Editor’s note: We have to conduct two Q and As with media startups and publish them on our blogs. I got in touch with ProPublica, and luckily their Communications Manager, Minhee Cho, was kind enough to take the time to answer my long list of questions. If you don’t know ProPublica yet, you need to. They’re “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest”, and they’re awesome. Q and A below – Ms. Cho drops some real knowledge on us all:
1. How does ProPublica’s online platform differentiate it from a traditional print publication? Did the founders conceptualize it in a totally different manner? Did they draw on their experiences from print publications?
The business crisis in publishing is making it increasingly difficult for the companies that control nearly all of our nation’s news organizations to afford – or at least to think they can afford – the sort of intensive and uncertain efforts that produce great investigative journalism. ProPublica’s founders recognized this need and wanted to create a news outlet that would address the growing gap in investigative journalism while also being completely independent and focusing solely on stories with “moral force.”
The fact that ProPublica is an online-only news outlet definitely works in our favor. For one thing, print is expensive. Managing the costs of printing and distributing a traditional newspaper would have made launching ProPublica much more difficult. On top of that, ProPublica stories are mostly deep-dive investigations that are much longer than what a traditional newspaper would run. An online platform is ideal for this type of journalism to thrive.
2. Do you see yourself as a news organization? An elaboration on a news organization?
ProPublica is definitely a news organization. We produce top-notch journalism with the same quality and aggressive reporting you can find at any traditional news outlet. We are led by some of the nation’s top journalists and have won two Pulitzer Prizes in two years, which emphasizes how our cohorts feel the same way.
3. Do you believe you fill a different role than a traditional media organization as we’ve come to know them?
In some ways, yes. Unlike many traditional news outlets, ProPublica isn’t just looking for stories that drive traffic. Our mission is to produce journalism in the public interest, or stories with “moral force” as our key leaders like to say. While a Kim Kardashian piece may bring us more readers than say a piece on the foreclosure crisis or hydraulic fracturing, we recognize the need for these stories to be told and aren’t afraid to pursue them. And luckily, our readers have grown to appreciate the issues we cover.
4. What stylistic and content evolutions has ProPublica undergone since its launch in 2007?
ProPublica is still relatively young but we’ve had a few website redesigns since we first starting publishing stories in 2008. We’ve also increased the volume of stories from our initial launch by mixing in quick, hard-hitting posts to balance out our deep-dive stories and provide fresh content for our readers daily.
In June 2011, we also began a new project called MuckReads where we curate the best accountability stories of the day: http://projects.propublica.org/muckreads/ In line with our mission, we wanted to uphold journalism that has real-world impact and support others that have the same impetus. More details on that ongoing project here: http://www.propublica.org/article/introducing-muckreads-a-new-way-to-share-the-best-accountability-reporting
5. Investigative reporting is inherently risky: both time and labor intensive. What’s your secret to success?
ProPublica is led by some of the nation’s most distinguished editors and journalists who are devoted to the art of investigative journalism. Their skills, experience and drive to produce stories that serve the public have led to much of ProPublica’s success.
6. How sustainable is the non-profit model for your organization? Would you recommend it for other news organizations/platforms?
ProPublica is very fortunate to have donors that support our work wholeheartedly and recognize the ever-growing importance of investigative journalism. I have no doubt that the nonprofit model is sustainable for ProPublica in the years to come, especially with our Vice President of Development, Debby Goldberg, at the helm.
As our annual report states, we’ve doubled our number of donors from 2010 to 2011, and last year we also received more than half of our funding from supporters outside the Sandlers – demonstrating that we are on right path.
ProPublica’s General Manager, Dick Tofel, has also facilitated many new and exciting means of additional funding for ProPublica, including a partnership with SurveyMonkey Contribute (https://contribute.surveymonkey.com/charity/propublica), Amazon Kindle Singles (http://www.propublica.org/kindlesingles), Open Road (http://www.mediabistro.com/ebooknewser/open-road-teams-with-propublica_b19827), as well as advertisements on our site (http://www.propublica.org/article/why-were-publishing-advertising-and-where-we-stand-on-funding).
