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The Post and ProPublica

By Andy Alexander

Post readers saw a new byline attached to an investigative piece played prominently today.

The story was co-authored by Post banking writer Binyamin Appelbaum and Paul Kiel, a reporter for an independent, nonprofit journalism organization called ProPublica. It was classic investigative journalism, raising questions about whether Hawaii Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s staff had improperly asked federal regulators to check on the bailout application of a home-state bank that holds the bulk of his personal wealth.

It’s the third collaboration this year between The Post and New York-based ProPublica. Another is in the works.

On Monday, Post reporter Brady Dennis teamed with ProPublica’s Jeff Gerth, a Pultizer winner, to reveal how General Electric, the world’s largest industrial company, managed to become the biggest beneficiary of a federal rescue program for banks.

In April, Gerth and Post reporter Robert O’Harrow Jr., wrote a lengthy story looking at Timothy Geithner’s role in bank regulation before he became Treasury secretary.

The partnerships are good for The Post because they offer quality reporting free of charge at a time when resources are being stretched and the paper is losing money.

They’re good for ProPublica, giving exposure to its work and fulfilling its goal of producing investigative journalism.

And they’re especially good for Post readers, who crave solid watchdog reporting. Readership surveys consistently show that readers want more so-called “accountability journalism.”

ProPublica is the best-known of a small number of nonprofit news organizations to emerge at a time when newspapers are struggling for survival. Funded primarily through a multi-year commitment from the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, ProPublica began operations in early 2008 with a projected $10 million annual budget. It hired more than 30 journalists, including some of the best reporting and editing talent in the business, and is headed by former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is chaired by Steiger.)

The chief benefactors, Herbert and Marion Sandler, made a fortune running California-based Golden West Financial Corporation, a savings and loan company that merged with Wachovia several years ago. They have contributed heavily to Democratic candidates and left-leaning advocacy groups. Herbert Sandler chairs ProPublica's governing board, but Steiger has said the Sandlers gave assurances of independence and that they do not know in advance what stories are being pursued.

Jeff Leen, who heads The Post’s investigative reporting unit, said of ProPublica: “They bring us ideas and we choose from their menu.”

The collaboration is about 50-50 between Post and ProPublica reporters. The two sides work as a team, but in the end the story goes through The Post’s editing process and is scrutinized by the newspaper’s in-house libel counsel. When it is published, it also appears on proPublic’s Web site.

In a sense, Leen said, The Post serves as a “distribution channel” for stories that might originate with ProPublica.

Despite cutbacks at The Post, Leen said management remains fully committed to an investigative unit. Currently, he oversees a team of ten reporters who have six major projects in the pipeline.

Collaboration is not new to The Post. It has teamed on numerous investigative projects with CBS’ “60 Minutes” and NBC’s “Dateline.”

By Andy Alexander  | July 1, 2009; 3:58 PM ET
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Next: The Post's 'Salon' Plan: A Public Relations Disaster


An encouraging sign that the Post despite all its failures, still is somewhat committed to investigative journalism. However, the "About Us" page of ProPublica gives food for thought:

"Investigative journalism is at risk. Many news organizations have increasingly come to see it as a luxury. Today’s investigative reporters lack resources: Time and budget constraints are curbing the ability of journalists not specifically designated “investigative” to do this kind of reporting in addition to their regular beats. This is therefore a moment when new models are necessary to carry forward some of the great work of journalism in the public interest that is such an integral part of self-government, and thus an important bulwark of our democracy."

Well, maybe WaPo's future is also as a nonprofit? Nobody can deny that the newspaper business simply isn't able to reach the profit margins that investors demand nowadays. It sure would be great if a rich benefactor would buy the Post (it can't be too expensive now) and converted it to such a nonprofit organisation. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, George Soros - where are you when journalism needs you?

Posted by: Gray62 | July 2, 2009 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Here's a scandal that needs to be investigated:

For $25,000 to $250,000, The Washington Post is offering lobbyists and association executives off-the-record, nonconfrontational access to "those powerful few" — Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and the paper’s own reporters and editors.

Posted by: tresangelas | July 2, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Ombudsman! Whats going on here?

"Washington Post sells access, $25,000+"

I have $25,000 and would like some face time with Dan Froomkin. Any chance you could set this up?

Posted by: oncebitten | July 2, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

I don't read the Washington Post anymore given the disregard for its readers, so aptly demonstrated in the Froomkin fiasco. I thought it couldn't get worse than that, but then I read this: Can you perhaps see if the Post honchos care to comment on this? Egads.

