ProPublica-Gründer Paul Steiger sprach am 16. Juni 2015 beim Non-Profit Journalism Workshop an der Hochschule Magdeburg-Stendal zum Thema “Non-Profit Journalism, A Global View”. Organisiert wurde die Tagung vom Global Center for Journalism and Democracy an der Sam Houston State University. Mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Beteiligten veröffentlichen wir im Folgenden Paul Steigers Vortrag.

Zu den Referenten des Workshops zählte auch Charles Lewis, Gründer des Center for Public Integrity. Ein Mitschnitt seines Vortrags ist auf unserem YouTube-Kanal abrufbar.

Mehr zum Thema “Gemeinnütziger Journalismus” auf unseren Themen-Website

Remarks of Paul Steiger
at the Non-Profit Journalism Workshop organized by the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy at Sam Houston State University and hosted by the University of Applied Sciences Magdeburg-Stendal (Magdeburg, June 16th 2015)

I’m delighted to be here, before this fine audience of students, teachers, and professionals, to talk about the state of non-profit journalism, of investigative reporting, and of the combination, that is, non-profit investigative reporting.


It is the latter — non-profit investigative reporting — that has occupied me intensely for the past seven years. At my professional home, ProPublica, we just celebrated on June 10 the seventh anniversary of our first published article, in 2008.

On the video screen the red pins (linked here)designate the location of about 100 member organizations of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, a group of non-profit investigative reporting newsrooms or associations of varying size. It is this brand of journalism that, I will argue, is the most important piece of the non-profit terrain, most important for citizen knowledge and awareness, most important for the effective operation of democratic forms of government.

If you want to explore it in much greater depth than we have time for today, I suggest going to the Web site,, interacting with the databases, and reading the reports, particularly those by David Kaplan, its executive director. I also suggest you read research reports and other analysis by Chuck Lewis, another of your speakers today, who is one of the true pioneers of non-profit investigative journalism.

In preparation for meeting with you, I dug out some of my old speeches and commentaries from around that period, five to seven years ago, when ProPublica was getting under way, to see how my assessments and expectations of that time remain on target today, and which ones turned out to be wrong.

What I found is four things:

First, the once-unchallenged, for-profit, legacy media enterprises – newspapers, magazines, tv news — continued to deteriorate financially, as I expected, particularly in the US, but not as uniformly fast  as I had anticipated. In some cases they have maintained more dogged attachment to investigative reporting than I would have predicted. For the most part, however, legacy news organizations have wiped out their investigative teams partly if not entirely and no longer let their beat reporters take time away from their beats to see if a tip might turn into a major expose. Some once-proud news organizations – the Rocky Mountain News, for example — have closed altogether.

Second, the rise of for-profit, web-based, new media has been more robust, more diverse, and better financed than I envisioned, and while these outfits were heavily, heavily focused on amassing huge audiences as fast as they could, in some cases, as with Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, they were prepared to dip a toe or even an ankle into accountability reporting.

Third, the surge of social media and the stampede to mobile devices as the predominant sources from which many people, particularly those under 35, get their news, information, and insight means that news media of any stripe must adapt to this new reality or die. Facebook, in particular, is out to build a dominant if not monopoly position as a platform for content; they have built up a real head of steam.

And fourth, even as some new Web-based, for-profit news sites embrace accountability-reporting as a modest part of their value proposition, even as some legacy media continue to survive while including such reporting as a fundamental part of what they do, the need for this work is simply too great for the current news ecosystem in most countries to provide.

For reasons that we will discuss shortly, in the current world a FOR-PROFIT news site devoted ENTIRELY to investigative reporting will almost certainly fail. If democratic societies are going to get the reporting they need to run themselves, it won’t be enough to have general-purpose legacy media and general-purpose startup media to do some of this work. Non-profit investigative newsrooms have to be – have to be — a significant part of the mix.  Not the only source, by any means — for-profit legacy and new media will play a shifting role in the mix — not the only source, but a significant one.

As we will discover this morning, this is easy to say but not so easy to accomplish, that non-profit investigative reporting will grow because we need it to.

Today, from my own experience at ProPublica, from my experience at the Knight Foundation, where I’m a trustee and which is among the world’s leading donors to journalism, and from interactions with my colleagues in journalism in the US and around the world, I plan to offer some insights on what works and what doesn’t. I hasten to add that these are my own views, not those of ProPublica or Knight or any other institution that I may be associated with.

