“If we could go back in a time machine and not have Trump be elected, ProPublica probably be half the size”
How do you do investigative journalism at a time when media is out of money? How do you ensure that investigative journalists come back with the story? And what will print journalism look like in 2030? Richard Tofel and Stephen Engelberg, The president and the editor in chief of the largest investigative journalism organization in the U.S., which also happens to be a nonprofit organization, gave a special interview for the Center of Media and Democracy
Economics editor, Kan, Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation
February 1, 2020
If it weren't for the sign hanging in the little corridor just as I exited the elevator on the 13th floor, I would have thought that I was in the wrong place. Even with the sign, I wasn't so sure: I looked left and right, and since there were not a great many options, I pressed a small doorbell next to a hulking grey door. A moment later, a woman let me in into what looked, at first glance, like the accounting floor at the head office of some health maintenance organization: grey wall-to-wall carpet, narrow corridors, a tiny kitchenette equipped with a microwave and a watercooler. I followed her deeper into the office and was welcomed by undistinguished cubicles and people working quietly at their computers. Nothing to suggest that I've arrived at the offices of the largest investigative journalism organization in the U.S.; in the world, really. Welcome to ProPublica. Later, when I told a friend how much these offices veered from my expectations, he provided an amiable answer. "It is a good sign, actually," he said. "Shows they are investing the money in the things that matter."
Within the American media industry, ProPublica is an anomaly. Unlike most other outlets, ProPublica is a nonprofit organization. Much more significant, ProPublica does not do what other, more mainstream media outlets do: it does not offer regular news coverage. You will not find an analysis of the recent assassination of Iranian army general Qasem Soleimani here, nor of the Iranian counterattack that followed. ProPublica does one thing only: investigative reporting. They leave breaking news coverage to others.
ProPublica launched at a time that, in hindsight, could not seem less advantageous. "We started working in January 2008," said ProPublica President Richard Tofel in an interview with the Center of Media and Democracy. "We started publishing in June and the market collapsed in September." What could have been a death blow to any conventional media outlet in its infancy proved a blessing for ProPublica.
Mainstream journalism was deep into its own crises well before the 2008 recession. "In the early 2000s, our founders, Herb and Marion Sandler, recognized that the media industry, both in the U.S. and in the rest of the world, was facing a financial crisis," said Stephen Engelberg, editor in chief of ProPublica. "The old models of advertising supported journalism were going to collapse," he said. "They foresaw that there would be a need for publicly funded journalism, which is something we don't have that much in the United States"
Motivated by this conviction, the Sandlers, who made their fortune in finance, committed to an annual $10 million donation intended to support a new media organization that will operate as a nonprofit and be dedicated exclusively to investigative journalism.
Investigative reporting is the crown jewel of journalism. It requires immense resources that could support reporters through the weeks and months it takes to complete a single story. Investigative reporting is also the most explosive form of journalism and has the highest potential for commercial damage. When done well, it can stave off advertisers and business partners and bring in costly lawsuits. Or, as Engelberg puts it, “If you gonna run a company in a period in which your margins are shrinking, punching all the big advertisers in the nose is probably not a great idea."
But that was precisely the vacuum ProPublica aimed to fill, and the fact that it launched a moment before a global recession, gave it an unexpected tailwind. "We were very fortunate at that point because the Sandlers were committed for several years, so we didn't have to raise money in the midst of the collapse," Engelberg said. "We were building our model, building our organization, beginning to do stories. Meanwhile, the financial collapse was accelerating the demise of the for-profit newspapers, advertising being one of the first things to go away in a downturn anyway."
The model Engelberg mentioned is what allowed ProPublica to break forward, and it tied into the financial hardship that befell many media organizations perfectly. What ProPublica offered was partnerships: we will do the investigations, you publish them. You earn free quality content, and we gain prominence. Investigative journalism outsourcing.
Israelis might find this type of model suspicious. Why would any news outlet want to take stories from another? At first, Engelberg found it weird, too, he said. Paul Steiger, who was managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, was appointed the founding editor in chief of ProPublica. Engelberg, who was hired as his deputy, recalled how he explained the plan. "He said, 'we are going to write these stories and then we are going to give them to outlets all over the country. The New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR; and they will all be happy to publish them as their own stories'"’ Engelberg recalled. "I thought this was completely crazy. It seemed unimaginable to me that the stories on which you could be faced legal lawsuits, liability, you could be at the greatest risk, would be something that anyone would ever let an outsider publish. But he was right".
