1. How does ProPublica do it? Can it scale?
I received an intriguing email alert last week from ProPublica – the non-profit organization that, according to its mission statement, does “journalism in the public interest.” The email announced that ProPublica’s “nursing home inspection” tool now has a completely searchable database of “140,000-plus” reports from government inspections of these facilities for seniors, many of which have been plagued by charges of poor or even abusive care.
That reminded me that as its fifth anniversary approaches, ProPublica deserves full-blown feature treatment.
The small, New York-based organization, which has already won two Pulitzer Prizes, has done a slew of amazing reporting projects that have combined old-fashioned shoe leather with ingenious use of modern technology to gather and present compelling stories and provide ongoing resource materials. It has tackled subjects ranging from political ad spending to doctors getting payments from drug companies to presidential pardons to this nursing home project. And that’s all in addition to an array of killer one-off stories, such as its report on speaking fees paid to Chicago Tribune editorial board member and syndicated columnist Clarence Page by a group lobbying to be removed from a State Department terrorist list, or the story about Magnetar, the secretive financial firm.
ProPublica was founded in late 2007 with a $10 million grant from Herbert and Marion Sandler, the former Golden West Financial Corp chief executives who made a fortune when they sold the giant savings and loan to Wachovia Bank just before the mortgage bubble burst. Under the leadership of Paul Steiger, the former Wall Street Journal managing editor who conceived the project with the Sandlers, ProPublica has since attracted grants from other major foundations, as well as several hundred smaller individual donations.
Steiger now deploys 34 reporters, researchers and what he calls “data journalists.” Their impact is magnified not only by how cleverly they mine and present data related to important issues but also by the partnerships Steiger and his team have forged with other news organizations, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR and Politico. These outlets, which often contribute reporters to supplement ProPublica’s resources, co-publish the resulting work through their own channels.