Richard Tofel

Journalism in the Public Interest

VTR Date: December 11, 2007

Richard Tofel discusses the need for journalism in the public interest.


GUEST: Richard Tofel
VTR: 12/11/2007

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And a quarter century ago, when an eminent New York State Supreme Court Justice — my old friend, the late Leonard Sandler — joined me at this table, we had very little reason to imagine that all of these years later philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler, his brother and sister-in-law, would have donated millions and millions of dollars to create a unique kind of non-profit venture designed to fill a growing void in American journalism.

It’s called “ProPublica – Journalism in the Public Interest”. And my guest today, Richard Tofel – formerly Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of the Rockefeller Foundation –will serve as its General Manager.

Mr. Tofel had earlier been Assistant Publisher and an Assistant Managing Editor of The Wall Street Journal, whose long-time Managing Editor, Paul Steiger, has become ProPublica’s President and Editor-in-Chief.

Now ProPublica’s own rationale for coming into being at this moment in our nation’s history is quite direct. It should be noted and appreciated:

“The business crisis in publishing and…the revolution in publishing technology are having a number of wide-ranging effects”, this is what the fledgling organization explains.

It goes on, “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, 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 argues, “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.”

Well, with all that and with Herbert and Marion Sandlers’ $10 million dollars a year – plus funds from others like the MacArthur Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies – ProPublica now aims at being just such a new model of “Journalism in the Public Interest”.

Which leads me to ask Richard Tofel, its General Manager, what we can expect from ProPublica … and when. Is that a tough question to ask you now in the middle of December?

TOFEL: No, I think it’s a perfectly fair question. What you can expect, I hope, is investigative journalism of the highest quality and they’ll be a daily aspect, as well, that I’ll talk about in a minute. Let me come straight to the point about when and the shortest answer is … we don’t know.

It will be some time in the, we hope, early months of 2008. We really begin our operations full time on the first of January of 2008 and we’ll begin recruiting staff full time. We have on board Paul Steiger as the Editor-in-Chief that you mentioned. And also Stephen Engleberg has joined us as our Managing Editor, former investigative Editor at The New York Times and then a Managing Editor at the Oregonian in Portland. And they’ll be recruiting a new staff that will ultimately number about 25.

I would hope that we get that full staff recruited by, perhaps, the middle of 2008. It depends on … frankly … just how things go and who’s doing it … how quickly the first major piece will come out. But then to double back, I think probably before we get the first major piece, we hope to begin our Internet operation where we will be offering daily content, principally not our own, some of our own, but a lot of it simply to focus through that site and to call people’s attention to the best investigative reporting being done by anyone and to link to it around the country through the web.

HEFFNER: Now, someone said to me when I told them we were going to be talking on the air, said, ‘Oh, that’s muckraker incorporated …

TOFEL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … that should be the title. Fair? Unfair?

TOFEL: Well, I mean “muckraker” is, I think, become a term of, honor. It was originally tossed at some investigative reporters oh, I guess about a 110 years ago as an unkind term, but I think it’s been largely adopted by investigative reporters as a badge of honor, so at some level, unless one considers the term itself pejorative, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.

HEFFNER: It’s associated, of course with a particular philosophy … political philosophy … a progressive political philosophy and that’s why, as you and I know, as historians, the, the muckrakers played such an important role in the Progressive era. Is there a political identification that one can make … with what it is you’re doing … with Pro Publica?

TOFEL: No. We’re going to be quite aggressively non-partisan and to remain very much outside of politics. In the traditional mode of journalism and so if that were implied in, in adopting the term “muckraker”, I would reject it. My … the reason that I didn’t hesitate … to be honest, is that it seems to me that what was progressive in the, let’s say, first two decades of the 20th century is no longer controversial in any way. I don’t know of anybody in this country who’re really trying to roll back the reforms of the Wilson Administration, for instance.

HEFFNER: Oh, I think I could point to some people on the present political scene.

