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Podcast: Paul Steiger Discusses All Things ProPublica

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ProPublica's Editor-in-Chief Paul Steiger (Lars Klove)

On our latest podcast we talk with ProPublica's Editor-in-Chief Paul Steiger about how we came about, why we partner with other news organizations and what exactly it means to focus on stories with "moral force."

Steiger said he launched ProPublica because "the collapse of the business model for journalism, particularly big and medium-sized newspaper journalism, meant that no longer were we going to get the kind of accountability reporting that, for the past 40 years, Americans had come to rely on to hold power accountable in America and to be an information buttress for our democracy."

He also explains one of the weaknesses of investigative journalism that he wanted to avoid. "It's a strong belief of mine that too much investigative reporting does not have the impact it could have because it's not followed up. It sort of sits there like road kill."

When asked if it was difficult moving from a for profit newspaper to a nonprofit that would require him to spend time raising money, Steiger replied that leading the Committee to Protect Journalists "got me into learning about fundraising and how important it is when you need money to ask for it. ... It's a good cause, I believe in it, America needs this kind of reporting. So, I'm not embarrassed to ask people to help us support it."

See the full transcript of the conversation below and read more about Steiger here.

Transcript

Mike Webb: Hi, I'm Mike Webb and welcome to the ProPublica podcast. A few years ago, a well-respected editor and journalist was approached by some philanthropists about doing something to improve the state of journalism. They hatched the idea of creating an independent, non profit newsroom that would focus almost exclusively on producing investigative journalism.

No one knew if it would work, particularly because they were going to rely on working with other news organizations to publish its stories. Now, after a little more than three years of producing reports in the public interest, ProPublica has emerged as one of the leading newsrooms in America.

Joining us on the podcast today is the smart, jovial and bespectacled journalist who got it off the ground, Paul Steiger. Steiger is the editor in chief and CEO of ProPublica. His journalism career spans over 40 years and included stints in west coast bureaus for the Wall Street Journal, 15 years between LA and DC for the Los Angeles Times and back to the Journal, where he eventually became the managing editor of the paper in 1991.

During his 16 years as the managing editor, the paper won 16 Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other awards. I could go on listing his awards and achievements and the things that he's done to boost journalism, but you can read that on our website.

In 2007, he launched ProPublica, and we're honored to have him in the storage closet studio with us today. Welcome to the podcast, Paul.

Paul Steiger: Thank you very much Mike.

Mike: I want to talk to you about a lot of journalism issues, but I think we're going to focus this podcast on ProPublica. Let's start out with, how did ProPublica come about? Whose idea was it? Who named it? Why did you see the need for it?

Paul: It really was a coalition of the willing. The way it came together was that in 2006, when I was still editing the Wall Street Journal, a wealthy couple in California, Herb and Marion Sandler, approached me and said they were thinking of supporting investigative reporting, and they were talking to a bunch of people they knew in journalism about how best to do that, would I give them some ideas. I said, "Sure, I'd be happy to." In early 2007, we talked again, and I essentially laid out the skeleton of the model of what became ProPublica, and they liked it and asked if I would be willing to run it. I said, "Well, I was committed to the Journal to the end of 2007, but sure."

The reason, which goes to the other part of your question, was that we all saw a growing need for more investigative reporting. Why? Because the collapse of the business model for journalism, particularly big and medium sized newspaper journalism, meant that no longer were we going to get the kind of accountability reporting that for the past 40 years, Americans had come to rely on to hold power accountable in America and to be an information buttress for our democracy.

So we needed to replace some of this reporting from elsewhere, and ProPublica was one approach towards doing it.

Mike: OK. Now, knowing the Sandler's history of supporting causes on the left, were you at all concerned that they would put pressure on you to do progressive oriented investigations?

Paul: Well, it's a question I asked and instantly, they said no. They, like me, wanted this to be non partisan as well as nonprofit, and they agreed from the outset that causes on the left could be targets for our reporting as much as sacred cows on the right. Not only did they agree to do that, but they agreed that it should be part of the basic principles of the organization and not only would our focus not be tilted, but our supporters and our board members would not know in advance what we were going to write about. Not only would they not be controlling it, but they wouldn't even know in advance.

This is something that Herb, as chairman of the board, not only does he adhere to it, he has made sure that everybody else on the board knows about it.

Mike: What was your biggest worry when you signed on? Staffing or ability to partner, funding, something else?

Paul: The biggest concern that I had was would we be able to find larger news organizations that would partner with us. There were three essential hurdles of which that was the biggest. The first hurdle was we're new, nobody knows how to pronounce us much less know about us. So would we be able to get access to important information because that was what the goal was to shine a spotlight on abusive power, failure to uphold the public interest, and by shining that spotlight, give the public the information to generate change. The old line about a tree falling in the forest with nobody around it to hear it, if nobody read or saw what we were doing, we couldn't have any impact. So the ability to partner with other news organizations...Everything we do goes up on our own website, www.propublica.org, but for our biggest stories, the idea was we would give them, as a temporary exclusive, to other news organizations, traditional ones like the New York Times or the Washington Post, CBS News, CNBC, CNN, and so on, but also new platforms, platforms on the web. And if they would take our stories and display them prominently, they would have impact. Well, we have succeeded.

Mike: So it was all about impact? That was the impetus to partner?

Paul: Yes.

Mike: OK. What was the first partnership and how did it go?

