As struggling newspapers across the country cut back on investigative reporting, a new kind of journalism venture is hoping to fill the gap. Paul Steiger, who was the top editor of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) for 16 years, and a pair of wealthy Californians are assembling a group of investigative journalists, who will share their work with media outlets.
The non-profit group, called Pro Publica, will pitch each project to a newspaper or magazine (and occasionally to other media), where the group hopes the work will make the strongest impression.
The plan is to work on long-term projects, uncovering misdeeds in government, business and organizations. Nothing quite like it has been attempted, and despite having a lot going for it, Pro Publica will be something of an experiment, inventing its practices by trial and error. It remains to be seen how well it can attract talent and win the cooperation of the mainstream media.
Paul Steiger, a longtime Wall Street Journal editor is one of the people behind the project
“It is the deep-dive stuff and the aggressive follow-up that is most challenged in the budget process,” said Steiger, who will be Pro Publica’s president and editor-in-chief. He gave up the title of managing editor of WSJ in May, but is staying on through the end of the year as editor-at-large. During his tenure, the newsroom won 16 Pulitzer Prizes.
Pro Publica is the creation of Herbert M. and Marion Sandler, the former chief executives of Golden West Financial Corp., based in California, which was one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders and savings and loans. They have committed $10 million (Rs39.3 crore) a year to the project, while various foundations have provided smaller amounts. Sandler will serve as chairman of the group, which will begin operations early next year.
Pro Publica plans to establish a newsroom in New York City and have 24 journalists—one of the biggest investigative staffs in any medium, along with about a dozen other employees. Steiger said he envisions a mix of accomplished reporters and editors, including some hired from major publications, and talented people with only a few years’ experience, so that the group will become a training ground for investigative reporters. He would not say specifically where he is shopping for talent, but did not rule out WSJ.
Richard Tofel, a former assistant publisher and assistant managing editor of WSJ, has been hired as general manager. Board members will include Henry Louis Gates Jr, the Harvard scholar of African and African-American studies; Alberto Ibarguen, a former publisher of The Miami Herald, who is currently president and chief executive of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; James Leach, a former congressman from Iowa who directs Harvard’s Institute of Politics; and Rebecca Rimel, president and chief executive of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The nearest parallels to Pro Publica may be the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, DC—groups that support in-depth work and have had considerable success getting it published or broadcast in mainstream media. But, their budgets are a fraction of Pro Publica’s, and they do not actually employ most of the journalists whose work they help finance.
Pro Publica will provide salaries and benefits comparable with the biggest newspapers, Steiger said. “I won’t be offering somebody 50 or 100 grand more than they’re making to jump ship, nor will I ask them to take a pay cut,” he said.
Newspapers routinely publish articles from wire services, and many of them also subscribe to the major papers’ news services and reprint their articles. But, except for fairly routine news wire service articles, the largest newspapers have generally been reluctant to use reporting from other organizations.
But, experts said that resistance is breaking down because the business is squeezed financially, and newspapers make greater use of freelance journalists. “They’re looking for alternative means of paying for ambitious journalism,” said Stephen Shepard, dean of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism and a former editor of BusinessWeek. “Steiger has the credibility and judgement to bring this off, and if they do good work, it will get picked up.”
Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, said the newspaper would be open to using work from an outside source, “assuming we were confident of its quality”, but that “we’ll always have a preference for work we can vouch for ourselves”.
Steiger said that relationships with publications could be tricky, requiring the flexibility to make each comfortable.
In most cases, he said, Pro Publica will appeal to a newspaper or magazine while a project is under way, to gauge interest and how much oversight the publication wants. In others, he said, his group might present more or less finished products to other outlets.
Sandler said his interest in investigative journalism has been abetted by friendships with reporters in the field. “Both my father and my older brother always focused on the underdog, justice, ethics, what’s right,” Sandler said.“All of my life I’ve been driven crazy whenever I encounter corruption, mendacity but, particularly, where those in power take advantage of those who have few resources.”
©2007/the new york times