TOFEL: Not, not very many. I mean I, I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on all the Presidential candidates … I don’t think any of them are trying to role back too much of what Woodrow Wilson brought us.

HEFFNER: Franklin Roosevelt, but not Woodrow Wilson.

TOFEL: Well, perhaps. I think … I think the New Deal is still somewhat more controversial than the Progressive Era really has become. But to, to get back to your point, Dick, no … we’re going to be really resolutely non-partisan.

What we are going to try to do, to the extent that we have a philosophy, and, and I guess it might at some level be termed a political philosophy, but not a partisan one … is we’re going to try to write what Paul Steiger calls “stories of moral force”, by which he means stories that try to pick up and hold accountable on people who have power and abuse it. Or who are entrusted with the public trust and fail to vindicate it. Some of that … a lot of it will be probably in business and government which are truly the two greatest sinners of power in our society, but we expect and intend that the areas that we look at will go beyond that to universities, to hospitals and doctors, to foundations, to the news media itself, to labor unions. So, really any, as I say, established centers of power that are, that are failing to …that are abusing their power or people who are failing to live up to the public trust.

HEFFNER: Dick, I, I read what Paul Steiger had said and it was quoted in the, in the … in Editor and Publisher and The New York Times, elsewhere … “we are going to be looking for examples of the strong oppressing the weak, or institutions that have the public trust … not fulfilling that public trust. You can look at unions, lawyers and court, universities and schools and the media, any place that is a source of power”.

You know, there have been those who have said that since Watergate one of the great crisis of American life is that we have become so disillusioned and we are not participating in our public life the way we should because of Vietnam and Watergate and a number of other areas in which the press played a large role in attacking the sources of power. Won’t you, by definition be playing into that diminution of public confidence in our institutions?

TOFEL: I actually think that one needs to have more faith in voters than that. And, and citizens more generally. And, and we do. To think that sunlight can inspire people and, of course, I think to some extent we’ll be writing about things that are going right, or people who are bringing the things that are going wrong to light; but I think people better understanding their world. And I think we’ve, in may ways, staked the country on this. People better understanding their world and the choices that they have to make as citizens are good things and ultimately things that can actually inspire people.

HEFFNER: When you have these rays of sunlight, how would you make them available to the public? Through the regular press? Through electronic media?
TOFEL: Our basic model is that we intend to do stories and offer these … the major stories … each to a leading news organization, exclusively, for a brief period of time. And to, to put out through their normal channels, through their newspaper or magazine or television show and in almost all these cases today, through their associated websites, as well. After that brief period of exclusivity we’ll put it up on our own website. And we might even, on occasion arrange partnerships of more … more than bilateral partnerships so that we had such an arrangement, both with a principally print, although online outlet and maybe a principally broadcast, although again online outlet at the outset.

HEFFNER: Now, what indication to you have that newspapers and electronic media have tried themselves so and they receive awards for when they have received rewards or an awards in the past for investigative reporting … do you have an indication that they’ll accept what you give them? It will be yours …

TOFEL: Well, it will be ours, but they’ll … but it will also be done to their standards and they’ll have plenty of opportunity to both check for accuracy and also to copyedit and otherwise to make … a seamless part of their own product. We’ve … to answer your question directly, we’ve got a lot of very positive indication from the leading editors and producers at essentially every major newspaper in the country, I think … all the best newspapers in the country … almost all of the leading magazines that publish journalism of this sort and pretty much all of the leading broadcast news organizations as well, that they would be interested in these kinds of stories … if we can do them.

HEFFNER: Won’t you be tempted to make ProPublica a publication, in print or electronic … all of your own?

TOFEL: I don’t think so. At least for the foreseeable future and part the reason is … to do … if we were to start by publishing directly … unless one believes that somehow the readers would magically find them … their way … to us, it requires doing an enormous amount of marketing. And it would require diverting a lot of resource to that effort.

