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

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010; C01

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.

For now, Steiger remains heavily dependent on Sandler's foundation, a situation that the San Francisco philanthropist calls unhealthy. Sandler and his wife, Marion, are major Democratic donors who have poured money into the liberal Center for American Progress and the American Civil Liberties Union. "I don't know how democracy functions without strong investigative journalism," Sandler says.

In attempting to broaden its financial base, ProPublica raised $1 million last year mainly from foundations, a figure that includes about $200,000 from author Mary Graham, co-director of Harvard's Transparency Policy Project and the ex-wife of Post Co. chief executive Donald Graham.

Marzorati says he would be "wary" of media outfits underwritten by wealthy patrons: "What happens when the rich guys start ordering up stories where they know what they want? The temptation for news organizations will be to get their hands on a big, sexy investigation."

While Sandler is ProPublica's chairman, he says none of the board members knows what the reporters are working on. "We told them from the beginning, investigate everything. . . . If we've done something, go after us," he says. "If anything's off-limits, it's not a legitimate newsroom."

But Sandler is not a fan of all reporting. He complained bitterly about a 2008 story that the New York Times did on him and his wife. The headline was "Once Trusted Mortgage Pioneers, Now Pariahs." When the couple ran World Savings Bank, the Times said, they championed an exotic mortgage later seen as "the Typhoid Mary" of the industry, and Wachovia, which bought the bank, wound up with huge losses. Sandler said he did nothing wrong other than misjudge the housing bubble. The Times has defended its work but ran four corrections to the article.

Clearly, Fink's work would not have been possible without Sandler's backing. She made repeated trips to New Orleans and around the country to examine allegations that doctors and nurses at Memorial Medical Center injected patients with lethal doses of drugs. "It's a very sad, tragic story," says Fink, who recently left ProPublica and moved to Washington to write a book on the subject.

"The newsroom was set up to invest in long-form, deep-dive investigative journalism," she says. "That was a huge luxury."

Anchor and anguish

Katie Couric dealt with death in two very different ways last week.

The CBS News anchor hosted a "Sesame Street" prime-time special on the subject, embracing Elmo and talking to military and other families that have suffered a loss about dealing with their children. Couric's husband, Jay Monahan, died in 1998.

"Having been there -- having a 6- and 2-year-old at the time -- and wishing I had more resources available to me, I thought this was something that could help other families," she says. For herself, "whenever you're talking about loss, it does uncover those feelings that have healed partially. I just felt I was in a position where I'd have complete empathy for these families that were profiled." Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called to thank Couric for making the program after a Pentagon screening.

Couric also aired an "Evening News" piece from Haiti in which she focused on a 13-year-old boy, Pierre, who lost his parents in the earthquake there. On her first trip to Port-au-Prince after the disaster, the teenager was seen screaming while doctors worked on his broken leg, and although he is recovering, the earthquake destroyed his school.

"There are a million stories like Pierre's," Couric says. "Because he made such an impact, not just for me but for viewers, with his piercing cries of anguish, he really captured the pain of an entire country." Colleagues say Couric was so moved she has decided to pay for Pierre's education.

Not every part of her job is depressing. She got to hang with the "slightly eccentric" Al Pacino for a "60 Minutes" profile that aired Sunday. Lately, says Couric, she's been "exercising a lot of muscles."

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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