The Atlantic: In Praise of ProPublica

Photo: The newsroom of ProPublica celebrates the announcement that it won a Pulitzer Prize for the second year in a row in 2011. (Dan Nguyen )

The investigative news non-profit was a bold experiment in traditional reporting in the time of digital upheaval. Five years later, it's still a viable organization.

By Peter Osnos

Among all the nonprofit and for-profit news organizations founded in the digital era when so many traditional print publications have suffered economic catastrophe, the most respected new enterprise is ProPublica. Launched in 2007-08 with a $30 million long-term commitment from the West Coast philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler, ProPublica has succeeded by every measurement. It has won a dazzling array of prizes, including the 2011 Pulitzer for National Reporting honoring a series called "The Wall Street Money Machine," the first time a Pulitzer was awarded for stories that did not originate in print.

ProPublica has also made a major contribution to what is called data-based journalism, a combination of investigative reporting and sophisticated computer analysis on issues such as pharmaceutical company payments to doctors across the country listed by name. In 2011, ProPublica partnered with 27 other news organizations, including many of the country's foremost names -- the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, and PBS's Frontline -- to produce 115 stories. (ProPublica partnered with The Atlantic for a December 2010 report on dialysis.) All this has been accomplished with a staff of about 40 journalists and support personnel, which seems surprisingly small, given the impact ProPublica has had on the news. It has shown beyond doubt that there can be top quality reporting in a time of widespread cuts in resources across some of journalism's most established entities.

There are two specific reasons now for all these encomiums to ProPublica:

(1) The announcement last week that Paul Steiger, 69 -- the founding editor-in-chief, CEO, and president of the organization -- will become executive chairman at the end of the year, a position he describes as part-time including fund-raising (and, I suspect, continuing to provide ideas and inspiration). Stepping up from managing editor to editor-in-chief in charge of editorial operations will be Stephen Engelberg, 54. The new president will be Richard Tofel, 55, ProPublica's general manager.

Both have been with ProPublica from the beginning and will now serve as co-chief executive officers. It was Steiger's vision, which the Sandlers solicited and then supported, that top-tier investigative reporting could be done in the midst of all the disruptions of the Internet age. As a former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, Steiger and his team brought immediate credibility to their work and initiated the now-accepted concept of partnering with leading news organizations that in the past would have been dubious about joining in such collaborations. Succession in an enterprise like ProPublica is a crucial step from the founding years to the sustaining period in which long-term financial viability and professional standards are the goal.

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Note: Paul Steiger is a member of Knight's Board of Trustees.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.