ProPublica GM: ‘Investigative Reporting is Something of a Luxury’

Since ProPublica started giving major news outlets free stories last June, general manager Richard Tofel said it has proven itself but can’t and won’t “save investigative reporting in this country.”

At the .hmmessage P { margin:0px; padding:0px } body.hmmessage { font-size: 10pt; font-family:Verdana } Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Wednesday, Tofel, former assistant managing editor and assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal, reiterated the foundation-funded non-profit organization’s mission: to produce stories with “moral force” that will “change the world in little ways.”

With just 30 staffers, Tofel said ProPublica couldn’t fill the in-depth reporting gap created by newsroom cutbacks across the country. He said his organization doesn’t aim to compete with traditional investigative reporting, and doesn’t fear that cash-starved news organizations will “dump” such projects on it. He said, “Investigative reporting is something of a luxury” in these tough economic times, but “at most we’d give five to 10 stories a year” to any one outlet.

Has ProPublica achieved its lofty goal? “It’s hard to prove in a mathematical way,” Tofel said, but “we’ve proven we can do” major, important work. As an example, he noted that its story earlier this month on medical care for U.S. contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, published by the Los Angeles Times and broadcast by ABC News, has triggered a call for a congressional investigation.

For its Web site, ProPublica has hired bloggers from Slate and Talking Points Memo to do three to six short stories a day. Tofel said its ChangeTracker, which details alterations to White House Web sites and its new “bailout blog,” which details how billions are distributed, produce some interesting story ideas for other outlets to pursue.

Tofel said the organization’s next big task is to come up with a sustainable revenue model. He says some kinds of journalism “are revealing themselves to be public goods and need to be funded as such — investigative reporting is one of them.” He suggested that financial support for cultural institutions, like symphony orchestras or art museums, might prove a model.

But he fears government funding, because “the nature of investigative reporting is to have an adversarial relationship with government.”

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