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Investigative Reporting in the Web Era

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By Paul Steiger, ProPublica.

Cross posted at McKinsey & Company: What Matters

On Sunday, July 12, 2009, the Los Angeles Times published on its front page and on four full inside pages an article headed, Problem nurses stay on job as patients suffer.

Of the many extraordinary things about this story, one stands out: it was written and principally reported by two reporters, Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, who do not work for the Times. They work at ProPublica, a New York-based nonprofit and nonpartisan team of investigative journalists founded in 2008 and funded by philanthropy, including major support from the Sandler Foundation. Just a few years ago, there would have been a very slim chance that a paper of the Times's standing would have devoted so much prime real estate to anything not entirely of its own origination and execution.

How the world has changed! Over the past year, the Times and ProPublica have collaborated on two dozen stories on more than a half dozen subjects, and almost certainly will on more. And how good it has been for the people of California that these two organizations did find a way to work together!

The piece detailed how the state board that licenses nurses was failing horribly to do its job. Specifically, the board was taking an average of 3.5 years--and sometimes as much as six years--to remove the licenses of nurses convicted of stealing drugs from their patients, of beating their patients, or of being in a stupor from drugs or alcohol while their patients faced emergencies. If these nurses were fired from one hospital for such misdeeds, they simply took their licenses down the street to another hospital, often to begin a new cycle of mistreatment and endangerment.

The day after the Times published these revelations, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger fired a majority of the nursing board's members and replaced them with a new slate whom he charged with curing the system. Will they succeed? It's far too early to tell, although the board has been granted subpoena power, has finally begun to set enforcement priorities, and has more than doubled the number of cases it initiates. ProPublica will continue to monitor their progress.

I tell this anecdote not to brag on myself--I'm the editor-in-chief of ProPublica--or even to praise my brilliant colleagues Ornstein and Weber, who are the ones who deserve credit. The point is to show the importance of this kind of work: journalism intended to shine a spotlight on abuse of power and failure to uphold the public interest, and by so doing to give the public the information needed to produce positive change.

We used to be able to count on robust metropolitan dailies to provide a steady flow of this valuable work. Now, while many newspapers continue to do as much of it as they can, the destruction of the business model they once depended on and the resultant shrinkage and even shuttering of newspapers around the country are robbing the American people of an important bulwark of our democracy.

This change, of course, is just one of the many effects of a revolution in the way we get our news and information, caused by the dazzling rise of the Internet. This revolution has transformed the typical large and mid-size metro newspaper from a hugely profitable quasi monopoly turning out a must-have product for vast swaths of society, into an at-best break-even business with the dismal prospect of flattening or shrinking revenues. Newspapers are in the position of producing, at legacy expense, a product that is liked but considered not needed by college graduates over the age of 40--while increasingly ignored by everyone else.

That sounds terrible, and to many of my friends in print journalism, where I spent a 40-year career, it is terrible. Moreover, while the details are different, much is similar at network television news and at the serious magazines.

At the same time, however, it's important to remember that this revolution has also brought many, many positives to society already, with many more likely to come in the future.

The negatives are easy to see.

Newspapers are shrinking staffs and news space. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has gone Web-only, while the Rocky Mountain News has closed altogether. Great old newspapers, like the Philadelphia Inquirer, have been operating in bankruptcy proceedings, as have entire chains, like Tribune. Even the New York Times has been losing money much of the past year and has had to borrow at junk-bond rates from a Mexican industrialist.

Staff cuts have hit two areas particularly hard: investigative reporting and foreign reporting, in part because these are among the most expensive types of coverage. The Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, Newsday and many others have shut their once-proud foreign bureaus entirely. The Washington Post has cut its investigative team roughly in half, and nearly all papers have reduced the amount of time their shrunken reporting staffs can spend digging into possible domains of corruption, because they need to file news stories more often.

In total, between the beginning of 2008 and the middle of 2009, newspapers have bought out or laid off nearly 26,000 journalists. That is the equivalent of more than 20 New York Timeses.

Take what this means in one small place: Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, where I got my first paying job in journalism. A few years ago there were more than 50 reporters covering the Trenton state house. Now, I'm told, there are less than a quarter as many. This means that not only is there corruption that won't be reported, but also that politicians, lobbyists, and others who might have toed the line before will now be tempted to cross it, because nobody will be watching.

Multiply that by 50 states and you have the bad that the Internet revolution has wrought. But there is plenty of good.

The first is speed. Clearly, we are getting much important news faster. The first detailed information about this past summer's brutal crackdown against dissidents in Iran came not from reporters but from ordinary Iranian citizens, who were "tweeting" and e-mailing from the scene of the horror. Reporters were kept away and had to wait to verify the sickening reports.

Then there is access to extraordinarily detailed information across a wide range of subjects, with some often-prosaic but satisfying consequences. I recently was about to embark on an early fall trip that would involve four days in Maine and three in Florida, with no opportunity to stop home in New York and refill my suitcase. I knew it would be hot in Florida and chilly in Maine. But how chilly, and how wet? Extended weather forecasts from both states allowed me to travel without rain gear and with only a light sweater.

My father grew up in Brooklyn. I spent part of the '60s, '70s and '80s in Los Angeles. I'm an obsessive Dodgers fan. I live 3,000 miles away from California, in Manhattan. The Web lets me follow every pitch, every stat, and every injury report no matter where in the Web-enabled world I am, at any time of the day or night. That means not just Missoula or Miami or even Mexico City, but also Warsaw and Beijing. Obsessive, yes, but convenient.

