ProPublica, Journalism in the Public Interest – An Appraisal

GUEST: Stephen Engelberg
AIR DATE: 01/16/10

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And it’s been nearly two years now since we first spoke here about “ProPublica – Journalism in the Public Interest”.

My guest was Richard Tofel, then and now its General Manager.

And today our Open Mind conversation about this truly unique, non-profit venture in journalism – first underwritten with millions and millions of dollars by philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler – is with ProPublica’s Managing Editor, Stephen Engelberg, who has been a Managing Editor at The Oregonian in Portland, and before that was at the New York Times for 18 years, with assignments in Washington, DC; Warsaw, Poland; and the Big Apple itself. Much of his work was in investigative reporting.

And, of course, it is investigative journalism of a non-profit nature that Steve Engelberg manages now.

For as I introduced our program with Dick Tofel in 2007, “ProPublica’s own stated rationale for coming into being at this moment in our nation’s history is quite direct”.

Presumably it remains the same: “The business crisis in publishing and…the revolution in publishing technology are having a number of wide-ranging effects. Among these are that the creation of original journalism in the public interest, and particularly the form known as ‘investigative reporting” is being squeezed down, and in some cases out.

“Profit-margin expectations and short-term stock market concerns…are making it increasingly difficult for the public companies that control nearly all of our nation’s news to afford – or at least to think they can afford – the sort of intensive, extensive and uncertain efforts that produce great investigative journalism.

“It is true that the number and variety of publishing platforms is exploding in the Internet age. But very few of these entities are engaged in original reporting.

“In short,” ProPublica insisted, “we face a situation in which sources of opinion are proliferating, but sources of facts on which these opinions are based are shrinking. The former phenomenon is almost certainly, on balance, a societal good; the latter is surely a problem.

“Investigative journalism, in particular, is at risk. That is because, more than any other journalistic form, investigative journalism can require a great deal of time and labor to do well…

“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 assignments.

“In all”, ProPublica argued, “this seems like a moment in … the history of our country and the history of journalism … when new models are 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.”

And, taking that, I would now ask Steve Engelberg, its Managing Editor, how ProPublica has been living up to those brave thoughts expressed many months ago.

ENGELBERG: Well, it’s, it’s certainly a sort of interesting experiment. I think a lot of it, from our perspective has gone better than we expected. The initial, sort of question, when those words were first being thought about and written was “could you create a non-profit journalism enterprise, ProPublica, and see it have material that would be published in various places.”

Our model calls for us to both publish on our own website, ProPublica.org, but also to publish with partners, mainstream partners. And there was a real questioning mark when we began as to whether people would accept this journalism from outsiders. Well, since then …

HEFFNER: When you say “people” you mean …

ENGELBERG: Editors of the major papers. Broadcast, radio and so on. And we have really had extraordinary good fortune since then in both finding material that we think was worthy of wire distribution, but also of it being accepted. So we’ve had stories in the New York Times, we have stories in the Washington Post, our first story was done in conjunction with Sixty Minutes.

We work with public radio. We’re at work now with Frontline on PBS. So we’ve had a very, very, very broad acceptance of the notion that you can do investigative work from outside an organization and yet have it be sort of something that you’d want to present yourself, that has value to it.

HEFFNER: Why were you concerned, to begin with, about whether you would find those access points to the public?

ENGELBERG: Well, for a couple of reasons. I think first of all there is a kind of journalistic ego, if you will, people like to do their own work … particularly at the highest possible levels. And so the question is, would that very, sort you’re your know, understandable instinct of pride and also of branding, you know, stand in the way of accepting things that might have been done with others, or by others.

And what we found is, you know, if you have material that is sufficiently compelling, that is not a problem. And we don’t want to be doing stories that, you know, even a good newspaper or good news organization would be doing anyway. Our goal is to do stories with what the Sandlers would call “moral force”, stories that bring change. And to do stories that wouldn’t be done otherwise.

And so we’re not seeking to really compete with these organizations, we’re seeking to extend their reach and the reach of investigative reporting generally.

HEFFNER: Do your stories, when they appear, either in print or on the air, do they appear as your stories or as the medium’s stories?

ENGELBERG: Well, it’s a bit of both, in, in a way. I mean we, of course, insist on some identification that these stories are ProPublica stories, but as, as I used to say when I was a reporter … it’s my belief that only family members and competing journalists read by-lines.

So, you know, when it says, you know, by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, in small letters, do people really even know it was by Abram Lusgarten, let alone ProPublica?

So I think, you know, we have had varying degrees of understanding that material that appears in places is our material versus that of the medium.