Specifically, I will offer a checklist of keys to success for non-profit investigative reporting. Few organizations will be able to muster them all.  But the more of them can be assembled, the greater the chance for sustained success.  Along the way, we will look at some real-life examples of success, failure, and a mixture of the two, as way helping us learn.

Let’s look at the global landscape. Today, the non-profit domain is hardly the only source, and not even the most important source, of accountability reporting in most countries. Even in the US, some legacy newsrooms at newspapers and magazines, television and radio, where making a profit is much more of a struggle than it was a decade or so ago, are nevertheless still producing some powerful investigative work. In my country, the three most preeminent newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal – are diverting serious resources to investments aimed at speeding their adaptation to the Web.  Yet they still devote major resources to expose corruption and misbehavior by the influential or wealthy.

But this, I submit, is mostly a rearguard action.

While network and cable news continue to do accountability reporting, it is typically at levels below what we saw in the past. Some smaller newspapers, like the Los Angeles Times, the Milwaukee Journal, and the Seattle Times, are making huge efforts to keep doing such reporting, but they are doing it with shrunken staffs.  Around the world, for-profit newspapers and magazines are still important players in this form of reporting, notably in the UK, Germany, France, Scandinavia, Spain, India, Australia, and in many parts of Latin America. But this is partly because the crushing of the their traditional models has happened more slowly than in the U.S. The vast crushing sound will expand.

The pervasive, Web-spurred decline of legacy media, particularly of newspapers but also of TV news departments, will continue at various speeds at various places around the world. More newspapers will close or continue to reduce their print activities. And as that happens, those activities will enter a death spiral. Printing presses and delivery systems for print depend on high volume. As volume declines, the cost per copy rises, creating more pressure to cut other costs, leading to new layoffs, a weakening of the public’s desire for the increasingly anemic news reports, and ultimately further volume declines.

So where will the investigative reporting needed to support democracy come from, to make up for these losses?

First of all, simply replacing the losses won’t be enough. Increasing sophistication of powerful people and organizations means there will be much more to investigate, and many more roadblocks to break down or skate around. So the public interest will demand producing more investigation than we had before, not just matching it.

Some will come from advances in digital technology that make reporting avenues available that weren’t there before. The massive dispersion of sophisticated smart phones, embedded with cameras and video recorders, allows ordinary citizens to produce video and/or audio records of real-time events.

From Tehran to Times Square, the uploading of on-scene recordings of controversial happenings has transformed the public’s understanding of episodes that might never have been discovered otherwise and turned them into dramatic, consciousness shifting events. The horrific choking death by a man being arrested on New York’s Staten Island for illegally selling untaxed smuggled cigarettes, the shooting of unarmed youths by agitated police, the devastating foot-in-mouth remarks by candidates who thought they were speaking in private, all have been game changers.

At the same time, the ability to access and digitally probe existing data bases that heretofore would have been inaccessible, as well as to create altogether new data bases, puts enormous new power in the hands of journalists.

Some Web enthusiasts say these manifestations of the digital revolution will over time vastly reduce if not eliminate the need for reporters and editors and news organizations. The Web-adept, in this view, will swoop in and carry the day with citizen reporting and ever more sophisticated algorithms.

I’m confident that this view is wrong, not always and everywhere, but in enough places to matter. In some cases, a 50-second video uploaded by a civilian is all that is necessary to sharply change public attitudes.  Far more often, the existence of the video needs to be teased out by a reporter, its owner persuaded to let it be widely distributed, and crucial background added, before the mobile phone’s recording powers get to dramatically influence public opinion.

Two of the highest-impact citizen recordings of the last two US presidential elections, in 2008 and 2012, became available only through intense intervention by journalists.

In April 2008, when Hillary Clinton was still very much in the race for the Democratic nomination with Barack Obama, the Huffington Post aired a mobile-phone recording of comments Mr. Obama made to supporters in San Francisco when there were no reporters around.  Some of you may remember that this is what Mr. Obama said: People dislocated by the job losses generated by globalization, he complained, “get bitter, and they cling to guns or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them….”  For a few days, the guns and religion comment was explosive; it hurt the future president with white union members, whom he was very much trying to woo, and frustrated even some of his supporters.

His comments could well have never hit the public’s ears, except for a young journalist named Amanda Michel.  Working for Huffpo at the time, Ms. Michel had painstakingly built a network of some 1,800 unpaid “citizen” journalists, including some Obama campaign workers, and called it Off the Bus. One of them, Mayhill Fowler, heard the candidate’s remarks and recorded them.  After much agonizing, Fowler decided to publish them on Michel’s Off the Bus.

