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May 21, 2024, 2:30 p.m.
Reporting & Production

ProPublica’s new “50 states” commitment builds on a decade-plus of local news partnerships

With annual revenue of $45 million and a staff approaching 200 people, ProPublica has been one of the big journalism winners of the past decade. And it’s been unusually willing to spread that wealth around the country.

The internet likes winners. It might let a thousand flowers bloom — but usually, only one or two of those flowers ends up dominating the ecosystem. Think Amazon in retail, Google in search, or Meta in social media: While the web can theoretically fuel intense competition, it more often tends toward singular market powers and functional monopolies. Call it a power law distribution or call it aggregation theory — either way, to the victors go the spoils. (And, often, the antitrust investigations.)

In the for-profit news world, the clear winner of the digital transition has been The New York Times. Back in the days of print, the Times had a lot of readers, but so did the half-dozen or so other papers in its circulation weight class. But the shift to digital and the decline of local news has rocketed it to a position of dominance — 10.5 million subscriptions at last count, 9.9 million of them digital. That’s more than 3× The Wall Street Journal, 4× The Washington Post, and 5× Gannett, America’s biggest chain with hundreds of newspapers.

But something analogous has happened in the nonprofit news world too. It’s a good time to be ProPublica. And it’s a good thing that we have ProPublica.

At its founding in 2008, the investigative nonprofit was primarily funded by a single wealthy couple, Herb and Marion Sandler. But in the years since then, it has expanded both its newsroom and its base of donors enormously — establishing a new weight class of its own.

Compare ProPublica’s annual revenues with those of its two most established peers: the Center for Investigative Reporting (founded 1977) and the Center for Public Integrity (founded 1989). First, let’s look back 10 years, to 2014 — the end of an era one might call Pre-Trump. The three outlets were then all about the same size.

  • ProPublica: $10.3 million
  • Center for Investigative Reporting: $10.3 million
  • Center for Public Integrity: $9.62 million

Fast forward to 2017, the year of the “Trump bump.” Money poured into news organizations from newly worried voters who saw the value of investigative coverage. But as with for-profit news — where the subscription boom was largely a Times boom — those new nonprofit dollars flowed disproportionately to the top dog perceived as most aggressive in covering Trump, ProPublica. Suddenly, it was 3× the size of CIR and 4× the size of CPI.

  • ProPublica: $43.6 million
  • Center for Investigative Reporting: $13.6 million
  • Center for Public Integrity: $9.99 million

Zoom ahead to 2022, the most recent year for which tax data is available. ProPublica has maintained and even grown its lead.

  • ProPublica: $44.5 million
  • Center for Investigative Reporting: $10.9 million
  • Center for Public Integrity: $5.03 million

And since then, the gap has widened again. ProPublica’s revenue breached $45 million last year, with gifts from more than 54,000 donors.

Meanwhile, CPI fell $2.5 million short of its $6 million revenue goal, has laid off “nearly allof its journalists, and is likely headed for a shutdown or merger. And CIR has already ceased to exist as an independent organization — having merged into Mother Jones five months ago.

To be clear, I don’t fault either the Times or ProPublica for their outsized successes, which have been driven by a lot of excellent journalism, smart business decisions, and an ability to seize opportunities when presented. (ProPublica just won its seventh Pulitzer Prize and was a nominated finalist for the 17th time in 16 years — numbers that far outpace its nonprofit peers.)

But when an organization reaches such a high perch, I believe it has a responsibility to give back. I’ve been critical at times of The New York Times, which has focused more on expanding its product mix laterally than on helping its peers in the local news game. The Times is a publicly traded company, of course, not a charity, but I’ve argued it could do more.

But happily, that would a very difficult charge to make against ProPublica. Spreading its journalistic wealth has long been core to its mission. The latest iteration of that is the 50 State Initiative, announced last month.

ProPublica announced on Wednesday a commitment to publishing accountability journalism in every state over the next five years. The 50 State Initiative expands the scope of our work at the local and regional level, which includes a growing team of journalists reporting from communities across the country and groundbreaking partnerships with local news organizations through the Local Reporting Network program.

