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So What Do You Do, Paul Steiger, Editor-in-Chief, ProPublica?

With the launch of investigative reporting unit ProPublica around the corner, we talk with its editor, Paul Steiger

By David S. Hirschman - February 13, 2008
On the 23rd floor of a relatively nondescript office building on in lower Manhattan, the ProPublica office is almost totally empty. The spacious newsroom has rows of cubes at the ready, and will soon be the home of what could be the largest investigative reporting team in the country, but for the moment the team consists of just six. Former Wall Street Journal editor Paul Steiger's office is in one of the corners, with views stretching down Broadway, and baseball photos on the wall.

ProPublica is Steiger's brainchild, and was hatched over the course of the past two years. A nonprofit backed by billionaire former GoldenWest owners Herb and Marion Sandler, ProPublica was conceived as an organization that could do the kind of "deep-dive" investigative reporting that so many newsrooms around the country are no longer able to afford. Armed with a $10 million-per-year budget, Steiger will soon employ an investigative team of 24 journalists to dig up stories of abuse of power and corruption in the highest echelons of business, government, and society.

These stories will be published on the ProPublica Web site, but, in an unconventional twist, many will be syndicated -- free of charge -- to newspapers and other outlets around the country where the organization thinks they can have the most impact.

Having weeded through an unexpectedly high number of applications (850) from journalists around the country over the past few months, Steiger is now revving up ProPublica's engine and seeing where the project can go. In December, the organization named Portland Oregonian managing editor Steve Engelberg as managing editor for the organization, and earlier this week Steiger appointed a 12-person journalism advisory board that includes such notable figures as Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro, New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson, and Boston Globe editor Martin Baron. caught up with him last week to discuss his career path, and what he expects from ProPublica.

Name: Paul Steiger
Position: Editor-in-chief of ProPublica
Resume: Yale University for undergrad. Reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times from 1966 to 1983. Various editing jobs at the Journal culminating in a managing editor appointment in 1991.
Date of birth: August 15th, 1942
Hometown: Born in the Bronx, grew up in Stamford, Conn. and Princeton, N.J.
First job: Wall Street Journal reporter based in San Francisco
First section of the Sunday Times: Front page, followed by Sports, and Sunday Styles
Marital Status: Married
Favorite television show: "In terms of what I watch, it's sports, but my favorite primetime show is Without a Trace. I watch 60 Minutes, but if the football game is running long I'll stay with football."
Guilty pleasure: Chocolate
Last book read: Trillion Dollar Meltdown by Charles Morris. "It's an absolutely excellent narrative of the horror that we have in the credit markets right now. It's a wonderful explanation of how it happened and why it's so rotten, and why it will take a long time to unwind."

Tell me a little about how you got started in journalism.
I was an economics major in college, but at that time I hadn't ever read the Wall Street Journal. Still, when I was looking for a job in San Francisco, I sent them some clips, and, in those days life was much easier -- they said, "If you can get yourself out here, you've got a job." ... It was very exciting. I got to do things like cover California politics. A guy named Ronald Reagan was that year elected governor, and I wrote a number of front-page stories suggesting he would never amount to anything in politics. I've tried to destroy all of the microfilm copes of those stories, but I haven't been able to track them all down [laughs]. But in the process I also found that I liked business news. There was drama, personality, action, and it was meaningful to people's lives.

After two and a half years, the L.A. Times came along, and they made an offer I couldn't refuse -- a 50 percent increase in salary, to $13,000 a year -- and so I spent the next fifteen years at the L.A. Times and loved it, doing a wide range of business stories, as well as investigative [and explanatory] stuff.

Do you go still read the Journal cover-to-cover, now that you're no longer editing every day?
It's very different than it was just a few months ago. In the past, with the Journal, I would turn every page. But there's too much in any big newspaper to read every word, and a lot of it I had read the night before, but I would turn every page. And I would turn every page in The New York Times business section. I don't do either of those things anymore, even though I am a close reader of them both, as well as the Washington Post on weekends.

Explain a little bit about the genesis of ProPublica
In the late spring and early summer of 2006, Herb and Marion Sandler sold GoldenWest financial to Wachovia for $24.2 billion, of which they got something like $2.5 billion. They had decided that they wanted to devote the next stage of their lives to giving this money away in an effective manner.

I had known them for many years. ... They weren't really close friends, but they were people I respected as sources and we would go out to dinner maybe once a year. But in the fall of 2006, they called me and told me they were thinking of giving $10 million a year to support investigative journalism, and they asked for my advice on how to spend it. So I thought about it and talked to them again at the beginning of 2007, when I laid out the rough outlines of what became ProPublica. They liked the idea a lot, and while they didn't offer me anything, they asked if I would be interested in running it.