I think within the blogosphere, within the Internet world, it’s quite clear what’s ours and what isn’t because when you click on something you come to our site and that’s very clearly, sort of, identified as ours.

But, you know, I, I think it’s a fair question. You know, for example, we’ve done some excellent work … we’re very proud of with the Radio … National Radio Show Marketplace. You know, you’re driving in your car and it says “The Marketplace is now working with ProPublica and here’s the story …”

Well if you, you know, happen to just turn the radio on just a moment too late, then it doesn’t sound like us. Or if you weren’t paying attention, it doesn’t necessarily seem like us.

But that’s a fair trade. I mean the Marketplace has literally millions of, of listeners, it’s a really produced show. And so we’re happy to be there and over time we think that, you know, the quality of our work and the fact that we’re doing it will seep into the public consciousness.

HEFFNER: What’s the future then?

ENGELBERG: Well I think the future, you know, is a very sort of complicated thing in the media landscape right now. We don’t really kind of know where things are going. I mean one thing is, is clear from this conversation … we would like … we would be delighted to see the situation stabilize economically for our colleagues and, you know, and what we jokingly call the “once for profit sector”. We would love to see profits return and so that we are a, a supplement to what they are doing.

Our ability to publish in a, a robust, healthy New York Times, you know, is a great sort of way for us to get the story out. And so it’s not yet clear how many of those organizations and in what form they will prosper or, or not prosper, you know, in the coming years.

Beyond that we are continuing to try and build the sort of reach and power of our own website and that’s a, a slow process. I feel like we’ve made great progress from the day we didn’t exist to today.

But in the world of the web I, I think if one is sort of the purveyor of serious solid information, as we are … I mean some of our best work, for example, is putting databases online. People love to come and sort of look at the data, you know, about their state and the stimulus program and so on.

But we are, you know, to be absolutely honest, fairly serious. You will not find pictures of Lindsey Lohan on our site. So that’s a problem, you know, in the short run in terms of getting the sort of broad attention that one might want.

I think over time, I mean we have a sort of slow but steady growth and I think over time we will, you know, develop and audience of sort of intelligent people who want to know more about what’s going on than what they can glean from CNN.

HEFFNER: We’ve been talking in generalities. What are some of the stories that you’ve, quote, “published”?

ENGELBERG: Yeah, well, we’ve done several things this year that I think have really fulfilled the Sandler’s hope the ProPublica could have impact.

One story that we did in conjunction with the Los Angeles Times was an exhaustive examination of the way the State of California regulates its nurses.

And what we found was a, a level of … I don’t want to say “indolence”, but let’s just say “casualness” that was absolutely shocking. That you had in the State of California nurses who were, were beating up patients, taking drugs, were involved in, in horrific medical errors and the, sort of disciplinary proceedings against them would be delayed for three to four years.

So we published this story on a Sunday with the LA Times and on Monday morning Governor Schwarznegger, who I’m sure is quite frustrated by his inability to solve their budget problems, saw this story and felt that this was a problem that he could solve.

And so within a matter of days he had either forced the resignations or outright fired the entire Nursing Board and replaced them with a new Nursing Board. And he had gone further than that and discovered, as we were in the process of discovering, that in fact all of California’s Regulatory Boards (laughter) functioned roughly this way and so he has moved, I, I think, quite decisively to try and address this by assuring Californians that, you know, if there are allegations of wrongdoing against doctors or nurses or dentists that they will be resolved. As other states do.

I mean one of the sort of important parts about this reporting which we’re trying to do in everyone of our stories is that we pointed to places where the thing actually works. There are states that don’t take four years. Some states take six months. So we looked at places that had, you know, much better procedures and much more intelligent approach … in our judgment.

And, I think that was part of prompted action here. Was that not only do we identify a problem, but we showed the Governor and the readers that the problem could be solved.

HEFFNER: Okay. Let’s, let’s … it’s given. You did a great job.

ENGELBERG: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Just between us … my question would be … was there any negative feedback to the fact that the Los Angeles Times was publishing your story?

ENGELBERG: Well, I think in this case the Los Angeles Times felt fairly comfortable with this venture since the reporter that had done it previously worked for them. That this project had been, sort of, launched while they were still there. So in this case, it was a sort of truly … you know, sort of multi-parent adventure. So I think that they can and do feel quite legitimately that this is as much their project as ours. And we certainly feel that way, that it’s a venture that they absolutely began and, and we helped underwrite and bring to fruition over the period of nearly a year.

You know, it’s a good question as to would they have felt quite as strongly if, if these people were strangers rather than familiar and beloved colleagues, you know.

And I think probably it would be a little bit less easy. But, on the other hand, you know, the other sort of recent thing that we did … we had an article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine about what happened during Katrina at the hospital in New Orleans. And the hospital had been cut off, no electricity, no power, etc., etc.

