ProPublica’s Richard Tofel ’83 surveys the evolving business model of underwriting investigative journalism in the digital era (video)

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Credit: Lars Klove

There are a number of great cultural institutions – museums, opera houses, even universities like Harvard – that would likely fail to survive in a competitive market without regular donations from philanthropists. So why can’t newspapers work the same way?

Describing himself as a “recovering,” though not yet “recovered,” lawyer, Richard Tofel ’83, president of the Pulitzer Prize-winning non-profit news organization ProPublica, posed the question at a talk he gave at Harvard Law School on April 3, where he explored the challenges facing investigative journalism in the digital age.

The digital revolution is not just disrupting, but is actually destroying, the business models that produced nearly all of the quality journalism in the quarter century after Watergate

Richard Tofel ’83

Tofel warned listeners that the state of the journalism industry today “is not a happy story,” describing a crisis that began 10 years ago after many had hoped that the digital revolution would, rather than toll a death knell for the industry, in fact usher in a golden age for journalists. Instead, Tofel said, newspapers and other traditional media were met with a devastating surprise: “The digital revolution is not just disrupting, but is actually destroying, the business models that produced nearly all of the quality journalism in the quarter century after Watergate,” Tofel said.

This is a particularly acute problem for investigative journalism, Tofel said, because most of the country’s best investigative journalism has been produced by newspapers. Although all areas of traditional reporting have been impacted by the decline in newspaper revenues, investigative reporting is particularly susceptible to budget cuts because it takes a lot of time and is thus expensive to produce, Tofel said. It can be a risky venture for newspaper publishers, who face the certainty that most investigations will not lead to breakthroughs, and that even the stories that do uncover corruption likely will not draw in as many readers as other stories that cost much less to report. Although ProPublica’s reporting had helped spur significant change in various areas, including police reform in New Orleans, new nursing oversight in California, changes in Medicare rules and new systems of identifying and repatriating the bodies of soldiers killed in action, finding the stories that can lead to real change can be “a lot like drilling for oil and finding dry holes,” Tofel said.

One solution, according to Tofel, is organizations like ProPublica, a non-profit entity funded largely by donations. Traditional business models just cannot function anymore, Tofel said, because the numbers don’t add up – online advertising pays too little to support digital publications, and print readership is continuing to fall. Thus, for those who view investigative journalism as a critical check on government, business and other powerful and entrenched interests, Tofel said, such reporting may ultimately be a public good that requires public financing.

Acknowledging that most of the would-be lawyers in the room would spend more of their careers answering questions from the press than actually representing news organizations, Tofel added a word of caution to attorneys for handling difficult questions from journalists. Although it is not a crime to lie to the press – Tofel joked that elected officials do so every day – reporters have “long memories” and will have “a very hard time drawing a line in their heads that you lied for one client but are otherwise a truth-teller.” He also warned the audience not to do the next-worst thing after lying, which is relying on obscure, technical reasons for legal positions when attorneys are really just trying to stonewall the press. A better strategy, Tofel said, would be to just admit to reporters that you cannot or do not want to share certain information.

Giving reporters the run-around, he warned, would just make them dig deeper – which was exactly what happened, Tofel said, to the Red Cross, which told ProPublica reporters that the actions taken by the international charity in response to Hurricane Sandy constituted a series of trade secrets. In response, ProPublica put two full-time reporters on the story and teamed with NPR to launch an investigation that ultimately accused the Red Cross of misleading donors about the use of their contributions, diverting emergency response vehicles for public relations purposes, wasting 30% of its food in the early days after the hurricane, and sending empty trucks around just to be seen. In short, Tofel said: “Don’t lie to reporters.”