A far more damaging airing of remarks a candidate thought were private came in 2012. In late August, just before the Republican Convention, David Corn, the Washington Bureau chief of Mother Jones, a left-leaning non-profit Website and magazine, got a tip that someone had videotaped Mitt Romney making some politically embarrassing comments. The tipster, a grandson of former Democratic president Jimmy Carter, helped connect him with the person, a bartender, who had done the videotaping secretly at a fundraiser during which Romney said
that 47% of the electorate were unreachable by him because they depended on government handouts that he was opposed to.  Corn persuaded the man to send him the video, to let him air it and report on it, and to permit him to describe more fully the kind of event and who was there. Corn’s story appeared  September 17 of that year, and Romney fell into a hole he never climbed out of.

These examples raise the point that some investigative reporting, including some non-profit investigative reporting, is partisan.  I’m inclined to think that this is OK, as long as the leanings are understood, whether to the left, like MJ, or the Nation, or to the right, like the National Review or the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Partisan reporting can unearth facts that the public didn’t previously know. I can’t prove it, but I believe that partisan non-profits have an easier time raising money, because they can reach into networks of true believers. Non-partisan reporting organizations, like ProPublica, have the advantage of being credible to a broader audience base.

In coming years, I’m convinced that the two biggest sources of new investigative reporting will be non-profit news organizations, those that exist now and those to be created, and digital start-ups, whose business models anticipate their ultimate ability to recreate, though in highly different ways and without the huge costs of printing, paper, and delivery trucks, the integrated audience for news which  newspapers and network television enjoyed during the last third of the 20th Century.

Some of the non-profit players don’t focus on watchdog reporting.  Some, like MinnPost in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area, specialize on local culture, activities, and people. Others, like Chalk Beat, zero in pretty exclusively on elementary and secondary education.  Still others seek to provide insights into the local or regional economy, politics, social trends, education, real-estate prices.

Texas Tribune, based in the state capital of Austin, has been a good example of this. It spotlights state politics, the legislature, and the biographies and activities of government and business leaders.  It is to reporting on Texas what Politico, a for-profit, Web-based newsroom in the Washington, DC, area, is for the federal government.

Now, the Tribune is expanding its mix to include more accountability reporting, particularly when it flows naturally from its existing beat structure. The goal, I would assume, is to attract more readers and more page views — to grow, in other words.

The trick is to do it without upsetting the careful balance the Tribune has achieved in raising money both from donations and from corporate sponsorships, advertising, and conferences. The Tribune needs to spend substantial sums marketing and funding the conferences, for example, instead of spending it on journalism.

The approach can be successful if there is a synergy, or a positive spiral, between the efforts spent on earned income and the access these activities generate to news sources, advertisers, and donors. The risk is that you get pushback from some elements of this community, who feel bruised themselves from some of the investigative pieces or fear their customers or suppliers may be annoyed. The people at Texas Tribune are smart and successful, and I’m sure they have thought this through.

Before asking for your questions and comments, I’d like to offer a list of ten guiding principles for new non-profit investigative reporting teams:

One, Assure You Have Adequate Launch Funding and a Strong Initial Team. Don’t start before you are ready. It’s crucial to have key people in place, both on the news and the business side. When we started ProPublica, our launch funders agreed to guarantee our budget for the first three years, so that we could safely recruit top journalists.

Two, Think Hard About the Potential for Impact with the Reporting Projects You Launch. The principal difference between accountability journalism and ordinary reporting is that you aren’t just looking for interesting information that the audience doesn’t know. You are looking for information that justifies a call for change.

Three, Beware of Mistakes, Particularly Big Ones.  It can take decades to build credibility; one really bad story can wipe it out in a minute.  If someone accuses you of unfairly harming someone, don’t dodge. Check out the complaint, as quickly and thoroughly as you can.  If you have made a mistake, don’t dream up excuses for standing by the story. Correct the error, humbly and promptly.

Four, Maintain Budget Discipline.  This sounds so basic that I almost didn’t mention it, but I know cases where seemingly solid non-profits have run off the rails because they neglected it.  Journalists hate to miss out on a possibly great story.  We always want to go the next mile to pin down a crucial fact or get a pivotal interview. But non-profit news organizations typically operate on tight margins.  So every team has to have a Dr. No, someone with the clout and the disposition to lock up the checkbook at dangerous moments.

