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The Man Who Made ProPublica Possible

RIP, Herbert M. Sandler, 1931–2019

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Whatever difference ProPublica has made in the world over the past 11 years — and we like to think we’ve had significant impact — it has been a team effort, the combination of hundreds of staff, tens of thousands of donors and millions of readers. But anyone familiar with our origins or our history knows that one person, more than any other, made ProPublica possible. His name was Herbert Sandler. He was, along with his late wife and partner of half a century, Marion, the provider of the bulk of funds with which ProPublica was launched in 2007–2008, and was the chairman of our Board of Directors from 2007 through 2016, and our most enthusiastic cheerleader and exacting reader from our first day of publishing until his own last day, which was yesterday. To say that we will miss him does not begin to express our sense of loss.

Herb Sandler was a very fortunate man, and he knew it. He and Marion built a hugely successful business, and when they sold it, they turned full time to philanthropy, committing to give away the vast bulk of their wealth. (You can read more about Herb’s remarkable life here.) One of the first major projects they launched in this next phase of their lives was an initiative to support investigative journalism. They understood as early as 2006 that the inevitable demise of newspapers’ business model threatened a crucial pillar of our democracy — accountability reporting. The couple recruited Paul Steiger, the just-retired managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, as ProPublica’s first editor and backed his vision for a nonprofit newsroom publishing original deep-dive investigations in partnership with leading legacy media.

Why did that vision appeal to Herb Sandler? Why did he have so much respect and even affection for investigative journalists? He always gave the same answer: “I hate it when the bad guys win.”

And while he read what seemed like every story this site ever published, and pointed out even the smallest typographical error, he was always insistent that our editorial operation be completely independent. He was a leading force in the decision at the first meeting of our Board of Directors that the Board would never be told about stories before they were published, and he enforced this policy with zeal, walking briskly away if reporters tried to tell him about forthcoming work. He enthusiastically celebrated stories he liked, and never mentioned ones he didn’t. He hectored other donors to provide funding without strings, even as he used his considerable charm and unmatched contacts to attract more resources for this work. It was one of his proudest accomplishments that while his and Marion’s foundation provided 93% of our total funding in 2008, by last year it had fallen below 10%.

When we won ProPublica’s first Pulitzer Prize in 2010, he congratulated us briefly by phone, and then quickly added, “this is not what’s important, you know.” Our mission statement commits us, formally, to “using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.” Herb Sandler was especially fond of that phrase “moral force,” and it was his dream that rigorous, sustained journalism could make the world a better place. We are determined to honor him in the way we know he would have valued most, by today redoubling our commitment to do just that.

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