In the good old days, investigative reporting was the loss leader of quality American journalism. In these new hard times, it’s a tempting place to cut costs. Your next inside story can always be a little quicker and cheesier than your last one, less substance but a bigger headline. Or you can shut off the spigot entirely and tell your expose specialists to look for work.
A new Web site, propublica.org, sets out the problem: In this “Internet age” of ours, “sources of opinion are proliferating, but sources of facts on which those opinions are based are shrinking.” It cites a 2005 survey by Arizona State University of this country’s 100 largest dailies that showed “37% had no full-time investigative reporters, a majority had two or fewer such reporters, and only 10% had four or more. Television networks and national magazines havesimilarly been shedding or shrinking investigative units.”
Pro Publica is introducing itself as a solution: a national not-for-profit news bureau. It announced its existence just last week and so far is little more than a Web site. “But we’ve gotten more than 150 resumes in the first three days,” general manager Richard Tofel tells me, “including from essentially every leading news organization in the country.”
Pro Publica is immediately credible because of the money and expertise behind it. The chairman is Herbert Sandler, who launched Golden West Financial Corporation with his wife, Marion, in 1963 and cashed in last year when they sold the company to Wachovia. Their Sandler Foundation is Pro Publica’s major funder. The editor in chief is Paul Steiger, who was managing editor of the Wall Street Journal from 1991 until this May and will remain with the Journal as editor at large through the end of the year. Tofel was an assistant managing editor under Steiger and later became the Journal’s assistant publisher. Pro Publica will begin operating next year with an annual budget of about $10 million.
“Our initial operating plan calls for a newsroom of 24 working journalists, all of them dedicated to investigative reporting on stories with significant potential for major impact,” the Web site reads. That number encompasses everyone from Steiger down to the lowest researcher. “Each story we publish will be distributed in a manner designed to maximize its impact. At the outset, at least, that means that many such stories will likely be offered exclusively to a traditional news organization, free of charge, for publication or broadcast.”
As for the investigations themselves, “this newsroom will focus exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force.’ We will do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them. In so doing . . . we will stimulate positive change. We will uncover unsavory practices in order to stimulate reform.” There will be a particular focus on the “two biggest centers of power,” business and government.
You can see why reporters are stampeding to sign on. Pro Publica’s offering them not just jobs but jobs that appeal to the avenging angels of their nature. I won’t go on about the strengths of this initiative because they’re obvious. Here’s what’s iffy about it.
To begin with, the intoxicating language Pro Publica has chosen to describe itself is probably harmless, but giddiness not only precedes but contributes to many a fall. And then there’s the scale of the operation.
Pro Publica believes it will be the “largest, best-led and best-funded investigative journalism operation in the United States.” Even so, a bureau of 24 reporters and editors can’t begin to meet the national need. Furthermore, a team of journalists all based in Manhattan–which is the intention, Tofel says, because “we’re very intent on building a newsroom culture”–won’t have its ear to the streets of Topeka. Most of the “truly important” stories it works will be national in scope, he acknowledges, yet nobody reads America’s 37th largest daily, or its 73rd largest, for its national reporting. When those midmarket papers pull in their investigative horns, corruption in the local city hall and assessor’s office gets a pass. That’s corruption Pro Publica might consider itself too important to bother with.
And if Pro Publica sets its sights on national stories, the temptation to keep offering them to the same handful of national news outlets will be hard to resist. Yet those are the outlets that need help the least and are most likely to reject stories they don’t originate.
“It sounds like an exciting project with lots of potential and I look forward to hearing more,” Ann Marie Lipinski, editor of the Tribune, e-mailed me. “But it’s hard to say whether we’d be a candidate for their work since the outlines of the effort are still a little vague. We put a fair number of resources against this sort of reporting, and focus much of it on stories with Chicago roots or relevance, such as our body of death penalty and criminal justice work over the past decade. I can’t imagine that Paul’s group would ever be a replacement for that here or in other large markets.
“But I do hope,” Lipinski went on, “that papers and other media who can least afford this resource-heavy reporting are able to take advantage of the help. To the extent that this has fallen out of a lot of newsroom budgets, I’m glad someone like Paul is looking at alternatives.”
Pro Publica expects to offer its product to magazines and TV news operations as well as newspapers. But TV will have to send its own crews out into the field to shoot tape, and papers like the Tribune and New York Times will want authorship of any investigations they publish, which is why I think Pro Publica’s likely to wind up collaborating on stories to a degree beyond anything its propaganda now suggests. It might find itself in the same sort of role the Better Government Association has played in Chicago, lending its own investigative resources to a news shop.