We, we think we’re very lucky in having these resources from the Sandler Foundation and the other foundations and donors that you mentioned, but our budget calls for somewhere between 60% and two-thirds of all the money that we spend to go into news.

That compares, for instance, with the leading newspapers or magazines in this country are running at about 15%. And …


TOFEL: …and long have been. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal … that’s roughly right, that about 15% of what they spend as an institution goes to news.

HEFFNER: And 85%?

TOFEL: Goes to … well, I mean, in the case of a newspaper … printing, distribution …

HEFFNER: I see …

TOFEL: … circulation acquisition, advertising acquisition, marketing … they … and they need to make a profit, and we don’t.

So, when you put those two factors together, part of what that translates into is that … a great newspaper, for instance, needs to attract, roughly seven or eight dollars in revenue for every dollar that it spends on news.

Our model requires us to attract a dollar forty ($1.40) in revenue for each dollar we spend on news. That a very, very different thing. We think it gives us a huge advantage and to, and to significantly undermine that by engaging in a lot of marketing when we think that we can effectively publish through these great existing publications and broadcast services, we think wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

HEFFNER: Has anything like this … I’m not talking about the scale … anything similar to what you foresee as your prototypical activity been tried before?

TOFEL: I don’t think anything precisely like this. There have been a number of efforts and some of which continue and have done very good work at non-profit investigative journalism. But if you combine the fact that we are engaged in non-profit investigative journalism with publishing through other news organizations and doing so principally in narrative form, traditional journalistic forms, that combination, I think, is essentially unique.

HEFFNER: When you say, “narrative form” you mean reportage?

TOFEL: Yes. Articles … as opposed to, for instance, reports or books or press releases and some of the other efforts that have done this have, have used those kinds of forms and formats to put their work out.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication … I mean some mention has been made in the press of newspapers that have expressed willingness to “go along”. Are you free to discuss those?

TOFEL: I, I don’t … I don’t really think so. And part of the reason is because while we’ve gotten very strong and quite direct, clear expressions of interest, they’re all, obviously, contingent … as they should be … on our actually delivering a particular story that would be of interest to that particular newspaper. And these are editorial questions that they’ll have to work through. So I think it would have me getting ahead of our potential partners if I started to talk about who they are.

HEFFNER: Fair enough. Now, isn’t this … of course, doesn’t this involve marketing. Marketing the other way, not to the public, nor to advertisers, but to prospective publishers of your material?

TOFEL: Oh, sure … I mean, I don’t think there’s a business in the world … profit or non-profit that doesn’t engage in marketing at some level. But it doesn’t involve large paid advertising campaigns, for instance.

HEFFNER: Does the fact that so much of the money will come from the Sanders or could come from the Jones’, from an … from two individuals … is this going to give you problems?

TOFEL: I don’t think that it should. And I don’t think that it will. Herb and Marion Sandler have put almost all the money that they made from the sale of the business that they built over the years … the Golden West Financial Corporation to Wachovia … into their Foundation.

That Foundation does a number of terrific things and they had this idea to do something important in investigative journalism as well. But they’ve made it very clear that they have no interest in interfering with the editorial decisions here. And they’ve said that both publicly and privately and I think it’s clear that they won’t and I think Paul Steiger’s track record and the track record of people like Stephen Engleberg our Managing Editor are also clear that they wouldn’t brook that if people were interested. So I don’t really see that as a problem.

HEFFNER: Is there any leaning, or will there be any leaning? Will … six months from now … will anyone, do you think, be able to say, “Well, of course, they’re talking to, directing themselves to the mis-use of power”. Particular kind of power? Again, I’m coming back to the question of … not of … political partisan orientation, but philosophical orientation.

TOFEL: You know I … what people will say, who knows? And it will obviously depend a lot on what stories we do and which ones we do first. I don’t think, knowing the people we’ve got that any reasonable person will be able to say that we’re doing it in a partisan manner or in an ideological manner.

