Celebrating the Power of Publishing Partnerships

How Paul Steiger Helped Spawn Modern Journalistic Collaborations

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

It’s exactly 14 years since I became the first employee of ProPublica, and with less than four weeks left to go as its president, and just two months before I leave its staff, I find myself reflecting about ProPublica’s beginnings. That brings me to the big insight of ProPublica’s founder, my friend Paul Steiger: the power of partnerships in the new world of journalism.

The Center for Investigative Reporting, founded in 1977 by Lowell Bergman and others, had pioneered independent nonprofit investigative reporting. The Center for Public Integrity, launched in 1989 by Chuck Lewis, added the idea of such an organization employing its own reporting staff. But both of these organizations either published through others (ranging from television to book publishers) or offered their work to all comers, in effect syndicating it.

What Steiger realized in 2006 and 2007 was that the advent of consumer broadband was not only beginning to crush legacy publishers (the newspaper business has declined every year since 2005), it also made possible new kinds of distribution. A nonprofit news organization, he posited, could not only publish directly through its own website, it could have real impact, even from its earliest days, by offering stories exclusively to leading news organizations to publish them simultaneously, in partnership. The key word in that sentence is exclusively: The idea was to move beyond syndication, and was premised on the insight that one story on page one garners more attention—and thus yields more impact—than 10 stories on page 10.

We decided to give the news of ProPublica’s creation exclusively to the New York Times, and they published a very nice piece on October 15, 2007. It’s worth a read, I think, even if it doesn’t have the same nostalgic value for you as it does for me. Some highlights:

Nothing quite like it has been attempted, and despite having a lot going for it, Pro Publica will be something of an experiment, inventing its practices by trial and error. It remains to be seen how well it can attract talent and win the cooperation of the mainstream media.

and

Newspapers routinely publish articles from wire services, and many of them also subscribe to the major papers’ news services and reprint their articles. But except for fairly routine news wire service articles, the largest newspapers have generally been reluctant to use reporting from other organizations.

And my favorite part:

Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, said The Times would be open to using work from an outside source, “assuming we were confident of its quality,” but that “we’ll always have a preference for work we can vouch for ourselves.”

What happened next

The Times became ProPublica’s nineteenth publishing partner for a story[1] in December 2008, six months after we began publishing. It followed 60 Minutes, the Albany Times-Union, WNYC, the New York Sun, Newsweek, the Huffington Post, Salon, MSN, Politico, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Los Angeles Times, Flyp, BusinessWeek, the Denver Post, the Newark Star-Ledger, USA Today, Slate and Reader’s Digest. Almost all of these stories were the work of ProPublica reporters, offered in exclusive publishing partnership. All made the partner’s offering stronger and achieved much greater reach than ProPublica could then have obtained on its own.

Steiger, who served as editor-in-chief and president of ProPublica for five years before retiring from active management at the end of 2012, was clearly on to something.

Less than two years after Keller’s skeptical quote, ProPublica and the Times Magazine published ProPublica reporter Sheri Fink’s piece reconstructing the devastating events—including euthanasia-- at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, the story was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, and I got the news of the prize in a generous call from Keller.

By 2016, I was able to reciprocate, informing Bill, at a conference we were both attending in Texas, that the Marshall Project, which he had joined as founding editor, and ProPublica would be sharing a Pulitzer for T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong’s An Unbelievable Story of Rape.

The following year, ProPublica and the New York Daily News partnered to win the Pulitzer gold medal for public service for articles on abuses by the New York Police Department. Since that time, the Anchorage Daily News has been awarded the same prize for a series they and we published on sexual violence through ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. To date, ProPublica has had more than 230 different publishing partners; we had 80 last year, and almost 50 already this year.

Nor are reporting partnerships by any means limited to ProPublica. The Marshall Project won its second Pulitzer in June for a series on police dog maulings reported and published with AL.com from Alabama, IndyStar from Indiana and Chicago’s Invisible Institute.

Like all great ideas, I’m sure someone would have eventually figured out the power of news partnerships had Paul Steiger not seized on it in 2007. But he was the one who did, and it has been one of the great privileges of my life to see them flourish over the last 13 years. This coming Sunday is Paul’s 79th birthday. Please join me in wishing him well, and thanking him for leading the way.

Second Rough Draft will be taking a break next week, and should be back in subscribers’ inboxes on August 26.

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[1] The Times ran a ProPublica graphic in September 2008. If you count this, they were ProPublica’s seventh publishing partner.