow-moving, and having persistent news on the website. How did you get to that? When a lot of journalists think about investigative reporting, they think of disappearing for two or three months and then a story appears.
Engelberg: To be honest, it has been a constant daily and ongoing struggle. As you quite correctly point out, there’s a real tension between the needs of the web for dynamic and constantly changing output and the needs of investigative reporting, which is to dive very deeply into things in a kind of obsessive and immersive way. We have tried to balance these two things. We have constant conversations on our staff. Deputy editor Eric Umansky, who kind of heads up our web operation, is very good at prodding and pushing to get stories of some value.

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.

Tofel: I do think, however, that aggregation has been our friend. I think the nonprofit form encourages this. We did one yesterday. All of a sudden everyone wants to talk about the surveillance programs the government has been running. We pulled together the best stories that have been written on this over the last 10 years by other people. That was a very relevant thing, and a lot of people went immediately to look at it. It circulated quite widely on social media. It is remarkable, even now, how few news organizations are willing to suggest to readers that they might want to read something published by somebody else.
Ellis: In that same vein, ProPublica has made a point of trying to use new platforms, whether it’s Twitter, Reddit, or the patient harm group on Facebook. What have you learned about making reader engagement work?
Engelberg: If you start, as we did, as a web-based publication with no printing presses, from the beginning one of the questions we had was, “Okay, what are the advantages of that we might glean from that?” Both Paul and I came out of legacy newsrooms, which was often like carrying a piano on your back as you tried to walk into the next century. We’ve been very fortunate to have, first in Amanda Michel and now in Amanda Zamora, people working for us who had a sense where the cutting edge was and wanted to push beyond it.

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.

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Ellis: A lot of organizations are doing news applications now. It seems like ProPublica was doing that earlier than most — specifically trying to collect data and make the data understandable and usable by the audience. How did you get from the idea of doing long-term investigations to what Scott has talked about, that news applications can be investigations themselves?
Tofel: I think a big part of it is we hired — first in Scott and then he has hired in his team — people who are both developers and journalists. Every one of them is both. So it was not “create new gee-whiz tools because they’re cool new tools.” It was create new tools to tell new stories, see new stories, and think of how we could create a tool to tell them. I think we were a little ahead of the curve on that. Columbia now has, just in the last year or two, an academic program designed to turn out more such people. Our current grant from the Knight Foundation was designed to help train such people who are already in the business. I think that is the critical insight of it. You want people who go both ways.
Ellis: How do you see the health of the nonprofit sector of journalism? Do you guys ever provide guidance or assistance to these newer nonprofits?
Tofel: We talk to a lot of them. I think the field is very exciting, with a lot of terrific new entrants. Not all of them are going to succeed — not all of them have. But there’s a lot of great work being done in a lot of places. In addition to good journalism, I think there’s some sensible business thinking being done. The models are different — some are more investigative, some are more local. Some are more data-oriented. Some are more traditional-story oriented. It varies a lot. But I think the field is in a very good place.

Engelberg: One of the things people said five years ago, which was interesting but completely incorrect, is not only would investigative reporting wither at the mainstream institutions because it was expensive, which is true, but it would wither because people weren’t interested. Nobody cared! Short! Short! Short! Celebrity news, that’s what drives traffic and drives people’s interest! We have a public of people who only want to read little nuggets!

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.

Ellis: I know one of the things ProPublica has been interested in is impact. That’s something all journalists are looking for with their work, but it’s difficult to measure. Have you found a way to measure the work you’ve done and the impact it’s had over the last five years?
Tofel: This is a critical question for us. You’re exactly right — our mission is very specifically to spur change and reform through journalistic means. I actually wrote a paper about this with support by the Gates Foundation over the winter.
Engelberg: The bottom line is we track impact closely. We can’t exactly turn it into a words-per-impact or months-per-impact metric that some people might like. But subjectively, you can have a pretty good idea. Sometimes it’s pretty darn clear, like when we published with the Los Angeles Times our piece on California nurses, and Governor Schwarzenegger fired the entire nursing board — that was impact. It’s always going to be a mix of things. I don’t think our reporting on New Orleans was solely responsible for each and every prosecution. But it certainly played a role in a number of them. And ultimately, putting the New Orleans Police Department in receivership of the federal government happened, I think in some measure, because of the work A.C. Thompson did.

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.

POSTED     June 10, 2013, 3:09 p.m.
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