7. Who tend to be your biggest donors grant-making organizations or individual supporters? In your experience, what is the relationship between one-time donors and repeat supporters?
Our largest supporters tend to be foundations, which include the Sandler Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, among several others. To the best of my knowledge, we also have many significant contributions from individuals but ProPublica is still relatively new (we’re just approaching our fourth anniversary) so it’s hard to say what drives a one-time donor compared to a regular supporter. My best guess is that one-time donors are those who love a particular story or series and that repeat supporters are those that love ProPublica and want to support our overall mission rather than any specific topic we’re investigating.
8. Has your funding model changed since inception?
ProPublica’s funding model has evolved since our inception but the change was something we always had in mind. When we first began, ProPublica relied on the Sandler Foundation for nearly all of its operating budget. Over the years, however, our funding has become more and more varied. We had only about 100 donors in 2009 but grew to 1,300 in 2010 and then 2,600 in 2011. In fact, in 2011, more than half of our funding came from donors outside the Sandlers.
9. Do you foresee any upcoming changes or challenges with your current model?
Nothing in particular that I can think of but I don’t work in development so it’s hard to say.
10. Does the company have a social media strategy? How does it fit into ProPublica’s overall mission? Does social media play a significant role in capturing readers?
Social media plays a huge role in ProPublica’s overall outreach strategy. We’ve recently hired a full-time social media editor and social media producer who monitor our accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. and engage with readers and relevant communities. They also drive ProPublica’s crowd-sourcing efforts, much of which is used for our reporting, and are always innovating new ways to create the most impact while upholding our mission of creating journalism in the public interest.
As our annual report mentions, our Twitter account has grew by nearly five-fold to the point that if ProPublica were a daily newspaper, we’d have the eighth-largest following in the country. Our Tumblr was also recently highlighted by TIME Magazine as one of its top 30 must-see Tumblr blogs: http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/01/30/30-must-see-tumblr-blogs/. All this has definitely helped us spread our reach and remain at the forefront of online journalism and innovation.
11. Could you please elaborate on the relationship between ProPublica and its online community? What sort of responses do you get from your readers? Does community response influence new topics or deeper coverage?
We constantly get comments and suggestions for new stories. While ProPublica can’t pursue everything that comes our way, we do engage with our online community and take their responses seriously.
One case that comes to mind is our recent investigation into redistricting issues in California: http://www.propublica.org/article/how-democrats-fooled-californias-redistricting-commission. Our reporter Olga Pierce and news applications developer Jeff Larson received a lot of criticism, particularly from the California Democrats that the story highlighted (go figure): http://www.propublica.org/article/how-democrats-fooled-californias-redistricting-commission. This led our redistricting team to write a separate post shortly afterward addressing the many questions our readers had: http://www.propublica.org/article/answering-your-questions-on-our-california-redistricting-story/
12. What sorts of trends are you encountering in the field of journalism? Is ProPublica quick to adopt new models early; what are some issues you consider before making bold changes to your style of reporting?
ProPublica is definitely an early-adopter, much of that credited to the superior journalists and editors who are on top of trends. However, we do carefully approach decisions to try new models, making sure they fall in line with generating stories with impact, and not just more noise.
13. How does ProPublica view citizen journalism?
Citizen journalism has played an important role in ProPublica’s reporting efforts. We launched our reporting network back in May 2009 with the goal of organizing readers and guiding them to “commit acts of journalism” http://www.propublica.org/article/introducing-the-propublica-reporting-network-520 This was specifically focused on the stimulus when it launched, but we’ve more recently used crowdsourcing to drive our series on foreclosures and mortgage modifications: http://www.propublica.org/article/struggling-homeowners-tell-us-your-story-515 More on that project here: http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlny/propublica-demonstrates-the-benefits-of-crowdsourcing_b13394