Engelberg: "We were building our model, building our organization, beginning to do stories. Meanwhile, the financial collapse was accelerating the demise of the for-profit newspapers, advertising being one of the first things to go away in a downturn"
Economic hardship has made media organizations hungry. "There was a growing hunger for a certain kind of story that would get a lot of readership," Engelberg said. "And there was a tighter financial time. So the ability to produce a large number of those stories was less. Then there would be potentially more opportunity to make these kinds of deals and partnerships. Ten, twelve years earlier, they just simply would've said no. They would've said, ‘look, we have what we need here ,we're fine." The fact that ProPublica succeeded in recruiting a team of well-known and respected veteran journalists helped open doors at the nation's largest news organizations. After all, many of ProPublica journalists had, up until that moment, worked for such organizations as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. And once the Times and the Post opened their doors, it signaled to the other media organizations that these collaborations could prove beneficial. According to Tofel, since ProPublica’s launch it has partnered with more than 200 organizations, adding 70 new partnerships last year alone.
For the media outlets they collaborated with, the payoff was clear—they gained quality investigative reporting for free, which they otherwise could not have afforded. But ProPublica had something to gain, too. "the clearest way to achieve a big impact was to publish with a large news organization," Engelberg said.
How do you measure impact?
How does the system work? If you are the type of journalist hooked on that crazy breaking news pace, who wants to deliver story after story and see your byline above the fold each morning, this is not the place for you. If, however, your passion is deep, at times sisyphic investigations into meaningful, if somewhat obscure, issues—ProPublica is heaven on earth. “I am a great believer in the ability of reporters who are steeped in the subject matter to find original things," Engelberg said. "And so we're very much driven by what the reporters learn rather than by assignments from somebody like myself or senior editors."
They work in teams. Each team has an editor who oversees a relatively small group of six or seven journalists. The rational is simple: in small teams, an editor can allocate more attention to each reporter. And since story leads are generated by the reporters, they are afforded the time and freedom necessary to discover them.
“My philosophy has long been that if you give people enough freedom, and you have others guiding them rather than telling them what to do, then it works,” Engelberg said. “Reporters come up with generally multiple ideas of what they can be spending their time on. We commit to that and then we stay with it. One of the important things in a short attention span news environment, is the willingness to stay on a story; to put three people on problems in the U.S Navy, to stay with that for a year and continue to dig deeper and deeper and build relationships, trust, and expertise. That's crucial to how we do what we do.”
Tofel: “The key to measuring impact is to do it transparently. So we report about this publicly three times a year, we point to specific examples. This story caused this result, this story contributed directly to this outcome. And if you do that publicly, you'd better be right"
One of the questions guiding Propublica's editors as they choose which stories to chase is this: which of the stories have potential for a wide-reaching impact on reality, both domestic and global? This is also the main parameter management uses to evaluate the achievements of the organization each quarter. Measuring impact is difficult, they concede, which is why they are as transparent about the process as possible.
"Impact is why this place was established. It’s our main mission," Tofel said. "The key to measuring impact is to do it transparently. So we report about this publicly three times a year, we point to specific examples. This story caused this result, this story contributed directly to this outcome. And if you do that publicly, you'd better be right. In the internet world, if you're going to publicly claim credit, it better be true because it's very easy for people to say, ‘you know, I see you doing that and it's not true’."
For editors, giving reporters the time to work on complicated stories can be frustrating. In the end, there is always the possibility that reporters will come back empty-handed. But according to Engelberg, that rarely happens.
“I was an investigative reporter and an editor, and now i’m leading this organization. that has not been my experience," Engelberg said. "My experience has been more that you will go in a promising direction and the hole you drill may lead you to another hole. But it's fairly rare that really good reporters with enormous amounts of energy go in a promising direction and bring back nothing. They may not bring back anything like what they thought they were going to get, but our people are very good at finding things. And the serendipity, the surprise, this sort of unexpected change of direction is exactly what we want to encourage," he said. "We want people to go toward the best story and not worry about what they were assigned to do. I like to say it's channeled chaos. And the chaos is part of what we're trying to do here."
ProPublica in Numbers
Number of Journalists on staff:
thousands, with some 200media outlets
The first one, in 2010, wasthe first awarded to a digital news outlet
One more thing
ProPublica received its2016 Pulitzer for an investigation into a serial rapist that went undetectedfor years because the police did not believe the accusers.
The 2019 Netflixshow Unbelievable was based on ProPublica’s investigation.
Tofel and Engelberg recall one of Propublica's earliest stories to make a big splash. The topic, fracking, may sound underwhelming to most. Near the end of the previous decade, in a time of mounting oil prices, this unsustainable method of drilling for oil became highly lucrative and increasingly popular. But despite the disastrous environmental, geopolitical, economic, and social impact of fracking, it received very little public attention. And not by coincidence. As John Oliver once said, "if you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring."
