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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Downside of Investigative Reporting

Paul Steiger of ProPublica came to speak in Toronto this week. The astonishing success of his well-endowed investigative reporting unit is something that we were all eager to hear about. What is the secret to ProPublica's success? Can it be replicated and sustained? And what are the implications for journalism?

Steiger is a journalistic phenomenon: he was, for many years, the Managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal, and forced to take retirement when he turned 65. But his journalistic instincts were not ready to be retired. As he looked around for his next venture, he was approached by the Sandler family in California. They asked him to set up a stand-alone investigative reporting unit, which they believed was being neglected as media organizations continued to downsize.

The Sandlers are now bankrolling ProPublica at the rate of $10 million a year for three years. In that time, ProPublica will also have to find other sources of support, which Steiger says he is slowly building. The Sandler Foundation has a distinctly liberal bent in terms of which organizations it chooses to support. Steiger says that the family has behaved entirely correctly and has not attempted to influence ProPublica either politically in in its choice of investigations.

The results of ProPublica investigations are impressive. They range from how the TARP money is being spent, to healthcare reform, to malfeasance at the state government level. The results are put up on the ProPublica website, and also shared (given away, really) with other news organizations, often at no cost to the newspaper or broadcaster. Public donations are, of course, encouraged. This shows a wonderful sense of civic engagement and Steiger is to be congratulated for this remarkable achievement at a time when investigative reporting is on the decline in legacy media.

My concern (which I expressed at the meeting) was this: isn't ProPublica worried that news organizations will simply contract-out their investigative reporting to them? Doesn't this create an incentive for media organizations to let go of even more reporters? Steiger said he thought not, but I'm not so sure.

ProPublica is a great idea, but it comes with a price which I fear will be a further winnowing out of once solid newsrooms and their own culture of investigative reporting.

Even so, the culture of investigative journalism is still a vigorous one in the US. It's a unique and lively culture, but one that in that Toronto audience thought it may be hard to transplant to the stonier journalistic soil in Canada.

The reasons for that are a subject for another posting.

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