With Tarbell, a whistleblower is betting on crowdfunded muckraking
Journalism took a beating in 2016.
Donald Trump was elected president, thwarting pollsters and shaking off seemingly endless fact-checking. News organizations continue to lay off journalists as Facebook and Google gobble up the advertising market. And trust in media sunk to an all-time low, helped along by abuse on the campaign trail.
Despite that, a former whistleblower thinks journalism still has the power to make big changes. And he wants help from people who agree with him.
Earlier this week, Wendell Potter launched Tarbell.org, a spartan-looking website with the tagline "reader-funded democracy." Named after crusading journalist Ida Tarbell, who laid bare business dealings at Standard Oil at the turn of the last century, Tarbell is aimed at exposing the connections between big business and politics.
Leading the effort is Potter, a journalist-turned-public relations executive-turned whistleblower-turned journalist. After stints at the (now-defunct) Memphis Press-Scimitar and Scripps-Howard newspapers, Potter went on to spend two decades in the health insurance industry. Then, he experienced a crisis of conscience.
Finding himself surrounded by spin that concealed shady business practices, Potter left his day job and began railing against corruption in op-eds and interviews. He testified before Congress in 2009, recounting how health insurance companies "confuse their customers and dump the sick — all so they can satisfy their Wall Street investors."
Now he's returning to his roots, hoping journalism will can shine a spotlight on the dealings of moneyed elites. Their efforts, he said, have largely been focused on convincing people that government regulations amount to meddling and sowing misgivings among voters.
“Corporations have been very successful, over the years, in teaching people to distrust governments,” Potter said.
Central to Potter's pitch is that, as newspapers have gotten weaker over the past decade, the ranks of reporters with the resources and know-how to grill the rich have been depleted. As a public relations executive, he saw firsthand that business reporting was on the decline and fewer tough questions were being asked.
When he left in 2008, business reporting was "just down to a trickle," he said.
Tarbell, which is slated to launch in earnest next year, has some help from big names in the media industry. His supporters include Bill Buzenberg, the former executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, Tim Griggs, the Innovator in Residence at Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and Sebastian Esser, the editor of Germany's Krautreporter.
He's begun a fundraising campaign and pulled together nearly $100,000, mostly from deep-pocketed donors, he said. But a key part of Tarbell's premise is that the journalism will be supported primarily by readers after the seed money has been raised. Potter will launch a crowdfunding campaign in the spring, and he hopes to have the full site launched in the summer.
"We're getting some money from foundations and individuals at the moment," he said. "We will continue to do that. But the hope and plan is that we will not be dependent on the good graces of foundations as we go forward."
In this regard, Tarbell is modeled after sites like Krautreporter and De Correspondent, which have thus far been able to sustain themselves with crowdfunding in Europe. Crowdfunded journalism has had a tougher time in the United States, however, with sites like Beacon and Spot.us collapsing after promising debuts.
But Potter hopes maintaining engagement with readers will be enough to keep interest — and support — flowing.
"We want to help our readers, our subscribers, engage with our work as it’s being done," Potter said.
Tarbell will also be distinguished by a focus on providing solutions. Ultimately, he said, the goal is to provide a one-two punch: A big problem, then practical steps to fix things.
"We don't want to leave people in despair with hard-hitting reporting that can be revelatory," Potter said. "There are things that can be done with time. It just takes civic engagement."
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Bill Buzenberg. He is the former executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, not its founder.