NEW YORK, NEW YORK — In the world of investigative nonprofit news organizations, ProPublica is a giant. Its staff of nineteen reporters has broken big stories on everything from the lax supervision of British Petroleum to the dangers of drilling for natural gas. Founded in 2007 by Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, and Stephen Engelberg, a former managing editor of The Oregonian, ProPublica’s official mandate is to produce investigative journalism in the public interest.
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In its brief history, ProPublica has won over twenty awards for its journalism, including a Pulitzer Prize for its story on what took place in one New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina, and the American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award for its coverage of Guantanamo Bay. The relatively large staff allows the organization to pursue multiple projects at once, and each project usually includes multiple articles, graphs, databases, and interactive features.
In its “Dollars for Docs” series, for instance, ProPublica created a searchable database that allows readers to discover if their doctors have received payments from pharmaceutical companies. The database also appeared on the websites of a number of major newspapers, and enabled smaller news organizations to pursue local stories relevant to their readers.
ProPublica is funded mostly through grants, including an up to $10 million per year donation from its founding philanthropists, savings and loan billionaires Marion and Herbert Sandler, but individual donors have also given anything from a few dollars to several thousand, and the number of donors grew thirteen-fold from 2009 to 2010. As of January 2011, the site has also diversified its revenue stream with online advertising, which Steiger says is now feasible because of increased traffic to the ProPublica website.
Yet while the website is increasingly popular—as are its Twitter account, Tumblr page, and blog—it still depends on traditional media to disseminate its content in order to ensure maximum readership.
“We are very quick to share,” Steiger says. “When I was with The Wall Street Journal, I would feel an instinct to retain the proprietary interests in our data. Here, the goal is to have the data have the highest impact.”
And while the organization is best known for its formal collaborations with major news outlets, the unofficial way in which smaller publications pick up on their stories is perhaps more significant. For example, over 120 news organizations did their own stories based on ProPublica’s 2009 investigation into public works projects funded by the economic stimulus program. Steiger feels that ProPublica’s impact would be far less significant were it not for these lesser-known outlets “doing stories that we couldn’t possibly have done.”
Many journalists and academics talk about the potential of crowdsourcing in investigative news, but ProPublica is already beginning to realize it. For its reporting on federal stimulus spending, ProPublica was helped by over 5,000 members from its award-winning Distributed Reporting Project. On the “ProPublica Reporting Network” page of its website, readers can act as sources by answering detailed surveys and providing data. For its story on Congresspeople receiving Super Bowl perks, ProPublica asked its readers to call and e-mail their congressmembers.
“Even with thirty-two journalists, we didn’t have the capability to make those calls ourselves,” Steiger says. “The only way we could attack this was our distributed reporting network.”
ProPublica’s readers gladly obliged. After receiving so much powerful journalism for free, they seemed more than willing to give back.
City: New York, N.Y.
Principal Staff: Paul Steiger, editor-in-chief, CEO; Stephen Engelberg, managing editor; Richard Tofel, general manager.
Affiliations: Anyone can publish ProPublica stories, subject to a Creative Commons license. In addition to the sources listed above, ProPublica has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Skoll Global Threats Fund.
CJR on ProPublica:
10/22/10: How to Use ProPublica’s “Dollars for Docs” Database - Tips for reporters and editors - Lauren Kirchner
04/09/10: ProPublica Humdinger on a Diabolical CDO Scheme - Investigation shows in detail how hedge-fund Magnetar gamed the system and kept the bubble going - Ryan Chittum
03/01/10: The Education of Herb And Marion Sandler - When two patrons of aggressive journalism became its targets, they cried foul. They have a point. - Jeff Horwitz
11/06/09: Trivial Pursuit at ProPublica - Dean Starkman
03/05/09: ProPublica Goes Pro-Am - Amanda Michel joins the investigative outlet as its new editor of distributed reporting - Megan Garber