National Press Club

ProPublica CEO Cites Success in Donor-Funded Reporting

June 15, 2010 | By Andrew Kreig |

captions in here

Paul Steiger, the editor-in-chief of ProPublica and chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said a new model of collaboration can help sustain investigative journalism.

At a Jun 15 Luncheon, Steiger quoted skepticism about ProPublica concept when it began operation in 2008. But “I’m delighted that this model has already been embraced” both by traditional news organizations partnering to publish ProPublica investigations and by new non-profits undertaking similar investigative work.

Steiger, the 2007 winner of the National Press Club's Fourth Estate Award, also serves as president and chief executive of ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

ProPublica has published nearly 250 articles in cooperation with 52 other news organizations, he said. Steiger named articles that have won or been finalists in major journalism contests, and have otherwise succeeded in exposing significant problems. ProPublica won a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for its examination of how an overwhelmed hospital staff reacted at a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina.

Steiger previously served as managing editor of the Wall Street Journal from 1991 to 2007 – an era when the Journal won 16 Pulitzer prizes.

His speech was given the same day as a daylong forum organized by the Federal Trade Commission on “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” The FTC forum was the third in its series to discuss recent proposals to help journalists fulfill their traditional public affairs role despite financial declines from Internet competition.

Club President Alan Bjerga introduced Steiger by saying that more and more journalism decisions are based on costs instead of value. Cutbacks can thus hurt the public, he said, except in relatively rare instances when a lone reporter with scant resources can succeed in nailing down stories that thwart corruption. So, Bjerga said, solutions must be found.

Steiger identified several positive trends from the ProPublica experience aside from the benefits of collaboration. Among the benefits, he said, are stories by regional journalists – including volunteer “citizen journalists” – who use of ProPublica databases to report such topics as federal stimulus spending on a county level.

Steiger said only a non-profit model can enable many such news stories. ProPublica began with a commitment of up to $10 million per year from a California family supporting investigative reporting, he said, and fund-raising from other sources has since raised $2.2 million more. Other donors include “nearly all” the major organizations that support journalism, he said, along with several thousand individuals contributing sums ranging from $5 to $20,000.

This supports 32 journalists and a half dozen support staff, he said.

Regarding suggestions that government more vigorously sustain journalism, Steiger said, “I’d be very cautious about saying we need some kind of industrial policy for the news business.”

He said he opposed any effort to create in the U.S. a British Broadcasting Corp.-type major subsidy, for instance. He argued instead for more creativity and trial-and-error in the private sector because of the danger of government control over news decision-making.

During Q&A, he was asked if ProPublica will get involved in foreign affairs reporting. “I don’t see us doing it,” he said. “The idea is to serve a U.S. audience.”

Asked to assess bloggers, he said the public understands that every unpaid blogger can’t have an editor. Suggesting common ground with other readers, he said, “we tend to revel in the best and dismiss the worst.”

Regarding the future for graduating students, he said, “it’s actually a very exciting time to be young and going into journalism,” though not so much for those in their 30s, 40s and 50s with major financial responsibilities.

He concluded that there’s no well-marked career path of the kind he found upon entering the field in the late 1960s, but the opportunity “to create your own future is here.”