The initiative broadens our support for local journalism, which now includes the LRN alongside dedicated reporting hubs in the Midwest, South, Southwest and Northwest, as well as an investigative unit in partnership with The Texas Tribune. ProPublica has nearly 40 journalists based around the country contributing to regional and local accountability reporting, ensuring people can benefit from world-class journalism that can drive measurable change in their communities.

My first reaction to the 50 State Initiative was: “Wait, hasn’t ProPublica already done investigations in all 50 states?” Its ubiquity seems so complete that I was surprised there was a state line it hadn’t yet crossed. (In my native Louisiana, for instance, ProPublica has been behind some of the most important investigations of the past decade, especially in criminal justice, the environment, and local corruption.)

Importantly, the 50 State Initiative restarts the clock on state-counting. (“We will enter into new partnerships going forward in every state,” Charles Ornstein, ProPublica’s managing editor for local, told me — no coasting on past work.) But nonetheless, I thought it might be worthwhile to determine just how extensive ProPublica’s local work has been in recent years. In how many of the 50 states has ProPublica already done investigations, whether one or many?1

ProPublica’s deepest local commitments come through its regional reporting hubs, which currently employ about 40 journalists around the country. It currently runs bureaus dedicated to covering the Midwest (which it defines as Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Missouri), Northwest (Washington, Idaho, Alaska, and Oregon), South (North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee), and Southwest (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah). And because Texas is Texas, it is home to a dedicated investigative unit between ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.2 Together, those add up to 20 states that ProPublica covers today with full-time staff journalists.

Beyond the reporting hubs, ProPublica’s most direct local engagement is through the Local Reporting Network, which it launched in 2018 “to help remedy the lack of investigative reporting at the local level.” ProPublica sees LRN partnerships as “deeper, more collaborative and centered around the ideas local reporters and news organizations have” than a one-off story collaboration, Ornstein said. (This is the level of partnership the 50 State Initiative will seek in every state.)

So far, more than 70 local news outlets have partnered with ProPublica through the network, including publishers in California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and West Virginia. That’s 19 more states, bringing our total to 39.

That leaves only 11 states where ProPublica does not have a full-time regional team and has not partnered with any local news org in the Local Reporting Network: Arkansas, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

But in five of those, ProPublica has done at least one local partnership on an individual story: Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Add those in and we’re up to 44 states total.

We’re down to six blank spots on the map: Delaware, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Vermont. But in several of those, ProPublica reporters have done their own significant local investigative work.3 Like this piece on medical debt abuses in Nebraska, say, or this one on Native Americans and suspect oil deals in North Dakota. I also found significant ProPublica stories from Montana and Vermont, bringing us up to 48 states total.

That leaves only two small states where ProPublica has, as far as I can tell, never opened a bureau, partnered with a local news org, or written a significant story about local issues: Delaware and New Hampshire.

I’m sure all the Blue Hens and Granite Staters will survive! (If I ran a news organization in one of those states, I’d definitely be thinking of a reporting project to pitch.) But it’s an enormous credit to the organization that its state to-do list was down to two — even before announcing another round of stories for all 50 states.

So consider this a round of applause for ProPublica. It’s nice to see an internet winner using its success to help others who the digital economy hasn’t treated as well — and by that I mean both local news organizations and local news readers. “We know that we can’t solve those challenges alone,” Ornstein said, “but we do believe we can work to help bring accountability journalism to more places.”

  1. Note: I’m only including the 50 states here; no D.C., no Puerto Rico, no Guam. []
  2. Which one could think of as the ProPublica of local nonprofit news orgs. []
  3. Obviously, it’s a judgment call what counts as “significant,” but I’m excluding stray mentions of a state in a clearly national story, for example. Also, I’m excluding a couple of cases where news orgs worked with ProPublica on a broader project, like Documenting Hate. []
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     May 21, 2024, 2:30 p.m.
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