There is always a temptation to hire one more free lancer, expand the office space, or buy new software when the money just isn’t there. Don’t.

It’s definitely OK to spend beyond the budget if you can get the money by stealing from another part of the budget — like cancel the offsite you were planning for a weekend in October, or make everyone chip in for the pizza, salads, and sodas at the newsroom Christmas party. It’s probably OK when you are confident that an editor is going to leave staff in three weeks because his girlfriend says she will break up with him unless he moves to Boise by then and she has already loaded the moving van with his stuff as well as hers.

Five, Search Hard for General Purpose Cash. Beware of foundations and other funders that tell you they love you and want to give you a million dollars over two years to do x, y, or z.  It sounds wonderful, and someone breaks out the Champagne.  But then you see the fine print and it tells you that you have to spend every penny doing this new thing that they want you to do.  No money to cover the salary of the senior editor who will have to drop something else she has been doing and spend half her time overseeing the new project. No money to help pay the air-conditioning and phone bills.  That is why you need to insist, demand, beg that any grant you get includes some general purpose cash.  This is what allows you to immediately repair the collapsed ceiling in the ladies room.  It lets you take on a story that you didn’t plan for.  It is essential. My colleagues at Knight have given some general purpose money in recent years. I hope they give more.  The Ford Foundation has said that it intends to move in this direction over the next five years.

Six, Seek to Set Aside Contingency Funding.  When ProPublica opened its doors in 2008, we didn’t worry that we rarely had more than a few weeks’ cash in the bank, because our launch funders generously guaranteed our budgets for the first three years. But as we started to move into our adolescence, the lack of contingency funding became scary.

We realized that few funders had any interest in giving us money for that purpose. To them it was boring.  They were more interested in paying for new ideas, either theirs or ours. But what if there was a reprise of the 2008 financial crash, and one of our key supporters suddenly was unable to maintain its support?  We might have no choice but to lay people off.

So we began trying to scavenge money, slightly underspending our budget and putting the savings into a contingency fund at yearend.  By 2013, we had a couple of million dollars in the bank, and we got lucky.  The MacArthur Foundation, which had been supporting us from almost our earliest days, gave us a million-dollar institutional “genius” grant. Our launch funders, the Sandler Foundation, matched the MacArthur grant, which we also put in the contingency pool. By this year, the fund is at $5 million.  Our goal is to bring it to enough to cover a full year’s spending, now budgeted at more than $12 million annually.

Seven, Maintain Leadership Continuity. Succession planning and execution is just as crucial for non-profit investigative reporting teams as it is for companies.  In 2001, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism exposed tax violations and other misbehavior by Joseph Estrada, the country’s corrupt and tyrannical president. Repeated pounding on the issue forced Estrada to resign. The physically tiny but hugely charismatic leader of the PCIJ, Sheila Coronel, was forced to leave the Philippines because of threats on her life.  She has ended up as a professor and now the academic dean at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism – great for Columbia and great for journalism. However, her departure threw her Philippines organization into a tailspin, as there was no strong leadership ready to take over.  Since then, happily, the PCIJ has recovered its bearings and is a leader among investigative non-profits not only in the Philippines but in the region. But it’s a cautionary tale.

Eight, Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate. During my 41 years in print journalism, the idea of collaborating with another news organization was as foreign as pine trees in the Sahara.  They were competitors, and you beat them or were ashamed.  We now live in a different world.  Yes, we often compete. I caution my colleagues at ProPublica that if we come in second on every story, then who needs us?  But we have learned how to compete with the NY Times on one day and join with them on the next. Some of our very best work has come from cooperating with brilliant colleagues on US public radio, whether at NPR or This American Life, or WNYC, or elsewhere. A global consortium of financial investigative reporters blew open the doors on shenanigans at some European banks last year, and has led to huge prosecutions.  This is one of the most important waves of the future.

Nine, Do Everything You Can to Protect Your Staff.  In recent years, more and more journalists around the world have paid for doing their jobs with jail time, serious personal injury, or death. Some have been caught in the line of fire covering wars and insurrections, while others have been victimized by autocratic governments, crime cartels, and corrupt tycoons.  Anyone running a team of investigative journalists should maintain ties with the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York and other institutions dedicated to keeping reporters, photographers, and producers safe. It has become a more and more challenging job.

Ten, Think Positively.  Yes, the old business model for hard-hitting journalism is under siege.  But new visions and opportunities are opening up, on the Web and elsewhere. It’s time to seize them.