When I left The Des Moines Register in 1982, I did not leave journalism. I simply moved from the daily newspaper’s anonymous editorial essay to other forms, including newspaper op-ed pages, magazine articles, and books. Without the daily deadline and the imperative to fill space, I could spend the time it took to explore issues of interest that the local news media ignored or underreported. I became what could be regarded as an investigative reporter.
The downsizing of editorial staffs around the country has turned loose a lot of people capable of doing similar work. Margaret Engel, who directs the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which makes grants to support in-depth reporting, says, “Get those journalists the money.” And it’s not only money that makes the difference. Jon Sawyer, director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, says finding the space—offering the promise of drawing attention to the finished product—to publish what reporters find is as much of a challenge as the money.
Enter ProPublica, the new nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative, public service journalism generously financed by a California couple, Herbert M. and Marion Sandler. ProPublica has both money, up to $30 million over the next three years, and the prestige to make a persuasive pitch for space.
ProPublica begins life with a question mark because of the liberal causes supported by its benefactors, the Sandlers, but also with the presumption of credibility by being run by Paul E. Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. The news side of the Journal was widely respected during his time there for the quality of its work and for not having an ideological ax to grind. (Steiger, of course, had nothing to do with the Journal’s editorial page.)
Unlike some nonprofits that work through providing grants to journalists—perhaps most famously, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh was assisted in uncovering the atrocity at My Lai by a $2,000 travel grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism—ProPublica will have much of its work done by 24 full-time staffers working out of its office in Manhattan. That sounds like an expensive way to do investigative reporting, but ProPublica spokesman Richard Tofel says annual “news costs will be about 60-67 percent of the total [of $10 million] when we’re up and running, with ‘news’ including salaries for reporters, editors and researchers” and items directly attributable to news accounting for the bulk of the budget. Tofel says the split—60-67 percent news vs. 40-33 percent for all the rest—“compares to about 15 percent for news (defined this way) at a leading newspaper or magazine.”
The expense of launching and operating a newsroom in New York is considered worthwhile to foster a “newsroom culture.” Whether that culture will matter or be evident to ProPublica’s outlets remains to be seen. Most of the work produced by ProPublica’s in-house staff will be offered without charge, exclusively initially, to news organizations where publication is likely to have the greatest impact.
Other nonprofits, notably the Center for Public Integrity, also maintain in-house staffs of investigative reporters. Regardless of the model—in-house staff or grants—the work produced will stand or fall on its quality. At a time when the buzz words in journalism are local-local and news holes are shrinking, it could be a difficult environment for ProPublica’s work to thrive, especially the long-form pieces ProPublica is likely to do, even if they are given away.
Foreign subjects would seem an especially hard sell. But the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which specializes in global reporting, has been successful in obtaining space even for lengthy take-outs. The center, which is financed mostly by members of the Pulitzer family, gets a lot of mileage out of its modest annual budget—$315,000 in 2006, $560,000 for 2007. “Our experience shows it is possible to find good platforms for important stories,” says Sawyer. Examples of reporting it has supported include these:
A four-part series in the Salt Lake Tribune spotlighting working conditions in Chinese factories. The articles took up more than a page of newsprint each day. For this story, the center funded five trips to China by Loretta Tofani, who won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting she did at The Washington Post.
A story about HIV in the Caribbean was displayed on more than three full pages in The Palm Beach Post in November 2007. Post reporter Antigone Barton’s travel costs were paid for by the center, which also commissioned the video documentaries and interactive Web materials that go along with the online display of her article.
When I look at my own experiences after leaving daily journalism, I find in some of them the potential for other ways of promoting and supporting such reporting—even when it does not necessarily get done by people who refer to themselves as a “reporter.” When I taught journalism part-time at the University of Iowa, I cowrote two books with Randall Bezanson of the law school and John Soloski, my colleague at the journalism school [see note for titles]. It was a revealing experience. What I called “legwork” my coauthors called “research.” They do footnotes. Together we did extensive digging and, with the help of a couple of foundations, our books were published, as well as a large number of articles.
Bezanson is a powerhouse. During the past 10 years he has published four books (another is on the way), three book chapters, 20 academic articles, and 20 shorter pieces. I discovered that he is one of the best investigative reporters I know. Others on the faculty also do outstanding investigative work, and certainly this is the case at other universities, as well. Let me put forth a few examples.
Erik Lie, a professor in the Iowa business school, played a pivotal role in putting the spotlight on the backdating of executive stock options.
Gary Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State, has investigated police line-ups and other police identification practices and shown how they too often produce mistaken eyewitness testimony.
David Baldus, a colleague of Bezanson’s at the law school, has revealed striking evidence of how the death penalty has been applied in racially discriminatory ways.
All of their research, and much more, would be Pulitzer Prize material if produced in newspaper newsroom settings. ProPublica intends to publicize investigative journalism by others in an online Romenesko-type format. It would be a major service if it tapped into the rich vein of such “reporting” being produced on the nation’s college and university campuses.
Steiger has written that ProPublica will report on “abuses of power by anyone with power: government, business, unions, universities, school systems, doctors, hospitals, lawyers, courts, nonprofits, media.” His words recall the ethics statement of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which states that the press was made free “to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government.”
In practice, the for-profit, institutional press focuses overwhelmingly on “official power,” giving short shrift to power wielded within the private sector. This seems an anomaly considering that we have a free market economy in which the actions of the private sector arguably touch the lives of people as much, if not far more, than actions taken by our government do. Such neglect of the private sector consequently caught much of the press flatfooted before the savings and loan crisis emerged, Enron collapsed, and the predatory lending scandals started to unravel.
Private-sector muckraking is hard and time-consuming work, made much more difficult by the absence of a legal right of access to corporate meetings and documents. The Wall Street Journal has shown, brilliantly, that such reporting can be done. The combination of Steiger’s experience and the Sandlers’ millions hold the promise of being a potent pair. Perhaps together they will lead the way to showing how, in this new era of journalism, more of this kind of reporting can be done and brought into public view.
Gilbert Cranberg, former editor of The Des Moines Register’s editorial pages, is George H. Gallup Professor Emeritus at the University of Iowa.