Paul: Really there were two that happened almost side by side. We opened our doors in January of 2008, but we didn't have any staff so we were rapidly trying to hire up. By June of that year, we had enough people on board that we could start a rudimentary form of our website and do our first stories. The first two stories, one, the partner was 60 Minutes, the biggest news platform in America, and the one that came almost immediately after, the partner was the Albany Times Union, a relatively small newspaper that happens to be in the capital of New York State.

The story that one of our reporters was working on at the time was focused on the risks to the water supply in New York. By being in this relatively small newspaper that was read by the entire political establishment of New York State meant that by noon of the day it was published, the Governor had completely turned around and was strengthening environmental protections.

In the case of the 60 Minutes partnership, it was a wonderful partnership. It's a very strong, deep, news organization. And our reporter Dafna Linzer had discovered that Al Hurra, this television/radio operation funded by the U.S. government as an alternative to Al Jazeera in the Middle East, it was in Arabic language, had fallen victim to terrible mismanagement.

And Dafna got to the story but she was able to partner with producers and Scott Pelley, one of the greatest broadcast journalists in the world, to do that story. And it turned out fabulously well. So here you had a huge partner and a smaller partner, both with significant impact.

Mike: We've partnered with more than 78 news outlets, is there anyone that you'd like to work with that we haven't so far?

Paul: We have worked with a huge range, but there is always another partner that we'd be happy to bring on.

Mike: Depends on the story.

Paul: Depends on the story. And it seems like every month or every couple months we partner with somebody new and we learn something from them.

Mike: Several people have written about the challenges of producing longform journalism versus the need to have fresh content on the website. How has ProPublica addressed that?

Paul: First of all our reason for existence is to do accountability investigative journalism. And it's not to have the biggest website, it's not to have the most traffic. It is to produce stories that help the public improve the operation of American democracy and American society. So you start with that as the basis. But you also have to have an audience, and therefore it's important that we have a website that is alive, that people come to. So that when we have something to report, that is of huge moment, yes, we can partner with someone, but if we can't find a partner we have to be able to put it up there ourselves.

So it's very important to have an aggressive, well monitored website. The goal is to do both, is to have fresh material everyday and to produce 20 or 30 or 40 major stories a year, of which maybe six to 10 will have major impact. And the two work together because one of the things that we do is we follow up. We follow up not only our own work but other people's work. It's a strong belief of mine that too much investigative reporting does not have the impact it could have because it's not followed up. It sort of sits there like road-kill. And the investigative team wants to go on to their next project and nobody follows up the story.

And so we've made it a part of our mission from the very beginning to follow up not only our own stuff but other people's stuff. The biggest example of this is Hydro Fracking.

Mike: There's over a 100 stories in that series.

Paul: Exactly. And most of them done by Abrahm Lustgarten, the person who broke the story in the beginning. And if Abrahm had not pounded away on that story it would not be having the kind of impact that it's having today.

Mike: Fundraising is a new part of your job, and as a lifelong journalist are you a little surprised to see yourself spending a lot of time raising money for ProPublica?

Paul: Well, fundraising is something that I had totally no experience with for the vast bulk of my 41 year career in print journalism at the L.A. Times and mostly at the Wall Street Journal. But toward the end of my time at Wall Street Journal I became involved with the Committee to Protect Journalists -- an organization that seeks to protect journalists from being beaten up or killed around the world. And to try to lobby mostly by writing about it and going on television about it to get journalists out of jail when they're thrown in jail in places like Cuba or China or Iran.

So that got me into learning about fundraising and how important it is when you need money to ask for it. So it's not as foreign to me as it would have been otherwise when I started at ProPublica. It's a good cause, I believe in it, America needs this kind of reporting. So I'm not embarrassed to ask people to help us support it.

Mike: In our "About" section we talk about our mission, and that you wanted to make it clear that ProPublica was going to do stories with moral force. What is a story with moral force?

Paul: By moral force I mean simply that a story or a group of stories as part of a reporting effort, give people information that galvanizes them, that makes them say, "There ought to be a law or if there already is a law, it ought to be enforced." It's something that shines a spotlight on an abuse of power or failure to uphold the public interest. And this could be government, it could be business, it could be unions, it could be the education system, the legal system, nonprofits, the media -- anywhere where there's power it's fair game for this kind of reporting.

So it's reporting that says, "Here's an issue that we think you wanted to know about and it's going to make your blood boil."

Mike: All right. And what's the biggest surprise so far?

Paul: The biggest surprise to me is how fast we were able to build momentum. I thought that we would ultimately get other news organizations to partner with us. I didn't believe it would happen so fast. I believed we would do work that had a high impact, but I didn't have any idea that in our first two full years of operation our reporters would win a Pulitzer in each year. The momentum has grown faster than I thought it would. And that's important because we still have a long way to go.

Mike: All right. Thank you very much for joining us, Paul.

Paul: Thank you.

Mike: That was Paul Steiger. You can see the results of his labor of love at propublica.org.

And now for our Officials Say The Darndest Things Tumblr quote of the week. "Given its recent activity, inoperable is progress."

Who said it? Senator Lindsey Graham, voicing his opposition to the activity of the National Labor Relations Board, and signaling that he may block attempts by President Obama to fill the Board's vacancies.

All right. That's it for this week's show. Thank you as always for listening. And thanks to Minhee Cho for producing.

For ProPublica, I'm Mike Webb. We'll see you next time.

Transcription by CastingWords

Thank you for this interview.  ProPublica is a breath of fresh air in the world of journalism. There are many people in this country that still want real news and in-depth news.  Keep up the good work!

Holly Bankoski

Sep. 19, 2011, 3:32 p.m.

I’m really looking forward to your next issue. Thanks

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