Emerging Stakeholders with Clout: The Press Power Behind ProPublica

Dec 01, 2010

ProPublica calls itself "an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest." The organization's website touts the importance of focusing on stories with "moral force." The group, based in New York, began publishing in 2008 with an annual program budget of $10 million and a full-time staff of 32 reporters and editors, including such media bigwigs as Paul Steiger, former managing editor, and Richard Tofel, former assistant publisher, both of The Wall Street Journal, and Stephen Engelberg, ex-investigative editor of The New York Times. The group's status as a non-profit separates it from other news organizations, allowing for a focus on mission rather than on cultivating advertisers.

Its impact in a short period has been impressive: It was the first online outlet to win a Pulitzer Prize and is the recipient of numerous other awards for the quality and impact of its work.

ProPublica cites the business crisis in publishing as a factor in the decline of investigative journalism. Management claims that while sources of opinion are proliferating, led by the ease of accessing and communicating ideas on the Internet, sources of facts on which those opinions are based are shrinking. As a result, the thrust of ProPublica's work is accessing databases, often from readily available public and government sources, and then "mining" these to buttress its investigations with "hard evidence." This tends to give the group's work a heft and credibility that is lacking in the mainstream press.

The new outlet covers a range of sectors. Its most recent foray into healthcare and pharmaceuticals was the "Dollars for Docs" report, in which a team of reporters from five major news organizations worked with ProPublica editors to compile thousands of publicly available records to track the financial ties between doctors and drug companies.

ProPublica is also new in acknowledging that its work can carry a point of view, as long as the evidence supports it. As a crusader, it is just as important—if not more so—that what it is writing should be taken up and covered by others. In contrast to the old model where newspapers were competitive rivals to be first behind the "scoop," ProPublica works in collaboration—52 news organizations have contributed to the group's work to date. The way this is done is intriguing. ProPublica employs a Director of Engagement responsible for a network of more than 5,000 "deputized citizens" who serve as sources of ideas or information that inform the work of the journalism teams. In this way, an initial story or report can filter down to the local level, where partnering media organizations produce their own variations based on specific input from the public network.

With technology in the publishing world constantly evolving, a new model like ProPublica's—an independent progressive database that delivers compelling evidence on industry practices and aims to "stimulate positive change"—looks to be the wave of the future. The pharma industry can resist such changes or embrace them. Here are some key points to help shape the response:

» ProPublica has proven to be adept in transforming hard data and complex evidence into a compelling, highly personalized message. Industry in turn has to abandon the mindset in which publishing a detailed study is seen as the end result of engagement. It is a far more important activity to decide how to communicate the findings, and with whom. Can you collaborate with others to build more credibility than is possible to do on your own?

» ProPublica has tapped effectively into a grassroots, networked citizenry interested in using media reporting to drive reform. To counter, pharma must be more aware of how it relates to the public rather than relying on its traditional ties to stakeholder elites. The sophisticated science of policy must be fused to the accessible art of persuasion.

» ProPublica is a mass coordination vehicle designed to maximize exposure to its reporting. In return, pharma has to be ready to address the fact that a "divide and conquer" strategy on the media may be less successful than in the past. It may even backfire if the approach leads to the exposure of inconsistencies in evidence or messaging.