Outside Agitators

An early ProPublica collaboration tests deadlines and gets results

Last Thursday, Rex Smith, executive editor of the Albany Times Union, got a phone call. On the other end was Steve Engelberg, the managing editor of ProPublica, the new independent investigative journalism non-profit.

Engelberg, who left his perch as managing editor of The Oregonian around the first of the year, was on the other side of the country, standing in his old yard alongside a loading moving truck. And he was making an offer Smith felt he couldn’t refuse.

ProPublica, in conjunction with WNYC, New York City’s major public radio station, had conducted a month-long investigation into the lax regulatory framework behind a booming natural gas drilling industry in rural New York. The extraction process uses chemicals that raise serious health and environmental concerns both for upstate residents and for the city’s drinking water. Would Smith be interested in running the story?

“It’s almost an editor’s dream,” says Smith. “Here’s a great story on a matter of public interest that no one’s heard of, and it’s thoroughly edited. And it’s yours. Free.”

There was just one catch. ProPublica wanted to run the piece early in the week—Monday, July 21, probably—and this was the first time Smith had been in touch with ProPublica in any way, let alone told of this particular investigation. The paper asked for more time.

But the clock was ticking. A bill clearing the way for expanded drilling sat on the governor’s desk, awaiting his signature within the week. ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten and Ilya Marritz of WNYC had been working together since late June, and had discovered that briefings given by regulators to legislators before the bill’s passage contained at-best-incomplete information. When they questioned New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation about steps the state was taking to monitor and mitigate the drilling’s impact, the answers implied that regulators were ill-informed and far from ready for such an undertaking.

It was a good—and so far uncovered story—and while the Times Union wasn’t brought in until the eleventh hour, the collaboration between WNYC and ProPublica originated in April, when the station’s political director and de facto investigations editor, Andrea Bernstein, emailed Engelberg to say that they were “very, very interested” in pairing. After an initial meeting, they promised to stay in touch.

“Our basic motive is to try to make an impact,” says Engelberg. One part of that model—to get ProPublica’s work a wide audience—is to partner, cost free, with traditional outlets in both investigations and in the publication and dissemination of the work. (ProPublica’s first big investigation—into the operations of Al-Hurra, the U.S.-backed Arabic news channel—found a home on 60 Minutes.)

When Lustgarten proposed a version of the gas story to Engelberg after starting at ProPublica, the editor saw an opportunity to work with WNYC. Although Marritz had already done a basic piece on upstate gas exploration, he felt there were many environmental questions that had yet to be answered. He was excited to be assigned to work with Lustgarten.

After a few phone calls, the pair met for lunch, and, on July 7, headed up to Albany to conduct a round of interviews. There were few points of friction between the two.

“I had done a couple of weeks work and I had great solid leads and sources and I wasn’t enthusiastic about sharing it all,” says Lustgarten, who was working on his first ProPublica story. “I kept being reminded by my editors that the mission was to get the story out, not necessarily for me to get the best clip.”

Radio reporter Marritz had a different concern: “I was certainly worried that Abrahm would have a great conversation and I wouldn’t be there to record it.”

That technical issue forced them to work very closely together—conducting many interviews side by side, planning their days together, and, until they reached the writing and production phase, often speaking several times a day. In the end, ProPublica and WNYC fact-checked each other’s pieces.

“Once we got going, it was like we were two reporters from the same organization,” says Lustgarten, who, like everyone else involved, regards the project, the collaboration, and the results as a whopping success.

Part of the reason everyone’s pleased is that they feel like their strengths matched well. WNYC knows New York state government and regulatory agencies, and ProPublica, via Lustgarten, has expertise in how similar drilling schemes had played out in western states.

“Even though our newsroom is expanding, we still have a relatively small staff,” says Bernstein. “Sometimes our ambitions exceed our resources.” Since ProPublica was picking up Lustgarten’s tab, the story didn’t tax the station’s news budget as much as it might have had it been an independent investigation.

As work wrapped up, the team worried that events might outpace their story. Their news peg—the governor’s signing deadline—was looming along with their opportunity to make an impact. And to do that, it seemed wise to further expand the story’s reach.

“WNYC has us covered down in New York City, with the well-educated sophisticated audience,” says Engelberg. But most of the story’s action was upstate and around the capital, and the Times Union seemed a natural choice given its location and governmental focus.

“I would have preferred, in a perfect world, to have given Rex more time,” says Engelberg. But with Engelberg being mid-move, and Lustgarten still settling into his new NYC digs, things were hectic enough that finishing the story got more attention than its final distribution plan.

Along the way, the release date was pushed to Tuesday, July 22. Lustgarten submitted something of a draft late Friday, one partially prepared on an upstate bus trip after Susan White, his ProPublica editor, gave him motion sickness pills. He got the edit back late on Sunday, and the Times Union didn’t get a version until late Monday afternoon. It came in at 3,500 words, which the paper hastily cut to 1,500 for the next day’s front page.

With that timeline, Smith says, “we didn’t have as much of a comfort level as I would have liked to have had.” Next time, he’d like to have some of his staff join during a late stage of the investigation, or, at least, have more time to edit the story and compile photos and Web video.

When ProPublica launched, some press critics were concerned that the liberal record of the organization’s major funders, Marion and Herbert Sandler, would taint the project’s journalism and hamper its efforts by dissuading collaborating editors.

While Smith is a ProPublica fan, and has even praised the initiative on a public radio media show he co-hosts, he admits to having some mild “concern” about the fairness of a presumption against the powerful that he sees in ProPublica’s mission statement. As published, the article was accompanied by a box explaining ProPublica, disclosing the Sandlers’ backing alongside a reassuring mention that former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger was heading the operation.

“We put that in because we though that readers who wanted to know that information should have it in front of them. But I don’t see it as any different than an advertiser in our paper, or an underwriter on public television,” says Smith of the Sandlers. “I don’t think our journalists can be bought anymore than I think the journalists at ProPublica can be bought.”

“It’s a group of serious journalists,” he says. “I’m just tickled that they picked the Times Union to do it with.”

Marritz’s piece aired on Tuesday, July 21. Lustgarten joined him for an interview on a WNYC local talk show, and on The Takeaway, the station’s nationally syndicated morning program. Upstate, Times Union readers woke to see the story as their paper’s lead; they could hear Marritz’s piece on their local public station, WAMC, at noon. In the evening, ProPublica posted the full investigation on its Web site.

Later in the day, New York’s cabinet-level environmental official told WNYC that the state would demand disclosure of the chemical mixes used in the gas extraction—a new requirement. On Wednesday, the governor signed the bill, but not before committing to an overhaul of enforcement plans.

That’s impact.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.