Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


December 8, 2009

Nonprofit Muckraking

ProPublica editor Susan White tells Gelf that well-funded foundations are the future of investigative journalism.

David Goldenberg

Two years ago, Susan White made a hard choice. The enterprise editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune took a buyout and left the paper she had worked at for 13 years. "It was becoming increasingly difficult to get good, investigative stories into the newspaper," she tells Gelf. "And I could see that the situation was going to get worse."

Photo by Lars Klove
"Our focus is on the stories themselves, not on meeting the needs of a specific readership base."

Photo by Lars Klove

White initially decided to turn her energies to book writing, but then she got an offer to become and editor at a new, non-profit news group, devoted to investigative journalism and flush with cash from a grant from billionaires Herbert and Marion Sandler. With more than 30 journalists on staff, ProPublica has instantly become one of the largest centers of investigative journalism in the world, covering stories that have what the organization refers to as "moral force." Its reporting is shared with other news outlets and released via Creative Commons license on its website.

In the following interview, edited for clarity, White tells Gelf how a non-profit news model influences editorial decisions, how most-read lists affect coverage, and whether investigative journalism can survive without well-intentioned rich people backing it.

Gelf Magazine: How are editorial decisions made differently at ProPublica than they are at say, The San Diego Union-Tribune?

Susan White: At the Union-Tribune and at all for-profit newspapers the goal, of course, is to sell papers. I believe investigative stories are one of the best attractions a newspaper can offer, but a newspaper also has many other needs to fill for a very broad audience. It's difficult to return to a subject again and again, because a whole city is out there waiting to be covered. At ProPublica, on the other hand, our focus is on the stories themselves, not on meeting the needs of a specific readership base. Our stories tend to be long and exhaustive, so we can give people who are interested in these subjects as much information as possible. We condense our stories for our newspaper partners. But they run in full on our website.

Gelf Magazine: How do partnerships with for-profit news organizations work? How do you decide who to work with, division of labor, etc?

Susan White: We seek out partners whose readers or viewers have an interest in a particular story we're doing. Our gas drilling stories, for instance, tend to be used by newspapers where gas drilling is expanding. The partnerships work in various ways. Sometimes we supply a story that's ready to go, as is. Sometimes one of our reporters works with a reporter at a newspaper or at a TV network. Sometimes we share editing, too. We're very flexible.

Gelf Magazine: How do you decide which stories have the most "moral force" and are thus most worthy of coverage?

Susan White: We have a very diverse group of reporters here, with expertise in many different subjects. The best stories come directly from them—when a reporter comes into my office and says, "here's something that is bothering me," it's almost always worth pursuing. One of my reporters, Abrahm Lustgarten, has been reporting for a year and a half about the environmental problems associated with natural gas drilling, which is expanding fast throughout the country. Abrahm desperately wants to move on to another subject. Yet he keeps finding new facets of the story that need to be explored. His stories have great moral force—if we write about the environmental problems that gas drilling can cause, hopefully steps will be taken now to prevent future damage.

Gelf Magazine: Do you guys pay attention to which stories are the most read or emailed on your site?

Susan White: We look at those numbers, but building readership on our site isn't our primary purpose. Our purpose is to tell stories that need to be told—and to stay with a subject until we feel we've explored every angle.

Gelf Magazine: Is this model the future of investigative journalism? Or are there other ways you could see it working as well?

Susan White: We are able to do the intensive investigations that we do because we're well funded – and since money is tight these days, our model can't easily be duplicated on such a large scale. But I firmly believe that other organizations—nonprofit and for-profit—can and must produce investigative reports. I like to tell people that the key factor in becoming an investigative reporter is letting your curiosity roam free and asking every question you can think of. Not every investigative story requires months of work. Sometimes just asking the question "why?" is enough to set you on the right path.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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