To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.
ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.
Investigative journalism is at risk. Many news organizations have increasingly come to see it as a luxury. Today’s investigative reporters lack resources: Time and budget constraints are curbing the ability of journalists not specifically designated “investigative” to do this kind of reporting in addition to their regular beats. New models are, therefore, necessary to carry forward some of the great work of journalism in the public interest that is such an integral part of self-government, and thus an important bulwark of our democracy.
ProPublica was founded by Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. It is now led by Stephen Engelberg, a former managing editor of The Oregonian and former investigative editor of The New York Times, and Richard Tofel, the former assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal.
ProPublica is headquartered in Manhattan. Its establishment was announced in October 2007. Operations commenced in January 2008, and publishing began in June 2008.
It is true that the number and variety of publishing platforms are exploding in the Internet age. But very few of these entities are engaged in original reporting. In short, we face a situation in which sources of opinion are proliferating, but sources of facts on which those opinions are based are shrinking. The former phenomenon is almost certainly, on balance, a societal good; the latter is surely a problem.
More than any other journalistic form, investigative journalism can require a great deal of time and labor to do well—and because the “prospecting” necessary for such stories inevitably yields a substantial number of “dry holes,” i.e. stories that seem promising at first, but ultimately prove either less interesting or important than first thought, or even simply untrue and thus unpublishable.
Given these realities, many news organizations have increasingly come to see investigative journalism as a luxury that can be put aside in tough economic times. Moreover, at many media institutions, time and budget constraints are curbing the once significant ability of journalists not specifically designated “investigative” to do this kind of reporting in addition to handling their regular beats.
What We Do
We have created an independent newsroom, located in Manhattan and led by some of the nation’s most distinguished editors, and staffed at levels unprecedented for a non-profit organization.
In the best traditions of American journalism in the public service, we seek to stimulate positive change. We uncover unsavory practices in order to stimulate reform. We do this in an entirely non-partisan and non-ideological manner, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality. We won’t lobby. We won’t ally with politicians or advocacy groups. We look hard at the critical functions of business and of government, the two biggest centers of power, in areas ranging from product safety to securities fraud, from flaws in our system of criminal justice to practices that undermine fair elections. But we also focus on such institutions as unions, universities, hospitals, foundations and on the media when they constitute the strong exploiting or oppressing the weak, or when they are abusing the public trust.
We address one of the occasional past failings of investigative journalism by being persistent, by shining a light on inappropriate practices, by holding them up to public opprobrium and by continuing to do so until change comes about. In short, we stay with issues so long as there is more to be told, or there are more people to reach.
We strive to be fair. We give people and institutions that our reporting casts in an unfavorable light an opportunity to respond and make sincere and serious efforts to provide that opportunity before we publish. We listen to the response and adjust our reporting when appropriate. We aggressively edit every story we plan to publish, to assure its accuracy and fairness. If errors of fact or interpretation occur, we correct them quickly and clearly. We aim for a working culture that embraces all of these principles, and insist that they infuse all that we do.
How We Do It
We have a newsroom of about 40 working journalists, all of them dedicated to investigative reporting on stories with significant potential for major impact.
Each story we publish is distributed in a manner designed to maximize its impact. Many of our “deep dive” stories are offered exclusively to a traditional news organization, free of charge, for publication or broadcast. We have had 104 publishing partners in our five and half years. Many are augmented with data rich “news applications” which, in turn, permit the localization of stories on the same subject by other news organizations. Almost all our stories are available for reprint under a Creative Commons license. A series of our stories won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, the first such prize ever for stories not published in print. One of our stories was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2010, the first such award to an online news organization. Another story, broadcast in partnership with This American Life, won a Peabody Award in 2013. Every story is published on this site. The site also features outstanding investigative reporting produced by others, sometimes with our annotation and follow-up, thus making our site both more of a destination and a tool to promote more good work in this field.
We support each story we publish with an active and aggressive communications effort of our own, including regularly contacting reporters, editors and bloggers, encouraging them to follow-up on our reporting, and to link to our site and our work.
How It Is Funded
The Sandler Foundation made a major, multi-year commitment to fund ProPublica at launch. Other philanthropic contributions have been received as well, and more are needed. Click here to donate.
We spend more than 85 cents out of every dollar on news – almost the exact opposite of traditional print news organizations, even very good ones, that devote about 15 cents of each dollar spent to news. From a philanthropic perspective it is also worth noting that our model assures an unusually high level of accountability for a non-profit. Our major stories have to be sufficiently compelling to convince editors and producers to accord them space or time. As they do so consistently, donors will be able to be confident that professional standards are being met and maintained, and that important work is being undertaken. That said, our donors support the independence of our work, and do not influence our editorial processes.
ProPublica also accepts advertising. And we are constantly exploring possible new revenue streams, including ebooks, although philanthropy, in large gifts and small, will continue to be our principal source of income for the foreseeable future.
ProPublica is a non-profit corporation, and is exempt from taxes under Section 501(c)(3). It has its own Governing Board, of which Herbert Sandler is founding chairman and Mr. Steiger is executive chairman. A Journalism Advisory Board of leaders in the field, and a Business Advisory Council has also been assembled.
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