Pro Publica: can investigative journalism thrive with no bottom line?

As the business model that supports traditional journalism erodes, with digital distribution dissolving the bonds that held together the elements of the old paper and broadcast product bundles, one refrain has been constant: How, ask the elders of the profession, can we protect the most important work that we do — investigative journalism? It’s costly and politically sensitive and hard to justify on the bottom line; it’s also what gives journalists the right to claim a valued and sometimes privileged spot in the civic landscape.

Today the highest profile effort to rescue investigative journalism from the industry’s wreckage is Pro Publica, a not-for-profit enterprise that is gearing up as a sort of rescue craft for in-depth muckraking. ProPublica is led by Paul Steiger, formerly managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and plans to open a newsroom in New York with 24 full-time reporters. It launched to much trumpeting last October and boasts an “advisory committee” featuring illustrious leaders of the field, including several whom I know and respect.

So why am I skeptical of the undertaking?

Investigative journalism is a peculiar calling that calls to peculiar practitioners. The best in the field that I’ve known have been dogged, ornery, sometimes slippery and occasionally unhinged personalities. Editing an investigative journalist is perhaps the most psychologically challenging task an editor will face.

When investigative journalists go after a story, it’s not like covering a fire or a speech or writing analytical commentary. Their employers are sinking money — sometimes months of a salary — into a project with no guarantee that it will ever pay off. If it does pay off, then the publication faces all sorts of ethical and legal questions on the road to publication. Resolving them most typically pits the company’s business interests (don’t put the owners/shareholders at risk!) against its editors’ journalistic instincts (bring the truth to light!).

In theory, having a nonprofit employ your investigative team should be a buffer against such problems. But Pro Publica’s plan is to fund investigations and then offer these stories to other publications. In practice this means you’ve got extra layers of review and caution that will make it harder, and slower, to get these stories out the door. (Also, the more respected the publication, the more likely that pride of ownership — or the “not invented/reported here” syndrome — will make editors reluctant to publish the work of others.)

And it’s not as if non-profit status eliminates all conflict-of-interest problems: Pro Publica’s money comes from Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler, identified in the Times story as “the former chief executives of the Golden West Financial Corporation, based in California, which was one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders and savings and loans.” Gee, there’s an area full of targets for investigation today! Whatever Pro Publica does (or doesn’t) pursue on the topic will be surrounded by questions.

Steiger has said that Pro Publica will be able to protect its projects from bottom-line pressures: “It is the deep-dive stuff and the aggressive follow-up that is most challenged in the budget process.” Maybe so. But budget pressures can help the cause of investigative journalism, too.

The most sensitive and difficult editorial job in an investigative project is getting the obsessive investigative reporter to hand over the copy. Left to their own devices, these reporters will typically — and understandably — want to keep reporting forever. The editor must, sometimes, pull the paper from the typewriter. (OK, image needs updating: the editor must, er, get the reporter to press “send.”)

In my experience of nearly a decade helping handle this sort of project at Salon, I watched these conflicts unfold. And I observed that Salon’s hunger to break stories, as an independent company struggling for financial stability, worked to the advantage of our investigative efforts: it gave editors a basis for bringing projects to fruition (or abandonment), and reporters an incentive to go along. Everyone understood that resources were precious and limited and had to be used wisely. (We had our screwups, sure, but so has every publication, including those with far heavier institutional ballast.)

Will there — can there — be such hunger at an all-star-team style operation like Pro Publica? Will the Pro Publica newsroom (physical or virtual) be the sort of place that puts the kind of pressure on investigative journalists that they need in order to produce? My fear, in reading about its plans, is that it will be a very comfortable place for experienced investigative reporters to pursue open-ended projects without feeling any particular fire to wrap them up.

I certainly wish Pro Publica well. But my guess is that the new models for investigative journalism will come not from this blue-ribbon assemblage but, as innovation usually does, from small operations in left field.

BONUS LINKS: I meant to post these thoughts when Pro Publica was announced. Back then, Jeff Jarvis was cautiously optimistic about Pro Publica’s prospects. Then I meant to post them when it announced its advisory board last month; at that time, Dan Gillmor pointed out that the Pro Publica board isn’t exactly topheavy with digital expertise.

See? On my not-for-profit blog, the stories just sort of linger in the pipeline!

LATE UPDATE: Over the weekend the Times published a column by Joe Nocera about the Sandlers, who are backing Pro Publica, suggesting that they are classic wealthy progressives who believe, among other things, that “The story of subprime is worse than anyone has written so far” — so maybe this won’t be a problem for Pro Publica. But there’s always a tangled string from a project’s financing; if Pro Publica goes after the subprime story, it could be criticized for pursuing the Sandlers’ former competitors. My point is that, one way or another, the sources of funding for a news organization always raise questions, and being nonprofit provides no exemption.

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  1. non-profit can work.

    NPR, PBS, Consumer Reports, and The Center for Public Integrity.

    Actually, these days, it is non-profit sources of news that I rely on day in and day out for investigative pieces.

  2. Scott Rosenberg

    Oh, I’m a big believer in not-for-profit in general — and NPR is my breaking-news broadcast outlet of choice.

    But I don’t think of NPR as a source of the sort of six-months-long investigative opuses that we are all worrying about disappearing, and that Pro Publica is committed to supporting.

  3. For those longer investigations, my other selections will do.

    NPR provides me access to stories that I might not otherwise trip upon through the ‘standard’ local or national sources.

    Stories like this one:

    as newspapers contract and re-focus, are less and less likely to be reported because of lack of audience or financial reward.

    That didn’t take six months to report. But it did take a decision to cover a story that the organization felt the community should hear. And hopefully, through the process of paging through a paper, would find (it was front page on the Local News section of the Inquirer).

    Just take a look at today. Far more than breaking news, and I’m thankful for it (I need to get back to being donor, been a couple years).

    Right now I don’t have high hopes for Pro Publica because its website. There’s no there, there yet.

    I second BBC Darren. And Scott, Salon has a lot to be congratulated upon as well. It doesn’t have an investigative journalism focus, but it does show that independent news media can thrive on the Web.

  4. Scott Rosenberg

    Thanks, Karl. But you know, the funny thing is, Salon *does* have an investigative journalism focus — not 100 percent like Pro Publica, but certainly at the heart of everything Salon has done since 1998 or so. (Recent example: that Washington Post story on Walter Reed Hospital that won big prizes? Salon broke it two years before the Post. Only… it didn’t get picked up.)

    That people don’t know that is a big problem for Salon as an institution.

  5. Great post Scott! A agree with your assessment that innovation in this field is going to come from a new player out in left field. Someone will probably come up with a new business model at some point, and investigative journalism will flourish again.

  6. “That people don’t know that is a big problem for Salon as an institution.”

    What I’ve been wondering lately is if it is more a problem for all of us.

    There are two components to journalism and it seems so many are focused on the first – the creation/composition piece. The second component is getting the work to those who need to hear it – and those who would want to hear it and don’t realize it yet.

  7. Ruth A Cook

    I’m a reader who stumbled onto this blog; and my interest is citizen involvement in demanding a cleaner, safer environment. I’m looking to see if Pro Publica can expose environmental problems that are hidden by govt officials and corporations. If so, the next hurdle would be getting people to care enough to demand remediation. Good luck. I’m reading everything I can find on your site.


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