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How does ProPublica do it? Can it scale?
I received an intriguing email alert last week from ProPublica – the nonprofit organization that, according to its mission statement, does "journalism in the public interest." The email announced that ProPublica's "nursing home inspection" tool now has a completely searchable database of "140,000-plus" reports from government inspections of these facilities for seniors, many of which have been plagued by charges of poor or even abusive care.
That reminded me that as its fifth anniversary approaches, ProPublica deserves full-blown feature treatment.
The small, New York-based organization, which has already won two Pulitzer Prizes, has done a slew of amazing reporting projects that have combined old-fashioned shoe leather with ingenious use of modern technology to gather and present compelling stories and provide ongoing resource materials. It has tackled subjects ranging from political ad spending to doctors getting payments from drug companies to presidential pardons to this nursing home project. And that's all in addition to an array of killer one-off stories, such as its report on speaking fees paid to Chicago Tribune editorial board member and syndicated columnist Clarence Page by a group lobbying to be removed from a State Department terrorist list, or the story about Magnetar, the secretive financial firm.
ProPublica was founded in late 2007 with a $10 million grant from Herbert and Marion Sandler, the former Golden West Financial Corp chief executives who made a fortune when they sold the giant savings and loan to Wachovia Bank just before the mortgage bubble burst. Under the leadership of Paul Steiger, the former Wall Street Journal managing editor who conceived the project with the Sandlers, ProPublica has since attracted grants from other major foundations, as well as several hundred smaller individual donations.
Steiger now deploys 34 reporters, researchers and what he calls "data journalists." Their impact is magnified not only by how cleverly they mine and present data related to important issues but also by the partnerships Steiger and his team have forged with other news organizations, such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR and Politico. These outlets, which often contribute reporters to supplement ProPublica's resources, co-publish the resulting work through their own channels.
I'd like to see a story about how Steiger and his team conceive projects, use technology (especially data mining and social media), assess the impact of their work and control quality. I'd also like to know how they divide editorial responsibility with their publishing partners and what mechanisms, if any, they have built in to hold themselves accountable to those who dispute their reports. After all, a nonprofit that focuses on targets like nursing homes, major financial institutions or hydro-fracking (the alleged dangers of which have been a near obsession at ProPublica) could easily develop a God complex and consider itself infallible.
Beyond that, I'd like to know how ProPublica manages its finances and what its long-term business plan is. According to ProPublica's website: "We spend more than 85 cents out of every dollar on news – almost the exact opposite of traditional print news organizations, even very good ones, that devote about 15 cents of each dollar spent to news."
Of course that's in large part because ProPublica doesn't print or deliver physical products or pay squadrons of ad sales people.
Equally important, ProPublica can pick its spots rather than cover everything a typical newspaper feels compelled to report on. There's a lot more I'd like to know about that model. Its reporters are paid well, so I suspect the discipline of targeting carefully is the key. That could suggest important strategic lessons for more conventional news publishers who, at a time of declining resources, have typically chosen to spread those resources lightly across all beats, even-lighter news and news covered by everyone else, rather than focusing on harder reporting that counts and that people will remember.
ProPublica's annual report says it runs on a yearly budget of about $10 million, and the funds seem to come mostly from year-to-year donations. Are there plans to build an endowment to ensure that the organization will be more than a passing trend subject to the whims and fortunes of annual donors?
With that in mind, how about a sidebar or another story exploring why, in light of ProPublica's success in supplementing the dwindling resources and resolve of for-profit news organizations to do ProPublica's high-octane reporting, someone like Steiger couldn't scale this model dramatically. Why not try to go to 20 or 30 billionaires and remind them that democracy, good government and free markets depend on the honest-broker information that good journalism provides and get them to endow an average of $1 billion each to create a $20 billion "Democracy Through Journalism" Fund? Assuming a 5 percent annual return, that would allow for a billion dollars a year – 100 times what ProPublica now spends – and put 3,000 to 4,000 serious journalists on beats across the country. Could that work?
(Conflict note: ProPublica, uses Press+, the publishing e-commerce system that I co-founded and of which I am co-CEO, to solicit donations on its website.)