“I can imagine situations where we decide to join in on some piece from its inception, but we won’t have exclusive alliances,” says Tofel. Alliances of convenience are another thing, and Pro Publica will define itself by the ones it’s willing to enter into. It can expect to hear from medium-market news shops that need an extra reporter or two to tackle the kind of local expose Pro Publica is unlikely to do on its own. And it’ll be approached by freelance reporters with hot tips they can’t chase alone. “We’d be disinclined to import people temporarily or export people temporarily,” Tofel says. “But I’d distinguish that from teaming with other news organizations, which I think we’ll do in various ways. I think we’ll have to invent those ways as we go along.”
Tofel says Steiger is looking for a managing editor, who will then begin hiring staff. Only then will Steiger know exactly what he has, a newsroom culture being the volatile product of its reporters’ sources, agendas, and wills to prevail. “We don’t see it as exactly a top-down thing or a bottom-up thing,” says Tofel, speaking of lines of authority. Like any news shop–only more so because of the nature of everyone’s work–it’s likely to be a heady mix of camaraderie and competitive paranoia.
The notoriety of the staff will help determine whether Pro Publica hits the ground running. It wants a high-enough profile that Scooter Libbys and nameless whistle-blowers alike think of Pro Publica first when they want to drop a dime. “Will that be true on the first day? I’m not sure,” says Tofel. “That may be true of some of the people we hire. It’s usually not the organization that sources come to. It’s usually reporters.”
A New Focus
Few magazines get to grow up as deliberately as Focus has. In 1977 it was a newsletter mailed to the members of the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects. A year later it was given a name. Over the years it added pages, shifted from a photocopy machine to an offset press, picked up some advertising, and began to sport a dab of color on its cover. But at heart Focus was always a house organ full of news and notes: promotions, contracts, mergers, seminars. I thumbed through every bimonthly issue because there were lots of pictures of new buildings and designs, and because it is probably impossible to make Chicago architecture boring.
The AIA members decided they wanted more. This week they’re getting it. A lot of the editorial housekeeping is being moved to the AIA Web site, allowing Focus to emerge as a journal with airs called Chicago Architect. “Essentially it’s a trade magazine about architecture,” says Dennis Rodkin, the new editor. “But we hope it’ll be with a lot more style and panache than a trade magazine.”
Rodkin’s a Chicago journalist who turns up in a lot of places, including the Reader. He’s written a lot about real estate for Chicago magazine, and when I wrote about him 16 months ago it was because he was the interim editor of Lake, a slick, oversize bible for lifestyle-preoccupied weekenders in Harbor Country. It was the wrong job. Chicago Architect might be the right one. “I hope it’s pretty looking, but it isn’t just pretty looking,” he says. “Down the line they’d like the magazine to have the kind of voice, the kind of heft, that Inland Architect had. Inland Architect was known for being an independent voice, and even if this is in some ways the voice of AIA, nobody’s asking for anything gray and boring. They say, ‘Go further.'”
If Inland Architect had been a building, it would have been the sort of building that Richard Nickel lost his life photographing. It dates back to 1883, was resurrected by the AIA a half century ago, and was taken over by architect Harry Weese in 1977. The heyday everyone remembers was the span of years–the 80s, approximately–when Weese paid the bills and Cynthia Davidson did the editing and the watchwords were independence and heft. In the process Davidson transformed Inland Architect from a simple black-and-white stapled magazine a lot like Focus to a tony, expensive magazine a lot like Chicago Architect. When Weese got sick and stopped picking up the tab, Inland Architect lost so much money that in 1994 it was sold to a guy named Steven Polydoris, who ran a string of titles like Real Estate News and Chicago Film & Video News. He told me at the time, “You don’t have to be a genius to publish a magazine.” Apparently Inland Architect still exists, but you could search all day without finding an architect who’d admit to reading it.
But that’s merely prologue. Rodkin asks us to wait for two issues of Chicago Architect to come out before we pass judgment, because the one that’s about to appear is devoted to the AIA’s annual Design Excellence Awards. “Last year’s awards issue was 46 pages,” says Rodkin. “This one will be 76 pages. The other shoe drops two months later. In January it becomes a magazine about Chicago architecture.”
For more, see Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.