Inside investigative journalism with ProPublica managing editor Robin Fields

ProPublica made headlines last December with its high-profile "An Unbelievable Story of Rape" collaboration with The Marshall Project. Sean Czarnecki talks investigative journalism with the nonprofit's managing editor Robin Fields

Robin Fields

Managing editor



How different is ProPublica from a traditional newsroom?
Anyone would recognize the basic infrastructure. One thing different from my days at the LA Times is that this is much smaller and intimate.

All parts of our operation are involved early—the data, design, social teams are already engaged. It’s more of a hive than an assembly line. We do far fewer stories, so we focus resources on each story to a greater degree.

What’s changed since your 2013 story "Celebrating Five Years at ProPublica"?
We’ve taken on more stories and projects and increased our work without losing creativity and focus. We try new ways to tell stories and find ways to connect with readers, listeners, and viewers. And stories have had an increasing amount of impact, which is our top mission.

"An Unbelievable Story of Rape" won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. How did this come about?
We’d been doing a series on how law enforcement investigates serial rape, starting with former NFL player Darren Sharper’s case. It turned out most flaws in that investigation were intrinsic to law enforcement’s approach to serial rape cases, especially when they cross jurisdictional lines.

Then we examined how resources weren’t properly being used and found our way to the heart of "An Unbelievable Story of Rape." Our reporter, T. Christian Miller, began developing the Colorado portion of the story. Then, as he turned to the case in Washington State of Marie, the woman at the center of the story, he heard the words that chill every reporter’s heart – "another reporter is already working on this story."

But the reporter was The Marshall Project’s Ken Armstrong, who [Miller] knew and long respected. He said: "We should collaborate to put together the two halves of the story so we’ll have the version that will serve the material to the greatest possible degree." The result is "An Unbelievable Story of Rape."

How well is the media fulfilling its obligation in the public conversation around sexual assault?
It runs through many lines of coverage, whether it’s the military, campus life, or law enforcement. It never goes away. My approach is similar to any story, which is to come in as free of assumption as you can. When you’re doing journalism, you have to confirm, confirm, confirm — you can’t assume.

What does the partnership between The Marshall Project and ProPublica and stories such as the Panama Papers say about investigative journalism?
ProPublica was built on collaboration. We often partner with other news organizations on stories, particularly our biggest ones, to make sure they have as much impact as they can.

Sometimes our partnership takes the form of "An Unbelievable Story of Rape," where our editors and reporters work side by side with theirs. Other times we create a news application database we write stories out of, which other news organizations can also use.

The more this becomes a normal part of journalistic practice, the more new organizations embrace it and see the advantages. It’s not for everything and everyone. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to go about this.

What does collaboration add to the process?
When it comes to something like the Panama Papers, all news organizations see something different and relevant for them and their audience. You get a much richer and more varied set of work than one org could possibly produce.

Selling ads against page views is less significant for our nonprofit business model. We don’t have to work against our own interests in that it doesn’t matter who gets the page views as long as people read the story and it makes a difference. If you’re operating as a business, the variables are different.

With such a proliferation of nonprofits and rising distrust, how do readers know they can trust ProPublica?
Firstly, they should check us out and read everything about our operation. You have to prove your independence every day with every story. It isn’t as simple as a checklist. The only way for people to persuade themselves is to test it.

How does ProPublica brand itself and what does your communications team look like?
We are a nonprofit investigative journalism newsroom that works in the public interest. We do take advertising on our site, although there’s very little of it.

Our director of marketing Cynthia Gordy organizes events where our reporters speak about their work. And director of PR Minhee Cho handles our interaction with other press outlets. When we have stories of interest, we try to make sure the media is aware of them.

The last name of Minhee Cho was spelled incorrectly in the original post. The spelling has been corrected.

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