ProPublica's nonprofit's news gathering pays off for partners

Prize partner: Sheri Fink of ProPublica won a Pulitzer last week.
Prize partner: Sheri Fink of ProPublica won a Pulitzer last week. (Lars Klove/propublica)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010

Sheri Fink had a medical degree, a doctorate and a nose for news, along with a tendency to rush off to disaster zones from Kosovo to Iraq. What she didn't have was a steady paycheck to support her journalism.

Once Fink was hired by the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, she spent a year investigating a New Orleans hospital where 45 patients died during Hurricane Katrina. And last week the New York Times Magazine shared a Pulitzer Prize for running her powerful, 13,000-word piece.

This is a glimpse of an unexpected future: a battered newspaper business, an idealistic start-up with a deep-pocketed liberal backer, and dogged reporters who otherwise might be out of work. If the Times was piggybacking on ProPublica -- which covered about half the $400,000 cost of the investigation -- the paper has plenty of company.

"That's what we're here for," says Paul Steiger, the former Wall Street Journal managing editor who founded ProPublica and makes its stories available to interested outlets. "The goal is not about getting credit. The goal is getting the story before the eyes of the people who can most benefit from it."

Herbert Sandler, a 78-year-old former bank owner who is giving the venture roughly $10 million a year, says his motivation is simple: "I can't stand the abuse of power. I can't stand corruption. I can't stand the powerful taking advantage of those with less power."

Fink, 41, who still lectures at Harvard and Tulane but says she finds reporting more challenging, wants to change what she sees as a dysfunctional medical system. "This may be a vain hope or an idealistic hope," she says, "but I hope that could help prevent some of the horrific experiences that were had in New Orleans."

There was a time when most major journalistic investigations were carried out by newspapers, when revenue was abundant and "I-teams" were all the rage. But with nearly all papers hurt by cutbacks and some in bankruptcy, ambitions have often been downsized. And that has left a vacuum for ventures that don't have to worry about Wall Street expectations.

Two years after setting up shop in lower Manhattan, ProPublica has earned substantial respect and a top-tier list of partners. The nonprofit has done nine stories with The Washington Post, 27 with the Los Angeles Times, eight with USA Today, six with the Chicago Tribune, six others with the New York Times, 13 with Politico and 10 with the Huffington Post. Other partners have included ABC, CNN, CNBC, "60 Minutes," Newsweek, Salon, Slate and PBS's "Frontline."

Gerald Marzorati, editor of the New York Times Magazine, says Fink first pitched the hospital story before she joined ProPublica. "We as a magazine don't have the resources to pursue a story like that," he says. "So we sort of passed."

Once ProPublica got involved, the magazine worked with Fink through nearly a dozen drafts and provided fact-checking, legal reviews and photography. "Our magazine editing machine was engaged in bringing this to publication for a long time," Marzorati says. "It was a real collaboration."

In some cases, Steiger says, ProPublica does all the reporting, and in others has shared the reporting load with the news outlets. More than half the joint efforts with The Post have featured bylines from both organizations, including such Steiger hires as former Post reporter Dafna Linzer and former New York Times correspondent Jeff Gerth.

On Friday, The Post ran a front-page story by two ProPublica reporters on members of Congress holding fundraisers in luxury suites at Bruce Springsteen concerts. Some of ProPublica's work runs only on its Web site, which Steiger hopes to make more prominent so he is less dependent on outside media venues.

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