Reporters of Dongguk Media Center visited ProPublica, located in Wall Street, as a part of overseas reportage last July. The first impression of ProPublica was ‘simplicity.’ Only a small doorplate was put up in front of the office. Considering that ProPublica is one of the most influential investigative journalism organizations in the U.S., the office was rather ‘humble.’ There, the team met up with Jake Bernstein,a Pulitzer Prize winner of ProPublica.
▲ Reporters of ProPublica spend much time discussing the issues they are handling. / Photograph by Special Reportage Team
Press that pursues ‘Needed’ journalism
Bernstein was awarded an internal news sector Pulitzer Prize for the article ‘Wall Street Money Machine’ in 2011. In the article, he disclosed the corruptions of financial companies that sold stocks to investors even when they knew that the housing market bubble would burst. He exposed how immoral these humongous financial companies are through the report.
After the article was released, several financial companies, including J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., paid an astronomical amount in fines, due to inspectors’ thorough investigation. “The inspectors chased all sorts of deals, funds, and billions of money based on our report,” said Bernstein.
ProPublica is not just a press that reports only facts. What they pursue is the truth behind the facts. They pull out inconvenient truths from the facts. Investigative journalism is their weapon to expose corruption and irregularity of society. “As capitalism is rampant, irrationality of companies and government has been hidden behind the extremely complicated fact,” Bernstein explained the role of investigative journalism. He added, “This means that the media have become difficult to play a role as critics by just reporting facts.”
The reporting period of investigative journalism at ProPublica is much longer than other media. For Bernstein, he had to spend a year and a half researching and reporting before publishing ‘Wall Street Money Machine.’ Another reporter at ProPublica, Sheri Fink, took two and a half years to publish her article, ‘The Deadly Choices at Memorial.’
The reason they spend much time in preparing a story is that information for revealing the irrationality of capital and power is hidden insidiously. To find out and analyze that information, a large amount of time and effort are needed. As the period of reporting becomes longer, the number of articles published decreases. This is why general mass media companies hesitate to delve into investigative journalism.
The purpose of ProPublica does not lie in the quantity of articles. Their goal is to report at least one article properly. The head of public relations at ProPublica, Nicole Collins, said, “We are not interested in breaking news. We focus on finding information that people want, and reveal social irrationality even though it takes a longer time.”
Solid support from millionaire benefactor
ProPublica is a non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism for the public interest. It was established in 2007 by donation of the Herbert and Marion Sandlers, the former chief executives of the Golden West Financial Corporation. The Sandlers hired Paul Steiger, a former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, to run the organization as editor-in-chief. When Steiger established ProPublica, he announced his goal to make ‘the press that will always seek truth rather than fact.’
The Sandlers have been committing 10 million dollars a year to the organization with the purpose of bringing justice to society. ProPublica is now funded by many other major contributions and citizen donations.
In fact, the organization is sponsored by public utility foundations, such as The Benter Foundation and The Ford Foundation. Of course, it is also funded by citizens through direct donations. The number of supporters has been increasing from 2009 to 2011, and the number of supporters increased by 16 times, from 100 to 1,600. Donations and contributions made by organizations and citizens are used for reporting news. Collins said, “We spend it to run the business, and spend the rest on reporter’s payments and reportage costs.” She also stressed the importance of independence in investigative journalism by mentioning that “We never ran out of budget to support reporters.”
Sharing news with 90 other press agencies
Another unique management practice that ProPublica pursues is sharing news with other allied press agencies. Currently, they are in cooperating relationships with 90 other press agencies, so news reportage that is published through ProPublica is supplied to major presses such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN.
The reason they release articles for free is their main purpose is not to gain attention by breaking a scoop. Rather, they work for the purpose of telling the truth to the public. Because of this, any press agency can distribute their news reportage freely if they make sure to credit the origin of the source clearly.
Of course, reselling or reediting the articles is strictly banned. As a result of these alliances, many readers are able to take various paths to get the news. In this way ‘Wall Street Money Machine,’ was able to grab more attention, since it also appeared on the website of The New York Times web simultaneously.
Collins stresses the point that “Even if we have good news, if viewers cannot read this, then it is useless.” She also added, “Spreading good news to more people is the reason why we cooperate with NYT and other press agencies.”
Pride of working for a better world
The turnover rate of reporters at ProPublica is relatively low. Out of 46, most of the people working there are professional journalists who have long term experiences as reporters. There is one reason why they came to ProPublica: to investigate freely without any intervention from others. The reporters at ProPublica said they chose their jobs because they wanted to get out of workplaces that operate for profits. Nevertheless, their treatment in here is not insufficient than other presses.
ProPublica is an exceptional press where reporters’ right of freedom of speech is truly guaranteed, without worrying about financial issues and others’ perceptions. This has enabled them to publish ‘Wall Street Money Machine’ and keep working with the motivation to create investigative news. Bernstein pointed out, “As capitalism takes great part in the society, the importance of investigative reportage grows. Now it is time to think about what we, as journalists, need to do in order to get closer to the truth.”
ProPublica is a beacon of hope in the journalism field on the internet and chaotic change of social media. They are sincerely asking what true journalism should pursue. In other words, they are telling reporters what they should write and report about in the face of dramatic development of science and technology and unlimited proliferation of power and money.
■ Digital Strategies of ProPublica
Usage of big data for material
Data takes up a big part in an investigative report. Because facts are the essential basis in order for a deep investigation to be conducted, reporters must be able to analyze and extract data from a big chunk.
Collins of ProPublica said, “When reporters discover the pattern of information flow, they can select facts that can support their argument.” She also added, “Most articles on ProPublica use statistics collected from analyzing big data.” She also mentioned that when Charles Ornstein reported on the medical insurance issue, data was especially importance. It was because statistics on the doctor’s income revealed the flow of money. ProPublica also provides a guideline to tackle big data and inform journalists how to compare the data collected from the ones publicly provided by governments and other institutions. They also provide such methods to public in order to help out single subject newsrooms.
Provides easy-to-read articles with graphics and audio
Investigative journalism covers many areas of society that are specialized. Also, there are vast amount of information to analyze. ‘Wall Street Money Machine,’ for instance, was also published in a book to provide all the information they reported on. ProPublica transfers such information into graphics and infographic. They also produce articles in an interactive news form. In addition, there are many charts that arrange information for readers to read conveniently. David Sleight who is in charge of graphics said, “We spend much time researching and studying ways for readers to have a better reading experience.” ProPublica also operates a technical department called ‘Nerd Cube’ where multimedia elements of articles are taken care of. This department can also be referred to as the core of ProPublica.
In-time communication with SNS
ProPublica actively receives readers’ opinions and sources. The social media team double checks the facts by reaching out to the information source directly. As the ‘Innovation Report’ of The New York Times pointed out, ProPublica is also putting much emphasis on SNS. They do not simply receive information, but maintain the relationship in a long-term by endlessly communicating with them online. Collins said, “It is important that we keep our readers royal to our paper by continuously making contacts with them.”
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