Later this month a new website, based in New York, and devoted to investigative journalism will hit the net. It bears something special : ProPublica will be the first news organization entirely and generously funded by a private foundation.
Three things will make this experience interesting to watch.
- First is the scope of the venture.
Even though ProPublica is not unique of its kind, there will be no parallel in terms of journalistic ways and means compared to other non- profit media outlet (see links below). The site will be funded with $10m each year. It will be sufficient to accommodate no less than 24 reporters, plus a dozen of various staffers. Such team, entirely devoted to in-depth reporting, will be among the biggest in its kind. A 2005 survey by Arizona State University of the 100 largest U.S. daily newspapers showed that 37% had no full-time investigative reporters, a majority had two or fewer such reporters, and only 10% had four or more. By that metric, ProPublica will be have a considerable firepower.
- Second is the journalistic ambition.
ProPublica will be lead by Paul Steiger, former editor of the Wall Street Journal during the last sixteen years. The guy knows quite a bit about the genre. Under his editorship, the Journal won 16 Pulitzer Prizes. According to Steiger, the site will target any “abuses of power by anyone with power: government, business, unions, universities, school systems, doctors, hospitals, lawyers, courts, nonprofits, media”. Well. “Vaste programme” would have said the General de Gaulle.
- The third item to watch will be the media reverberation the site will get.
In theory, ProPublica will publish on its own site, but it will also make its material available to any publication for free, on the basis of its audience, mostly. Once its reporters will nail something interesting, Steiger will negotiate with several news organizations – print, but also TV or radio – to publish it. In some case, it will hand over unfinished material, if it fits better the selected distributor. Several issue remains fuzzy. If the story looks appealing, a certain competition could ensue ; there will also be some risk to have good stuff stolen, borrowed, or stealthy recuperated. Somewhat tricky. (Imagine such setup in some Latin countries like France where the journalistic standards are rather loose ! ).
The real assessment of ProPublica’s performance will be its ability to find good stories and to have them published or broadcasted with a maximum resonance. Some news outlets will jump on the opportunity, others will be reluctant. Even the New York Times does not rule out using Steiger’s material (such revenge will be tempting for the Times). Some precautions stated by its editor Bill Keller : “We’ll always have a preference for work we can vouch for ourselves.” (It better be, with an editorial staff of 1400!)
It will also be measured on the long run by the difference this rich, highly focused, and professionally managed news organization will be able to make in terms of journalistic output. We’ll see to which extent the intrinsic independence provided by a philanthropic funding could be the ultimate competitive edge to unearth great stuff.
Who are the funding fathers (so-to-speak) by the way ? Herbert Sandler founded a saving and loan institution in 1963, in Oakland, California. The business prospered gently and was later sold to the big financial service firm Wachovia for a nice $26bn — that left an cool $2.4bn for the Sandler family. In that context, even a multi-year commitment of $10m is pocket change. (Another set of non profit organizations will also contribute for lesser amounts).
One thing remains hard to admit.
In 2008, one of the most respected editor in the United States felt that the only refuge to perform the kind of journalism he (and us) like was a private foundation. Under normal circumstances, someone with the stature of Paul Steiger would have been able to raise money through classic channels, hire good people and be able to find a decent business model. This no longer apply to investigative journalism, which should remain – at least in theory – one of the safety net of modern democracies.
> see a presentation of ProPublica
> two philanthropy funded news sites : the Center for Investigative reporting and the Pulizter Center
> Listen to Paul Steiger’s description of Pro Publica on National Public Radio
> Paul Steiger, reflects on its years at the Wall Street Journal and exposes his views on the evolution or the job, here in the WSJ .
> In his WSJ piece, Paul Steiger mentioned the possibility of merger between Bloomberg and the New York Times after the election. The verdict on analysts : it doesn’t have much of a “high probability. But at some point, all these newspaper companies will go private or be acquired. It’s just a matter of when.” story in Condé Nast Portfolio

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