During Paul Steiger's tenure as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, 16 reporters and editors won Pulitzer Prizes. Now, he heads up ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative newsroom. He spoke with Jaimy Lee about its reporting process and the role readers have in assisting with itPRWeek: What are the big stories that ProPublica will be following in 2010?
Steiger: First of all, healthcare. Whether or not there's a healthcare bill, it's going to be a big issue.
Second is energy and the environment. Pressure mounts each year to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and that lessens the pumping of carbon into the atmosphere. There's a tension because some of the things that improve our energy position - for example, deep drilling for natural gas - raises threats for the water supply. ProPublica has covered this vigorously and will continue to.
Third is the economy. We've made a huge focus of covering the stimulus program and the bailout. We've had a lot of news organizations follow the data and stories we've generated. National security and homeland security are an important focus for us.PRWeek: How do you see business journalism faring through the next year?
Steiger: Business journalism is more crucial than ever, as we found with the great threats to the financial system and to the economy. Business news organizations have faced the same economic pressure that others have. Some of them have had to shrink staff and news holes.
At the same time, there are still a lot of good business journalists. I was encouraged to see that Bloomberg is acquiring BusinessWeek because I don't expect Bloomberg to try to shrink it. This marriage offers an opportunity to enhance the visibility of Bloomberg's own journalism and to make a much more robust BusinessWeek.PRWeek: What about investigative journalism?
Steiger: Investigative journalism, with foreign correspondents, [is] one of the two areas that has suffered disproportionately in the downsizing of news organizations. It's among the most expensive kinds of journalism to do. We hope that ProPublica can play a role in not only keeping the techniques alive, but actually improving on them and finding new ways to dig out information and communicate it.PRWeek: Given the fact that ProPublica is an investigative site, do you find corporate communications departments and PR agencies are hesitant to talk to you and your reporters?
Steiger: I don't expect PR professionals to be totally thrilled when they get a call from our reporters. When I was at The Wall Street Journal and one of my colleagues would call somebody in the PR domain, there was a chance it could be an upside profile.
When you get a call from ProPublica, the odds are very high that you'll get at least some prickly questions. Yeah, we will call. Yeah, the odds are that we will not be working on a story about your CEO's golf game, unless he's funding it with corporate money. However, we will want to hear your side of the story and it's usually in your best interest to tell us.PRWeek: Does reader interaction help develop stories?
Steiger: Amanda Michel is on our staff. She created something called "Off The Bus" for The Huffington Post. She had hundreds of political volunteers who agreed to feed her information through the Web.
One of the things this effort uncovered was when President Obama was still a candidate, he told a group of campaign workers that he thought people who were losing out in the global economy were clinging to things like religion and guns, something I'm sure he regretted saying the instant he did. There weren't any journalists allowed in this area where he was talking. "Off The Bus" published it.
Amanda has pulled together a group of 2,200 volunteers who've agreed to provide us with information that they spot. I'm very hopeful this will lead us to stories that there's no way we would get otherwise.PRWeek: Who are the volunteers?
Steiger: Retired journalists, lawyers, businesspeople, soccer moms - a range of folks who are just interested. They see stuff and want to communicate it.PRWeek: Can the ProPublica model work at a regional level?
Steiger: In the Bay Area, the Center for Investigative Reporting, which has been around 20 years, has refocused itself on California. As the largest state, it's a great laboratory for things to investigate. That's right in the sweet spot of regional coverage. Also, in Austin, TX, there is a new Web-only organization called Texas Tribune, which is focused on coverage of government and politics in Texas.
This is happening. It's not the answer. More than 20,000 journalists have been laid off or bought off in the past year or two. It will take a long time before the reorganization of the way information is gathered and distributed on the Web will make up for the losses.