And this is a case that had been written about previously … the doctors had given what they said was a sort of sedatives, if you will … you know palliative care, to patients who were near death … and we went back and looked at this … one of our reporters did … and she discovered that in fact, the intent in some of these cases was to hasten the end of their lives. We had doctors … extraordinary … two doctors who actually acknowledged doing this, doing what amounts to euthanasia.

And The New York Times ultimately, again, published some thirteen thousand words on this topic which, as a former New York Times employee, I can tell you, even in the “fat” days was, sort of not very normal event of the life of a New York Times reporter.

And I think, you know, Jerry Maserati the Magazine editor wrote a very nice note at the front of the magazine about this, explaining to readers why they were working with us on this. And I think they felt a great deal of pride about publishing this and, and helping to shape it and bringing it home. And you know, it’s had enormous impact. So …

HEFFNER: Of course, I was so angry at the story itself that I, I appreciate what you’re saying and it was a tour de force, to be sure.

Again, the question comes up. Was there negative feedback? What about the feeling of “there, but for these scabs, go I?”

ENGELBERG: Well, I think that is a quite, sort of, understandable reaction on several levels.

First of all, the American newsroom today really is a place where people are being fired. Which was something that was not true when I began in the business, but is a reality today.

So people legitimately fear for their jobs. Fortunately, at The New York Times you have a publisher in Arthur Sulzberger who has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid that. To, to preserve his newsroom.

But the fact is they live in the world, they know what’s going on. And so reporters there, I think, have … and, and everywhere have an understandable nervousness about their own future and jobs. And that’s first.

Second, even again in the “fat” times which I, I remember fondly … they seem only yesterday … even when we had a lot of money in the newspaper business, reporters are, you know, surprisingly conservative, with a small “c”. They really like things to be the way they’ve always been.

You know you learn a way of doing something in the newspaper, media business and you’re really kind of resistant to change. So I understand that anything that sort of departs from the sort of experience and the sort of previous model is going to be met with a certain level of skepticism.

Now, you know, as an ex-employee I no longer think I have my fingers on the pulse of the New York Times, by any means. I last worked there in 2002. But what I do gather from the friends I, I have there is that in this case the skepticism, if you will, was overcome by the quality of the work.

I think if the work had been anything less than obviously originally and stunningly detailed and, and breathtaking in its quality, the questions would have been much broader about why are we, you know, giving as you put it, “these scabs” valuable newsprint.

HEFFNER: You’ll forgive me for putting it that way.

ENGELBERG: Not, not at all. I understand, you know, the spirit in which it was meant and I think that it would be a legitimate feeling if one worked in a news organization and felt that you were doing better stories than that which outsiders were having published, you know, in their publication.

So, the simple answer to this … from our side of things is to simply reach very, very high quality and not to, in any way, sort of do marginal journalism. Which is the imperative that the Sandlers have given us in the first place.

They’re not interested, again, in stories for the sake of stories or, or things that cover things that are available elsewhere. We should be doing unique work. Unique and powerful work.

And if we do that I think we have a better chance with partners.

HEFFNER: So you’re suggesting that you don’t have to worry about defusing bombs in your own newsroom?

ENGELBERG: I think that if we do what we should be doing, the number of bombs should be at a minimum. I think every person today who’s leading a newsroom is, you know, to continue this metaphor just one more step, is walking through a minefield at all times.

I think that morale is, is tenuous. I think the fears of reporters are legitimate. I think the pressures on reporters today are unlike those of any time in, in certainly my memory as, as a journalist.

I mean you are asking people to do more with less time. And in that environment I think any news manager wants to be very careful about what they do that could affect morale.

Now having said that, you know, what I think a good leader wants to also show his newsroom or her newsroom is that if we are publishing original material and we are making a difference through our partnerships or our own work, we are securing our future. And that I do believe. And I believe you do that anyway you can.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting … you say news people are asked to do more with less time. And I just did a program here with Dr. Robert Butler, the distinguished physician, gerontologist … talking about American medicine and he was saying doctors are asked to do more with less time. And maybe it’s the curse of contemporary America

ENGELBERG: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: In medicine, in our health and in our …what is perhaps, in some ways even more important … in our knowledge of what’s going on around the world and in journalism?

But do me a favor and tell me briefly about another well received ProPublica …

ENGELBERG: Well, one of the things we that we have done which I’m very proud of is that we began more than a year ago to look at what, at that point, a very, very obscure issue and one that has since exploded into widespread consciousness.