Consider another kind of ubiquity. Last year, a 20-something, self-taught Internet genius named Amanda Michel mobilized hundreds of politically active citizens to supply info for her "Off the Bus" report on the Huffington Post Web site. When Candidate Obama voiced the notion that some folks who were losing out in the global economy were clinging to such things as religion and guns to compensate, Michel's network captured it and we soon all heard about it. Without that network, we might never have known, because reporters weren't invited into the area where Mr. Obama spoke.

Michel now works for ProPublica and has put together a team of more than 2,200 volunteers who will do similar reporting for us. This army permits us, for instance, to track progress on 500 representative federal stimulus projects in real time, even though our own news staff numbers just 32.

The rise of the Web has also produced a torrent of opinion. Some is a mixed blessing--folks riffing in their pajamas about news they wouldn't know about but for the reporting of traditional media, and giving it an often angry, often exaggerated spin to fit their particular vision of the world.

But some is of real value: finding connections that no one else has spotted, or keeping the heat on an important story, as Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, famously did a few years ago with the story about the politically motivated firings of US attorneys.

Given examples like these, some prophets of Web paradise argue that in the future there will be no need not only for newspapers--there will be no need for organizations of trained professional journalists.

They make this argument even when faced with examples of egregious errors propagated on the Web. As my friend Michael Massing noted in a two-part report in the New York Review of Books recently, during last year's political campaign bloggers on the left insisted that Sarah Palin had faked being pregnant to shield her daughter Bristol, supposedly the baby's real mother, while those on the right steadfastly asserted that Mr. Obama had faked his birth certificate and thus his eligibility for the presidency.

What's the harm, the extreme Web advocates ask. Just as Wikipedia gradually gets us to truth, they argue, people with better knowledge will come forward to amend phony posts like these. And if the process of getting to truth needs to be speeded up, technology combined with the efforts of citizen volunteer journalists will provide the answer.

Not so fast.

The process of finding and communicating what we used to call news may no longer require newspapers--at least not as we have known them, as seven-day-a-week, ink-on-paper compendiums of new information on a broad range of subjects. But the process will still require journalism and journalists, to smoke out the most difficult-to-report situations, to test glib assertions against the facts, to probe for the carefully contrived hoax. These are reporting activities that take a great deal of time, money, and skill.

The example of the Ornstein-Weber piece in the Los Angeles Times on how inept the California board was in removing licenses from felonious nurses amply demonstrates the importance of journalism and of journalistic organizations like the Times and ProPublica. Without such people and institutions, there is no way such a report would have emerged on the Web.

It took many painstaking months to assemble the evidence necessary to demonstrate that it was taking the board unconscionable lengths of time to dig into these cases. Scores of people needed to be tracked down and asked if they had any information related to what our reporting had appeared to uncover. Few bloggers have the luxury of such time. Reporters risked being sued for libel or slander if they misidentified any of the miscreant nurses or mischaracterized their behavior. Few bloggers can afford to lose--or even to defend--a $10-million libel case. Databases needed to be built, analyzed, and made Web-friendly. Few bloggers have the quantitative or technical skills to do this.

For decades, newspapers and, to a lesser extent, magazines and television, have provided the reporting, editing, legal guidance, and training necessary for information as crucial as that of the LA Times report to get before the public. Some of those institutions will succeed at morphing into more Web-friendly forms and will carry on their roles as department stores of news. These may include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and network and cable news. Public radio and television are likely to play a larger role, as they increasingly pour efforts into their Web sites and produce text and still photography to go along with audio and video. I suspect they will all be joined by pure Internet creatures perhaps including Talking Points Memo, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Beast.

Carrying the retailing metaphor forward, I think the relative role of boutiques will rise, both for-profit and not-for-profit. Magazines like the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Vanity Fair; ideological standard bearers like the Nation, Mother Jones, the National Review, and the Spectator; Web-based upstarts like Politico; hyperlocal sites like voiceofsandiego.org, MinnPost, and the forthcoming Texas Tribune all have the potential to extend the practice of investigative or "accountability" journalism. It will be years, though, if then, before they will make up for the losses incurred in the last year or two.

At ProPublica, we strive to play a meaningful role in this process. With the largest investigative news staff in the nation, and with established partnerships with a range of national and metropolitan publishers, there are some things we believe we are uniquely positioned to accomplish.

Two more examples may suffice:

Our coverage of the risks to the nation's water supplies from hydraulic fracturing, a promising means of drilling for natural gas, has set off a national debate, now reaching to the halls of Congress. More than 40 exclusive ProPublica stories on hydrofracking have already run in five leading metro newspapers, two major online sites, a national magazine, and on public radio, as well as on our own site, ProPublica.org. That is a range, and a persistence, that traditional news organizations increasingly are unable to match.

At the same time, we can empower other journalists as well. On August 5, 2009, for instance, ProPublica launched its Recovery Tracker, a database enabling anyone to review federal stimulus spending down to the county level. In the four weeks that followed, local reporters around the country dug into the database and produced stories on the impact of the spending in their communities. Such stories, each of them based on original reporting and the use of ProPublica's database, were published by nearly 70 local newspapers and Web sites.

These efforts do not lessen the pain being suffered among journalists today. They do not, by themselves, remove the threat to accountability, and thus to our democracy, posed by the business challenges of the press. But they are a start, and they hold, I believe, real promise.

Paul Steiger is the editor-in-chief of ProPublica, America's largest investigative newsroom.