One of the first reporters hired at ProPublica was Abrahm Lustgarten, who joined in 2008 to cover environmental issues. “We hired him and he sent me a memo that had eight items on it.” Engelberg recalled. “He said that we should do something on the Colorado river, that fracking is really important And that California is going to have a water crisis.”
Engelberg: “it's fairly rare that really good reporters with enormous amounts of energy go in a promising direction and bring back nothing”
Fracking, Engelberg adds, was not the topic Lustgarten was most anxious to cover. “I said, well, this thing, Fraking, if it works, isn't it going to change every single thing about all of energy? Lustgarten answered that it will. Well, i said, then we should start working on it.” Lustgarten started working and kept going for three years and a few articles. “At the end of the first year he said, ‘isn't this enough?’ And we said, no, no, no, no, we need more.”
According to Tofel, the fracking story was one of the most important projects in ProPublica's history, first because it was published mere weeks after the platform launched, and second, because it actually brought on real change. "The government of the state of New York was considering whether to approve a fracking in New York and the department of environmental conservation told the governor that there had never been a problem with fracking anywhere," Tofel said. "a couple of months after our reporter started here we published in partnership with the paper in Albany, a story that showed otherwise and stopped fracking in its tracks. 11 years later there's never been fracking in the state of New York.”
By the way, Abrahm Lustgarten and his eight topics? Engelberg said that in the 11 years since, he covered all of them, each taking him a little over a year. For some of these investigations, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He had won multiple other awards, saw several movies made based on his reporting, and had written a number of books.
How do you stay relevant?
As the years passed and ProPublica became well-established and better recognized—receiving several Pulitzer Prizes did not hurt—the organization's business model has changed, and so did its collaborations. Today, a large portion of ProPublica's investigations are carried out in partnership with other media organizations: each organization puts its own reporter on the case, they collaborate, and the story is published simultaneously by all outlets involved. Other investigations are handled independently by ProPublica and published exclusively on its platform. If, in the past, ProPublica depended on other media organizations to get its stories out there, today social media platforms are providing the same service, allowing the organization to be more independent.
ProPublica is also allocating a larger share of its activity to data journalism, and is creating a lot of investigative tools for journalists from other media organizations to use in their reporting. One such tool is the Nonprofit Explorer, a search engine that lets users to easily search the financial reports of every U.S.-based tax-exempt organization. I was able to use this tool to browse ProPublica's 2018 tax returns and see how much senior members of the organization earned. Not bad at all, in case you were wondering.
ProPublica cannot allow itself to be completely disconnected from current events. In 2008, when Lustgarten was reporting on his fracking story, the U.S. was in the grip of a devastating economic crisis. "To be doing fracking and only fracking at the time when the American economy was shrinking by 30% would be to be very much not relevant. So we wanted do both." Engelberg said. As the crises deepened, ProPublica modified some of its original plans, assigning several reporters to investigate what had caused the crisis in the first place, and how the government was dealing with it.
So let us review ProPublica's formula for a moment: recruit experienced journalists who know their beat; combine them into small teams with patient editors who have all the time and a willingness to collaborate; and create partnerships with other news organizations, especially hungry ones. Finally, pay all your reporters and editors well. That is how you form an organization that produces investigative reporting in an era when most news outlets are slowly and painfully dying. The cost? About $32 million per year.
Shifts in American Journalism
of the newspapers in theU.S., some 2,000, shut down since 2004
Number of working journalists in the U.S. in 2008
Number of working journalists in the U.S. in 2019
The volume of newspaper printing is in constant decline. In 2019, fewer newspapers were printed in the U.S. than in the 1940s.
Number of nonprofit media organizations in the U.S. in 2008
More than 200
Number of nonprofit media organizations in the U.S. in 2019
What Has Trump Ever Done for Journalism?
If you are searching for a happy ending, I am sorry to disappoint. Twelve years have passed since ProPublica launched, and journalism is still dying. In fact, it is dying at an accelerated pace, and we are no longer talking about print journalism. Digital media, once prophesied to save the news industry and propel it into the future, is on its deathbed, too. The future is grim. And while ProPublica's unique circumstance will likely allow it to survive the apocalypse, its model will not save journalism.
So what will journalism look like in 2030? "In metropolitan newspapers in this country, and probably in print newspapers generally, we're going to the end." Tofel said. He cannot fathom any other scenario.