This was before Rupert came along with his offer. I didn't have a successor yet. Under mandatory retirement rules at Dow Jones, I had to leave by the end of the year. I told the Sandlers that, in any case, the earliest I could start would be January of 2008, so we agreed to talk some more.

[In looking forward to my retirement] I had the notion of running public boards, some deanships of journalism schools came up, and in one case, an opportunity as the president of a university. But the more I thought about it, and the more I talked to the Sandlers, the more excited I got about [the idea of running ProPublica] and so in late August we decided to do it.

Why was there the need for an investigative journalism operation like this?
Irrespective of [need], I felt there was the opportunity to do good work and have impact. With $10 million a year, you can do a lot of investigative journalism. But the more we thought about it, the more it was also clear that we would be operating in an environment where this was precisely the kind of journalism -- one of two categories, along with foreign coverage -- most hurt by the destruction of the business models of, in particular, big metro newspapers.

What we have now is a mixture of plenty on the one hand and famine on the other. The plenty is that because of the Web, you can get all kinds of news that interests you instantly. ... The Web is also good at surfacing very quickly significant single facts -- like the documents in the Dan Rather situation. But what is going missing is the kind of expensive journalism that made sense when metro newspapers had a local monopoly -- this is not true throughout history, but it began in the early 60s and continued until recently when the rise of the Web blew it up.

Without that monopoly, all of a sudden, your revenue stream stops growing, and now they're starting to turn down, so you've got to cut costs. If you're the L.A. Times, and the person who covers the Dodgers gets hit by a car or retires, you've got to replace them. Same with the person who covers city hall. But if one of your six project reporters leaves and you're being squeezed to cut your budget, you say no, or you delay for six months or 18 months replacing that person. Or never. Or your overseas reporters, and so those are the two areas that are getting starved. And I think the starvation will continue. It's not as though they've found the bottom yet. [Newspapers] will find the bottom ultimately -- they're not going out of business. But they're still cutting back.

So there is an opportunity and a gap here. I'm not saying philanthropy is the only answer but it is one answer to that gap.

How will the syndication of your stories work?
Our basic connect with the public is going to be through the Web. We're going to have a blog that we'll update at least once a day and hopefully more often where we will aggregate investigative reporting from everywhere. It will be the default publication spot for our own stuff. And then we'll provide it as well, free of charge, our deep-dive stuff to those platforms that we think will give it it's greatest visibility. We will give them an exclusive if they're a daily or a weekly of a day or two. With the idea that their having the exclusive on it will be a tool that allows them to increase circulation and put advertising against it, and we don't care, because we don't have to get revenue against it.

Can they edit your stories?
We'll work with them both on editing and legal vetting, and we would have sign off on the editing, because we don't want a story taken where we don't want it to go, but they may have an idea for a whole new avenue of reporting, and if we think that makes sense, we'll encourage them to pursue it, or pursue it ourselves.

We figure we can spend two-thirds of our budget on newsgathering.

What is your timeline on hiring and your expectation for this year?
We're now starting to make offers to people, and I hope to have, by the end of [February], essentially all of the hiring done. I hope by March to have a critical mass here, and the critical task will them be getting the Web site designed and up and running. My goal is to do that by the end of April. And so in the spring you'll start to see stuff from us. The first deep-dive stuff, who knows when that will start coming out? That stuff you can't force.

What are the key areas you'll be covering?
We'll try to have a beat system, and the areas we're mainly looking at are abuse of power, violation of trust, and threats to the public well-being. And where is most of the power? It's government and business. But we will also look at unions, and a doctors and hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. We'll look at lawyers and courts, we'll look at universities and school systems. At non-profits. Anyplace where there's power.

Why not just create a publication of your own as well?
It's very expensive to publish daily in print. I would say we could do our own monthly magazine or something like that, but the Web is so flexible and fast and cheap. Why lash ourselves to a more expensive technology. At a big paper, if you look at the total budget -- newsprint, delivery, ad sales people, management -- news costs represent 15 percent of that. Whereas we figure we can spend two-thirds of our budget on newsgathering. It just makes much more sense.

Do you have any plans to incorporate "crowdsourcing" and citizen journalism into ProPublica?
I don't have any current plans to do that, but there may be some opportunities. What we're about is finding stuff ourselves and communicating it through the channels that are available. And if we think the most efficient was to get something is to use crowdsourcing, then hey, fine.

I'm really just focused on getting us producing the kind of flow of journalism that makes a difference. That I know is possible with the kind of money that the Sandlers are making available. We want to be making a difference, that's really the ultimate goal. With 25 journalists, we're going to be the biggest investigative reporting team that I know of. I want us to be seen as a force for the public good, and to be a source of stuff that is interesting and that people feel is important, something that people want to read and need to read and connect to.

David S. Hirschman is's Newsfeed editor.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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