A decade ago today, we announced the publication of ProPublica’s first stories with a brief note that said: “Welcome to the Starting Line.”
Our lead item summed up a Wall Street Journal report on a Justice Department investigation into “what officials suspect are efforts by Russian-backed firms to gain influence or gather information in Washington,” focusing on an aide to former Pennsylvania Rep. Curt Weldon. Amazingly, last week it came out that the Senate Judiciary Committee is poking into Weldon’s connections as part of its investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow during the 2016 presidential election.
It’s like no time has passed at all!
Seriously, though, our work from that first day reminds us how little we knew then about where we were headed or whether our theories for how ProPublica might work would pan out.
Our model for distributing stories — partnerships with major news outlets like NPR, 60 Minutes, The Washington Post or The Atlantic — was untested. None of us were sure we would be able to overcome such news organizations’ historic skepticism toward investigative reporting done by outsiders. Given that our web traffic at the time consisted, basically, of our families and friends, the question of what we would do if no one wanted to partner with us was not trivial.
We did have in hand the Sandler Foundation’s pledge of $10 million a year to underwrite three years of operations as well as a few other donations, financial security that allowed us to recruit top talent. But there was no clear sense of where the money would come from when we attempted to attract a broader group of backers.
A surprisingly large number of people applied for jobs — more than 1,100 — and 20 brave souls agreed to join us in search of stories with “moral force” that would expose betrayals of the public trust and abuses of power.
In our June 10, 2008 note, which was signed by founding editor Paul Steiger and managing editor Stephen Engelberg, we acknowledged that ProPublica was something of an “experiment.” Frankly, we were making the whole thing up on the fly.
One of our very first editorial collaborations, with another brash startup called Politico, was arranged in a conference call that lasted all of seven minutes. Some of the features we launched that first day were soon abandoned as it became clear they served neither readers nor our larger goals. (Remember “Scandal Watch,” in which editors ranked the top 5 investigations of the moment by their sense of the “intensity” of coverage they generated? Yep, we thought not.)
Still, it is striking how many of the core values have persisted. We remain committed to taking on investigations that otherwise wouldn’t get done, that demand change, and that shine a light on subjects that get little attention elsewhere. We’re still eager to engage with readers and people affected by our work.
To be sure, the past 10 years have been a period of intense, disorienting change for both the business of journalism and the nation as a whole.
The decline of America’s newspapers was well under way when we opened our doors, but the severity of the crisis was only beginning to become evident. In the years that followed, newspaper after newspaper would slash their reporting and editing staffs, with many cut by as much as 75 percent.
As we began our fundraising efforts in earnest in 2010, more than one donor said they were willing to give to ProPublica on a limited basis, until we and other nonprofits came up with a new business model that would be self-sustaining. We saw no such model on the horizon and argued that much of muckraking would soon be funded like the ballet or symphony orchestra, paid for by philanthropists large and small who saw investigative reporting as an essential element in a democracy.
Today, it is clear that an increasing number of people find these arguments persuasive. More than 34,000 people contributed to ProPublica last year. Our budget has grown to nearly $24 million, which supports about 120 employees working at our national operation and at ProPublica Illinois, a regional unit that began publishing late last year.
We’ve been thrilled and humbled to make a lot of friends in our decade of existence. Thousands of people now give us a few dollars every month, a flow of smaller donations that added up to $4.7 million last year.
We’ve also made the subjects of more than a few investigations see red.
ProPublica reporters have covered three administrations — two led by Republican presidents and one by a Democrat. We’ve had a testy relationship with every one of them, and that’s no surprise. Investigative reporting sets out to reveal what those in power most want to hide, their mistakes, misjudgments, and, sometimes, their corruption. We do so without regard to party affiliation or political outlook.
Our first major piece, a look at the Bush Administration’s Arabic language news service, revealed that the government was spending taxpayer money on a pro-Iranian, anti-American channel that had given air time to a militant who called for the death of American soldiers in Iraq.
A few months later, President Obama was in the White House and the country was gripped by a financial meltdown. We published story after story about the failings of the Obama Administration to help cash-strapped homeowners avoid foreclosure. We pointed out that the administration hadn’t done much to prosecute bank executives whose decisions cost tens of millions of Americans their jobs. And we pointed out federal officials’ striking reluctance to enforce the nation’s fair housing laws or to correct racial bias in presidential pardons.
Over the past two years, our work on the Trump Administration has put us among the journalists the president has termed “enemies of the people.” A seemingly uncontroversial story that accurately reported on President Trump’s ability to access money in his trust prompted the White House press secretary to dismiss ProPublica as a “left wing blog.”
If these somewhat adversarial relationships have been a constant, some things have clearly shifted or evolved. Some of the biggest changes have come in how we distribute our journalism and build communities that feed it. Twitter was less than 2 years old when we launched in 2008. We didn’t see a lot of relevance to investigative reporting in a “micro-blogging” site that limited posts to 140 characters. Boy were we wrong. Today, ProPublica has more than 730,000 Twitter followers and this platform, along with others, helps us find sources and readers for our stories whether we have a publishing partner or not.
Our use of data analysis and visual storytelling has expanded substantially. The initial staff of ProPublica included just two people who knew how to write computer code and could put our stories on the web and create, when needed, a graphic or two. In the years that followed, we’ve added a team of data journalists and news application developers, as well as web designers and producers. We’ve taken on some of the most sophisticated statistical work ever attempted by journalists, exposing the racial biases in an algorithm meant to help judges forecast future criminality and comparing individual surgeons’ complication rates. We’ve harnessed large data sets to empower consumers, creating features like Dollars for Docs, which has been used nearly 20 million times to look up payments doctors received from pharmaceutical companies. (Our latest update to it is coming this week.) We’ve built immersive interactives like “Hell and High Water,” a collaboration with the Texas Tribune, which presciently showed the perils Houston, America’s fourth-largest city, could face from a major hurricane — almost a year and a half before Hurricane Harvey hit.
Perhaps the achievement we’re most proud of at ProPublica is the impact of our work. In a cynical age when many believe that the outcomes are “rigged” and unchangeable, we have shown that powerful, fact-based journalism has the potential to change minds and laws.
Two examples from the early days: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tossed out most of the state’s nursing board less than 48 hours after we published a story with the Los Angeles Times in mid-2009 showing how the board’s woeful oversight allowed dangerous nurses to keep working. That same year, we were among the first to focus on the possible downsides to fracking, a then little-known approach to gas drilling. Our stories spurred the state of New York to impose a ban on the practice that remains in place 10 years later.
More recently, after a series we did with the New York Daily News on abuses of the city’s nuisance abatement law, the New York City Council passed a sweeping reform package to protect people from being unjustly forced from their homes or businesses. One of the inaugural projects from ProPublica Illinois, which we continued in partnership with the Chicago Tribune after it originally launched there, exposed devastating inequities in property tax assessments done by the Cook County Assessor. In the wake of this reporting, the assessor, who also served as the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, was defeated for reelection.
Just two weeks ago, we focused national attention on the dubious forensic science of bloodstain pattern analysis.
Change is a constant. We have little doubt that the 2028 “Dear Readers” note will look back with a mix of whimsy and nostalgia at the way we do things in 2018. But we have every reason to believe that the value of fact-based, meticulously documented journalism will remain. Thank you for making all of this possible.
Stephen Engelberg, Dick Tofel and Robin Fields