Big Bucks for Investigative Reporting  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2008

Big Bucks for Investigative Reporting    

By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.     


When its imminent launch was announced last fall, ProPublica brought a double-barreled blast of attention to nonprofit news media. It wasn't just the premise of an independent newsroom devoted to investigative reporting, an endangered species in an era of downsizing; it was the promise of $10 million-a-year backing to ensure hard-hitting stories that would be given away to other news outlets.

Founders Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler committed that chunk of their personal fortune — burnished by the 2006 sale of their Golden West Financial Corp. savings and loan to the Wachovia Corp. — to support the stated mission of "producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them."

Additional one-time grants are coming from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation ($250,000) and the Atlantic Philanthropies and JEHT Foundation ($25,000 each).

ProPublica's editor in chief is Paul E. Steiger, who led the Wall Street Journal to 16 Pulitzer Prizes while serving as managing editor from 1991 until last May. As his managing editor, Steiger tapped Stephen Engelberg, a managing editor at Portland's Oregonian who'd earlier been an investigative editor for the New York Times. They'll direct a staff of about 25 reporters, editors and researchers based in a Manhattan newsroom and doing stories of national import.

By mid-November, ProPublica had received roughly 400 résumés "from essentially every major news organization in the country," says General Manager Richard Tofel, who worked with Steiger at the Wall Street Journal and most recently was a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The organization, which launched in January, will gear up during early 2008, regularly spotlighting others' investigative reports on its Web site (propublica.org) while developing its own projects.

Steiger says he has spoken with representatives of leading newspapers, magazines and television news outlets about carrying ProPublica projects. With those that are "90 percent done, we'll be looking for a collaborator who can give the most impact and visibility," Steiger says. "For collaborations that we might start at an early stage, we'll be looking at where there would be mutual advantage" for another news outlet to join in the reporting and editing. ProPublica will publish the work on its own site, in some cases simultaneously with the news organization.

As Michael Miner observed in the Chicago Reader, this approach probably cuts out news organizations — especially those far from population centers — with the fewest resources to keep the powerful in check.

Editorial independence will be crucial not just to ProPublica but to the news organizations disseminating or partnering on its stories. And it may be a challenge to overcome newsrooms' preference for stories they've produced internally.

For example, Philadelphia Inquirer Editor William K. Marimow says he's "agonized a lot about ProPublica." Though he's confident that, "with Paul at the helm, they'll do great work," Marimow expressed concern about a news organization ceding any editorial control. "When it comes to investigative reporting, it's my belief that top editors need to take responsibility from the get-go," he says. "A hybrid project creates diffuse responsibility."

— C.G.

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