According to research published in the U.S., over 2,000 newspapers have shut down in the past 15 years. Many of the publications that closed in recent years have been around for a century, even two.
According to data by the Pew Research Center, when ProPublica began operating in 2008, there were 71,000 journalists working in the U.S. Today, only 38,000 are still active. According to the same dataset, the volume of newspaper-printing in the U.S. peaked in the mid-1980s and has been declining ever since. Today, it is lower than it was in the 1940s.
In early January, newspapers in Maine announced they would no longer publish Monday print editions. "That's no longer unusual." Tofel said. "Every one of the [newspaper] chains in America has now been consolidated into basically four, probably headed to three, all of which are controlled by hedge funds. Their owners are people who will never run the companies for a loss over a sustained period of time. Hedge funds can't do that. They don't do that in any line of industry. And that's all happening in what is still a fairly good macro economic environment. In a bad macro economic environment it will normally accelerate."
Even digital-native outlets, those born into the digital age—Buzzfeed, Vice, Vox, and their peers—fail to fulfill the promise with which they were created. Google and Facebook, which practically control digital advertisement, are slowly killing off these platforms and making their business model obsolete. In the last two years, most of the large digital media outlets in the U.S. cut down jobs and funds. Some even shut down.
Are nonprofit news organizations like ProPublica the answer? Most nonprofit news organizations that operate in the U.S. are dedicated to investigative journalism, although most of them focus on specific issues and do not cast a wide net (examples include The Marchal Project, which covers the criminal justice system, or Chalkbeat, which covers education. Can they replace the disappearing mainstream journalism? After all, nothing truly awful will happen should the fashion and auto sections cease to exist, but democracy will undoubtedly look much different without investigative reporting.
"Yes and no," is Engleberg's answer. "I think at the national level we have proven that you can be a viable, very effective nonprofit. And one of the great things once you get to where we are, is that the quality of journalism is actually related to the economic outcome, which is to say if you do good stories, you get more donations. Whereas in many, many other publications below the New York time-Washington post level, it makes no difference. They don't really get much more money and they get smaller every year no matter how many good stories they do.”
Engelberg believes that a decade from now, many districts in the U.S. will not have local newspapers at all, and that publications that shut down will not be replaced by nonprofit media organizations. “Because it's very hard, if you look locally, to simply come up with enough money.” concludes Tofel.
There is no need to wait a decade to see this trend. Yes, the number of digital subscriptions to the three major U.S. newspapers is rising, and yes, these subscriptions could keep them afloat and allow them to maintain strong teams even once print news becomes obsolete. Still, these organizations are the exception, not the norm.
In most parts of the U.S., there are not enough people willing to pay for journalism, and there is no alternative business model that could keep it alive. Already today, large areas of the country have no local or regional press. Americans call it News Deserts. When those materialize, politicians, corporations, and other powerful entities can take advantage of the vacuum.
Despite the bleak outlook, there is still one source for optimism. In the last four years, winds of change swept through the U.S., bringing a breath of fresh air to investigative journalism. The winds came from an unexpected place: the White House. "The day before Donald Trump was elected, our annual budget was $16 million," Engelberg said. "Now it is $32 million." According to him, Trump's election and his constant attack on democracy in general and on the press in particular work to increase public support for investigative journalism. Not just for ProPublica, but also for The New York Times and The Washington Post. And still, Trump has had a devastating impact that far surpasses his unintended boost to donations. “The polarization of the country to the point where a significant percentage of people don't want to hear anything from journalists,” Engelberg said. “He has persuaded them that everything that he says is true and anything anyone else says is false. Obviously it makes it harder to be a journalist.”
According to Engelberg, in an alternative reality in which Trump was never elected, ProPublica would have likely been half its current size, but “it would probably be easier for our stories to be heard."
And then, just as I thought I was about to leave the meeting utterly despondent, Tofel gave me something to hold onto. "You know, we're in the middle of this," he said, commenting on Trump's influence on journalism. “It depends on how it ends, right?"
"It ends with you and me in a jail cell," Engelberg answered.
"Wait a minute," Tofel said. “Investigative journalism is ultimately based on the idea that if you present the people in a democracy with the facts, they won't get it right every single time, but they'll get it right in the end. That's both the premise of democracy and the premise of investigative journalism, which I think are very symbiotic.” It is possible, he conceded, that in the end, propaganda will win over journalism.
"I have a very deep and abiding faith that in the end, the democratic experiment is going to turn out okay," he adds. "This is a dark moment in a lot of places, not just in this country. But Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States twice. We survived. Democracy isn’t the idea that it gets it right every single time. It's that it gets it right at the end."