ProPublica, the newest player on the investigative journalism beat, aims to produce “the very special piece,” in the words of Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, who will oversee the operation as editor in chief. To do so, Mr. Steiger will deploy two dozen reporters and editors. He’ll then offer that work as exclusives to news outlets around the country. “We would submit to their vetting process, their editing process, their legal vetting,” Mr. Steiger told Off The Record.
The new venture—first reported by The Times on Oct. 15—is a response to the fact that many newspapers can no longer afford to sink time and resources into painstaking investigative projects. It’s already clear that ProPublica—which will run on an annual budget of $10 million, and is being funded by Herbert and Marion Sandler, the founders of a chain of successful California banks—represents a new model. But Mr. Steiger cautions that—despite the excitement that last week’s Times announcement seems to have sparked among newspaper journalists more used to news of layoffs and cost-cutting than expansion—Pro Publica is not the solution to the crisis of papers nationally. “The issues are way bigger than us. [ProPublica] focuses on one part of the significant journalistic equation.”
ProPublica will recruit talent to Manhattan, Mr. Steiger said, with offices most likely located in the Financial District, a stone’s throw from his former stomping ground at The Journal. According to a blueprint Mr. Steiger has drawn up, half of the investigative reporters will be unseasoned 20-somethings–“nowadays you get really bright people that have had two or three internships and they’re right out of college,” he said—while the other half will consist of more veteran reporters and “two or three big names.”
Mr. Steiger said he’ll use a pay model similar to The Wall Street Journal. “I’m prepared to spend $200,000 on the exact right person, but if the exact right person isn’t there, then I’ll get three people at $60,000,” he said.
Since the news about ProPublica broke last week, 300 résumés have poured into the ProPublica offices, temporarily set up at the law firm Cleary Gottlieb, which will do pro bono work for the organization. Richard Tofel, a former Dow Jones executive, and general manager for ProPublica, told OTR that there’s a résumé from “every leading news organization” in the country.
The first hire, Mr. Steiger said, will be a managing editor. He wouldn’t name any names, but he said he’s in conversations with a few candidates.
Hiring will begin in January, he said.
Investigative pieces are stories that are generally heavily scrutinized, and can often test even the best reporter-editor relationships. What happens when there are disagreements with outside editors? “I’m fully prepared for us to submit to aggressive editing,” said Mr. Steiger. “Obviously if we disagree with the editing, then we have the option of taking it elsewhere, or publishing it on our Web site.”
Not everyone’s excited. Slate media critic Jack Shafer noted last week that the Sandlers have donated money to MoveOn.org, and raised the fear that the new project could take on a similarly partisan spirit.
But Mr. Steiger’s record at The Journal suggests he’s far from being an ideologue. And before he accepted the job as editor-in-chief, he discussed that issue with the Sandlers. “I told them I would not be involved if it’s not nonpartisan down the middle. And they said that’s what they wanted,” he said. “I even gave them a specific hypothetical example and said, ‘What if we did a piece that was devastating to the biggest union supporters of the Democratic Party?’ And they said. ‘No problem.’”