It was the drilling for natural gas which is a fascinating subject, very technical and yet very, very relevant. We are, obviously as we all know, in a period of extraordinary tumult in relation to energy and climate.

We know, and this is quite clear and undeniable, that the electricity that we are producing, mostly with coal, has an extraordinary downside in that you send carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and it hastens global warming.

A solution to this which is quite viable … literally, you know, perhaps a hundred years worth of energy for the entire country is natural gas. Amazing enough it’s not in Saudi Arabia or under the ocean, it is under the ground in the United States.

The technologies that have been invented in the last couple of decades allow you to free tiny little bubbles of gas, very far down in the earth in the shale, if you will.

And so this is an important potential improvement to our energy picture. But the technology that is used for this, which is to pound water in at very high pressure and in very large amounts is a technology we don’t know much about and it turns out that the Congress in 2005 in the Energy Bill exempted the drilling from any kind of federal regulation. And the result of that is that each state is now, in essence, and EPA.

And so it’s a very patchwork arrangement of the regulation of this important industry. And the question that our reporter has been raising and in a lot of different ways, is whether or not the attempt to, sort of address one environmental disaster, which is global warming, could be creating another environmental disaster which would be the, you know, polluting of our ground water.

And so he has done upwards of forty stories on this. They’ve run all over the country in various publications, including, I think quite strikingly, one of our first stories was about how New York was about to approve massive drilling in and around the New York City reservoirs.

And the result of our story appearing in the Albany Times Union and WNYC, which is the local PBS station here, is that the Governor called a halt. And has done a more serious, ordered a more serious environmental assessment of whether or not this is a good idea.

And interestingly, the City of New York has made it quite plain they do not want drilling anywhere near the reservoirs that provide the water to the city of eight million people.

HEFFNER: All of which leads me to ask you … wither ProPublica?

ENGELBERG: Well, our great hope as time goes forward … we are continuing to get the generous support of the Sandlers, but I think the Sandlers and us all see a value to having a more diverse base for funding.

We are eagerly exploring that right now. We’ve gotten a generous grant from the Knight Foundation to hire a development kind of operation, create one and see how you can make this a sort of a more sustainable venture.

And we have no illusions about sort of creating a, a commercial venture here. We’re not ever going to be much different from say, the museum, which both charges admission and raises money from members and has philanthropy and, you know, I don’t know … we … before it’s over we may sell a ProPublica coffee mug, who knows.

But the, the notion is to see how more broadly we can fund ourselves. In the area of journalism I think we’re trying to build on the early successes that we’ve had and to think hard about something that most editors, including myself haven’t always had to think about, which is … you have a choice … virtually unlimited of stories that one could pursue … how do you pursue stories that are most likely to make a difference? And … it’s a little bit of a predictive issue. You don’t always know. So we’re trying to learn from experience about how to refine that process.

And we are still learning about how to use the web to advantage. I mean we are first and foremost an organization that publishes through the web. And we are continuing to experiment in that realm.

We hired … couldn’t even call her a reporter, she’s an Editor … she’s a, a specialist … her name is Amanda Michel, she’s worked for Huffington Post creating what … something called “Off the Bus”, it was a crowd sourcing project where people covered the campaign as volunteers. And we brought her aboard to try to bring some of that to our operation.

And we’ve created a network now, already of some 2,000 volunteers all over the country who are part of the ProPublica reporting network. And we’re beginning to send them various queries and tasks and they are beginning to report for us as, as volunteers. So I think that’s an exciting venture for us that will bring results in the coming years.

HEFFNER: Do you think … do you fear that success, for ProPublica will lead even if and when good times return to print journalism to a diminution of investigative journalism as we knew it. Because you’ll be there?

ENGELBERG: Well, you know, people certainly have, sort of, raised that as a question. And I would hope that that is not what happens. I think … if you look at American journalism, we have seen a layoff of … in the last year … some 10,000 reporters and editors. We are but 19 … so I think if anybody were to feel that we were going to in some way, in any serious way, fill that gap … they’re simply not doing the math.

And as you pointed out in the opening … the problem is far broader than, you know, a paper that once had three investigative reporters … now has one or none. The problem is if you stop covering in a robust way the State House, or City Hall or the Planning Commission and you do that in city after city and state after state … you don’t know what you don’t know. And that’s the real threat to investigative reporting. Is the loss of the eyes and ears that were the press up to this point.

HEFFNER: Steve, we’re reaching the end of our own program … all I can say is a year from now or so …gotta get you back here and put the same questions to you because you’re going to be creating, making, developing the most interesting new event in journalism and I appreciate your coming here with me today.

ENGELBERG: Thank you very much, it would be a pleasure to come back.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 WNET, All Rights Reserved.