Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Group Plans to Provide Investigative Journalism
By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
As struggling newspapers across the country cut back on investigative reporting, a new kind of journalism venture is hoping to fill the gap.
Paul E. Steiger, who was the top editor of The Wall Street Journal for 16 years, and a pair of wealthy Californians are assembling a group of investigative journalists who will give away their work to media outlets.
The nonprofit group, called Pro Publica, will pitch each project to a newspaper or magazine (and occasionally to other media) where the group hopes the work will make the strongest impression. The plan is to do long-term projects, uncovering misdeeds in government, business and organizations.
Nothing quite like it has been attempted, and despite having a lot going for it, Pro Publica will be something of an experiment, inventing its practices by trial and error. It remains to be seen how well it can attract talent and win the cooperation of the mainstream media.
"It is the deep-dive stuff and the aggressive follow-up that is most challenged in the budget process," said Mr. Steiger, who will be Pro Publica's president and editor in chief. He gave up the title of managing editor of The Journal in May, but is staying on through the end of the year as editor at large; during his tenure, the newsroom won 16 Pulitzer Prizes.
Pro Publica is the creation of Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler, the former chief executives of the Golden West Financial Corporation, based in California, which was one of the nation's largest mortgage lenders and savings and loans. They have committed $10 million a year to the project, while various foundations have provided smaller amounts. Mr. Sandler will serve as chairman of the group, which will begin operations early next year.
The Sandlers are also major Democratic political donors and critics of President Bush. Last year, they sold Golden West to the Wachovia Corporation for about $26 billion, a deal which valued their personal shares at about $2.4 billion.
Pro Publica plans to establish a newsroom in New York City and have 24 journalists, one of the biggest investigative staffs in any medium, along with about a dozen other employees. Mr. Steiger said he envisions a mix of accomplished reporters and editors, including some hired from major publications, and talented people with only a few years' experience, so that the group will become a training ground for investigative reporters. He would not say specifically where he is shopping for talent, but did not rule out The Journal.
Richard J. Tofel, a former assistant publisher and assistant managing editor of The Journal, has been hired as general manager. Board members will include Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar of African and African-American studies; Alberto Ibarguen, a former publisher of The Miami Herald, who is currently president and chief executive of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; James A. Leach, a former congressman from Iowa who directs Harvard's Institute of Politics; and Rebecca Rimel, president and chief executive of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The nearest parallels to Pro Publica may be the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, groups that support in-depth work and have had considerable success getting it published or broadcast in mainstream media. But their budgets are a fraction of Pro Publica's, and they do not actually employ most of the journalists whose work they help finance.
Pro Publica will provide salaries and benefits comparable to the biggest newspapers, Mr. Steiger said. "I won't be offering somebody 50 grand or 100 grand more than they're making to jump ship, nor will I ask them to take a pay cut," he said.
Newspapers routinely publish articles from wire services, and many of them also subscribe to the major papers' news services and reprint their articles. But except for fairly routine news wire service articles, the largest newspapers have generally been reluctant to use reporting from other organizations.
But experts say that resistance is breaking down as the business is squeezed financially, and newspapers make greater use of freelance journalists.
"They're looking for alternative means of paying for ambitious journalism," said Stephen B. Shepard, dean of the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism and a former editor of BusinessWeek. "Steiger has the credibility and judgment to bring this off, and if they do good work, it will get picked up."
Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, said The Times would be open to using work from an outside source, "assuming we were confident of its quality," but that "we'll always have a preference for work we can vouch for ourselves."
Mr. Steiger said that relationships with publications could be tricky, requiring the flexibility to make each comfortable.
In most cases, he said, Pro Publica will appeal to a newspaper or magazine while a project is under way, to gauge interest and how much oversight the publication wants. In others, he said, his group might present more or less finished products to other outlets.
If Pro Publica and a publication cannot agree on how to approach a topic, or what can be written about it, he said, his group will look for another outlet, or publish its reporting on its own Web site.
Mr. Sandler said his interest in investigative journalism has been abetted by friendships with reporters in the field.
"Both my father and my older brother always focused on the underdog, justice, ethics, what's right," Mr. Sandler said. "All of my life I've been driven crazy whenever I encounter corruption, malfeasance, mendacity, but particularly where those in power take advantage of those who have few resources."