Is Pro Publica living up to its promise?

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I hope I sounded properly enthusiastic last October writing about Pro Publica, a newsroom of investigative reporters sponsored by a California philanthropy. But I had qualms. "Pro Publica believes it will be the 'largest, best-led and best-funded investigative journalism operation in the United States,'" I wrote. "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 . . . won't have its ear to the streets of Topeka." Pro Publica had announced that it intended to work on stories of national scope, "truly important stories . . . with moral force." This grandiosity suggested that Pro Publica wouldn't be looking where the need was greatest, to the middle markets whose papers were pulling in their investigative horns, thereby giving a pass, I said, to "corruption in the local city hall and assessor's office."

Now Pro Publica's up to a staff of 28 (two Pulitzer winners from the LA Times have just agreed to sign on), and on Monday, Edward Wasserman of the Miami Herald judged it on its first big story. He was properly enthusiastic -- he called Pro Publica a "dazzling new investigative reporting outfit" that had just collaborated with 60 Minutes on a "scathing examination" of al-Hurra" -- the badly managed and little-watched news network the Bush administration set up in Virginia at a cost of $100 million a year to broadcast in Arabic to the Middle East. But Wasserman had qualms. "Why was Pro Publica using its philanthropic funding to, essentially, subsidize the cost of a segment for 60 Minutes, the most financially successful news show in the history of U.S. television? And how could Pro Publica claim to be filling a void when the Washington Post broke its own story on al-Hurra the same day (June 22)? 

Finally, Wasserman suggested the way Pro Publica was spending its $10 million a year from the Sadler Foundation is beside the point. "What's vanishing," he wrote, "is that vast mid-range of solid, investigative sleuthing that used to be integral to the work of the country's better local and regional newspapers -- the stories of judicial corruption, cronyism, crooked zoning, crummy schools, contracting scams. . ."

"Increasingly, nobody's doing those stories," Wasserman went on, "and the next wave of nonprofit funding should go to creating positions in regional newsrooms for reporters who will."

When I called general manager Richard Tofel Monday morning for his reaction to Wasserman's piece, it turned out that he'd already talked to him and responded with a letter to Jim Romenesko's Media News Web site. "Our aim is to provide stories of force and value to readers," Tofel wrote. "For that reason, and to the extent we have a choice of publishing partners for our major stories, we select them with an eye toward maximizing the stories' impact. With this in mind, we were delighted to work with 60 Minutes."

To me Tofel said, "The fact that one of these great and still economically powerful news organizations could do any investigative story, which they could, does not seem to me to prove that they would or will do all possible investigative stories worth doing."  In other words, 60 Minutes might have the wherewithal to do a report on al-Hurra, but  the report happened because Pro Publica advocated for it and did the reporting. If Pro Publica believes in the stories it's breaking, it has no reason to apologize for finding partners who will bring them to the widest possible audiences.

As for the Washington Post, "For us, the fact the Washington Post was on the same story the same week is really a good thing. One reason is that we're not looking to sell advertising or circulation. We're looking to make a difference about al-Hurra. If by the end of the day we're the only ones covering it we're in trouble. If you're going to have impact, other people are going to notice."

In his critique Wasserman said he fears that "structural problems in Pro Publica's organizational model [might] keep it from sparking the transformation U.S. journalism needs." That's a lot to ask of anybody and more than Pro Publica ever promised, but when it was new it did claim to be responding to a moment in history "when new models are necessary to carry forward some of the great work of journalism in the public interest that is such an integral part of self-government, and thus an important bulwark of our democracy." No wonder Wasserman didn't cut Pro Publica any slack. In his letter to Romenesko, Tofel asked for reasonable expectations. "Shoring up the economics of . . . metro papers, or any other news business, is beyond our ability," he said.

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