I do expect if we do this well, that we’ll be goring some oxen and the usual reaction when you do that is for the people for whose oxen are being gored to complain in one manner or another. If, if no one is unhappy with the stories that we publish, we’re probably not publishing the right stories.

HEFFNER: And again, coming back to the individual newspapers … its one thing for an Editor to say, “I like that, I’ll print that particularly since you’re allowing us to participate in the final stages, or … long enough in advance to put our own stamp on it.”

What about the morale in those institutions? When you have come in, when ProPublica has come in and substituted, for something that isn’t being done … I grant that, but that should be done.

TOFEL: Well, I think … you know, one big advantage and one thing that I think makes it … will make it go over easier at these organizations than it otherwise would, is that we’re offering these stories for free to these news organizations. So we’re not soaking up a scarce resource in that sense. We’re not diverting news resources, in fact, we’re just augmenting that. You could look at space and time on television as a limited resource and to some extent it is, of course. But I don’t think that we’d be crowding out other kind, other similar stories. I think people will see that we’re simply augmenting them. And from the perspective of these news organizations and the people within them who obviously have a great stake in them, and I say this as somebody who’s spent 15 years at, at a media news organization. If we can do important stories that people are interested in and that make a difference and one of these news organizations has such a story exclusively, it seems to me that it’s going to be to the benefit of such an organization and will be seen that way by the people who work there.

HEFFNER: Two different things. Benefit to the organization, to its publisher, its … the people who are responsible for the balancing of the books, but for me a … a scared, an ink-scared journalist?

TOFEL: I think the ink-scared journalists have come to realize if they didn’t before, that anything that is good for the institution … truly good for the institution … is at the end of the day truly good for them. In part because of the kinds of business and financial pressures that these institutions are under. And the kind of competitive environments in which they find themselves.

These kinds of, of pressures … things that, that push down on these institutions are not at all good for the people who work there. Things that attract readers, that attract attention, that put publications in stronger competitive positions are good for the people who work there. And I think people have really come to see that much more than perhaps they did 10, 15 years ago.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting to me that in the … ProPublica’s explanation of its reasons for being … when you write that the pressure on journalism recently has produced, and the technological advances have produced so much opinion, but that is in one way a good thing, but so much of it has, of necessity not been based on fact.

TOFEL: No. I, I think it’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with this proliferation of opinions. It’s the … it’s the other side of the point and Paul Steiger in summing this up in a speech recently at NYU said that what we were converging toward, if the trends continued, was we would become a nation of 300 million bloggers all commenting on the work of the Associated Press. And only that.

And he said, you know, as someone who has long admired the Associated Press, and in his case, the husband of a blogger, he didn’t have any problem with either of those kinds of institutions, but that … but a world like that was not one in which he really wanted to live.

HEFFNER: But, of course, what concerns me is that he described there the world we’re most likely going to live in. Would you feel otherwise?

TOFEL: Yeah. No. I don’t think so. I, I hope very much … I mean the 300 million bloggers doesn’t bother me if we’re all writing a blog … it begs the question of who’s reading …

TOFEL: … each of our blogs. But, but I hope, and I really do believe that somehow, and I hope in someway that ProPublica could be part of this, that we’re going to find a way in this new world to sustain multiple news gathering arms. That is as great as AP is, that, that we will not end up with AP as the only news gatherer in this country. I think that would be very, very unfortunate.

HEFFNER: Well, even if we had two or three …

TOFEL: Even two or three is a problem. I, I think many ways you can argue and I would argue that nothing less than the Constitution is really based on the idea that there will be multiple sources of information about public events and that out of that will come the kind of informed choice that the country’s real, long run interest is dependent upon. So I, I think that’s ultimately what’s at stake in this sector generally, and as I say, I hope we can contribute in small way to finding models for that.

HEFFNER: Dick Tofel, you make ProPublica a very exciting institution to anticipate. And I look forward to it and thank you so much for joining me today.

TOFEL: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

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.