How to support investigative journalism

April 19, 2011
Paul Steiger is rightly proud of his latest Pulitzer -- the second for ProPublica. He's right, too, that such things don't come cheap:

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Paul Steiger is rightly proud of his latest Pulitzer — the second for ProPublica in as many years. He’s right, too, that such things don’t come cheap:

One last point: to do this, it takes money. ProPublica is a non-profit, and contributions are tax deductible. We had more than 1300 donors last year and almost 500 so far this year. The median donation is $50, but whatever you can give will be greatly appreciated, and will truly help us make a difference. I invite you to celebrate with us by making a contribution by clicking here.

Sadly, individual donations — certainly not individual donations of $50 — won’t make a difference. According to ProPublica’s Form 990, Paul Steiger and his managing editor, Stephen Engelberg, made $959,811 between them in 2009 — $585,117 for Steiger and $374,694 for Engelberg. Senior reporter Dafna Linzer made $225,876. The total wage bill for 47 people for the year came to $5,267,678, or an average of $112,000 per person, not including things like pension contributions, other benefits, freelance costs, and payroll taxes.

It’s entirely within ProPublica’s rights to pay such salaries, but Steiger’s 1,300 donors, each pitching in $50, will generate a total of $65,000 — enough to pay Steiger’s wages for almost six weeks. If they all doubled their donation, he’d raise $130,000 — enough to pay ProPublica’s total wage bill for just over one week.

The fact is that ProPublica is funded, generously, by Herb and Marion Sandler; they, and a handful of other big-name funders, are the only donors who actually make a difference. According to ProPublica’s 2010 annual report, online donations for $86,000 were rather less than 1% of ProPublica’s total fundraising haul of $9,832,000 — the bulk of which came from board members. (For which, read the Sandlers.) ProPublica is not reliant on donations from the public, and if you’re prioritizing your charitable contributions, it makes sense to target your money at organizations which really do rely on such things.

In principle, I like the idea of a non-profit news organization which is funded by its readers. But ProPublica is not that organization. If you want to make a difference by funding investigative journalism, you’ll get more bang for your buck by giving money to the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, which doesn’t have a highly-paid permanent staff. Instead, it gives out grants of between $500 and $10,000 to reporters working on important stories like Kai Wright’s recent examination of the payday lending industry.

As ever, giving anywhere is better than giving nowhere — so if you are impressed by the Pulitzer-winning work of Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein and want to support it with a donation to ProPublica, that will do some amount of good and no harm whatsoever. But if you’re going to donate that money to the cause of investigative journalism, you might want to look at other places too. Which might need it more than ProPublica does.


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