February 19, 2021

Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s first employee and its top business executive since the nonprofit investigative site’s inception in 2007, announced Wednesday that he plans to retire. He will stay on until a replacement is found.

Tofel, who turned 64 this week, is among a group of understated executives who put together the nation’s most potent and influential digital site. Like others, he stayed to see ProPublica through smart expansion — 175 employees expected by mid-year, a $35 million budget, 43,000 donors in 2020. Its journalism deservedly wins prize after prize, year after year — including a share of last year’s Public Service Pulitzer partnering with the Anchorage Daily News.

Tofel is a longtime professional friend and a mensch to the legions of digital-era nonprofits that have followed and now constitute a significant and flourishing journalism sector.

With plenty of achievements to pick from, I would highlight the following as special Tofel-led best practices with wide application.

First, coming out of the gate, ProPublica understood the need to build out business functions such as tech and fundraising. At smaller organizations, eager journalists often are tempted to put all their effort and money into reporters and editors. Wrong — and a formula for faltering in the third or fourth year. Building out the right kind of business-side capacity — even if profit is not the objective — is essential.

Now there are entire support organizations, including the ambitious American Journalism Project, which are all about taking early stage nonprofit ventures down the road to sustainability.

Second, lots of people talk about transparency these days; far fewer actually do it well. ProPublica provides a model here, too. Its site includes a staff list, ethics code, full financial disclosure, and more. All that takes time and hard work — and stands to be overlooked — but newspapers and other for-profits now are seeing the wisdom of doing likewise with a payoff in audience trust.

Tofel came to ProPublica’s startup party after serving in top business roles at The Wall Street Journal, where founding editor-in-chief Paul Steiger (also retired now) had been managing editor.

I queried Tofel by email about his retirement plans. Characteristically, he got back to me in seven minutes with a crisp reply:

I hope to do a number of things: Consulting, likely for publishers or the people who fund them. Have set up an LLC for this purpose, with a basic site here. Perhaps teaching, something I have done before and very much enjoyed. Writing, including this new Substack, of which the second issue is out today.

More detail and praise can be found in ProPublica’s news release.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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