Posted by: dijamo | July 2, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Yep, another day of spiking the Froomkin follow up by the Ombudsman, and a rah-rah story about how the Post is cutting investigative journalism costs with some org, and being scooped by the Politico about a further prostitutioin of journalistic ethics by Hyatt and the clowns.

Posted by: janowicki | July 2, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

No, not a follow up.

Do you not see the obscenity of a paper, hiding behind the first amendment, claiming to be some bastion of journalism selling "Salons" to the well heeled? And how is this not the very stereotype of the "cocktail party" circuit bloggers, Colbert/Stewart, and media critics like Froomkin have called you chuckleheads out for?

And can you possibly misss the irony of canning someone who called you out on it, while you raise the salary you saved by canning him through one chummy WP sponsored cocktail party?

If you are actually an Ombudsman, or have any sense of journalism and journalistic ethics you'll drop these silly "here's how swell we are" trivial blog posts you've been doing all week _and get to the bottom of these two stories_.

Otherwise, this paper deserves to die.

Posted by: janowicki | July 2, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Man, if only I had $25,000 or so...maybe I could get some answers from the Post.

Posted by: EdTheRed | July 2, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Editorial and Op-ed pages?
Filled with the work s of the biggest, and most dishonest fools in America, wrong on almost everything for a decade.

Features such as Style section and the Sunday magazine?
Pathetic whining of materialistic yuppies fills its pages.

Still pushing the work of suave hacks like Ceci Connolly, Kit Seeley, and Dana Milbank?

Whoring access to its reporters and other "insiders"?

The ghost of Katherine Graham is vomiting behind her mausoleum.

Posted by: labradog | July 2, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

The "salon" story is beyond disappointing. An amazing thing is how cheaply the Post is selling out its journalistic integrity, only $25,000 a pop. It's hard to see how publicly pimping out the Post's reporting and editorial staff furthers the journalistic mission of the Post. Pathetic.

Posted by: 4sl5t | July 2, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

" 'An evening with the right people can alter the debate,' says the one-page [Washington Post] flier."

And....the morning after the night before?

"All the news fit to filter" can become the new Washington Post masthead.

How very, very sad.

Posted by: egb3 | July 2, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

And where is the Ombudsman?!

Mr. Alexander, the lease you can do is enter comment here informing us you are looking into this. Or are you too busy preparing a post on how wonderful the Post is on another trivial subject?

Posted by: janowicki | July 2, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

This is the very same sort of "pay to play" insider game the Post is constantly (CONSTANTLY) attacking others for. Hypocritical, dishonest, unethical, B.S.

Would the Post be arranging private meetings between lobbyists and administration insiders if the candidate you didn't endorse had won? Don't think so. There is an OBVIOUS conflict of interest here. The whole thing is highly revealing.

I await the ombudsman's best effort to explain it all away. I know it's coming.

Posted by: tresangelas | July 2, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Here, let me write it for you. I'm psychic this way.

1. Wait to comment for tomorrow, when everyone will be on a federal holiday and readership will be at it's lowest. Maybe July 4.

2. Write "blah, blah". Quote top Post officials that this is run by business, and is firewalled from the news staff. Pretend that's acceptable and denigrate any readers who complain as "partisan". Quote the right wing comments at Politico as example, ignoring the equal disgust from the liberals here.

3. Declare "case closed", and follow up with a Sunday column about some trivial topic and drop this down the memeory hole with Froomkin going forward.

Posted by: janowicki | July 2, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

*crickets chirping*

Posted by: EdTheRed | July 2, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

You just gotta tell us more about putting WaPo access up for sale. This is about as low as a news organization can go.

Posted by: frodot | July 2, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Why did you take my post off about WAPO publisher Phil Graham being the father of Operation Mockingbird in the 1940s? I thought street walkers were thick skinned.

Posted by: PitchforksandTorches | July 2, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

I can't wait to read the latest thriller, "The Froomkin Fiasco". Should be quickly optioned for a big-budget motion picture like "All the President's Men" after winning the Pulitzer Prize. Maybe then we can have quiet from the masses of outraged humanity rioting on the streets of DC.

Posted by: capsfan77 | July 2, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

What I'm wondering is how much did the Washington Post collect from Bush officials in exchange for a promise to bury any calls for accountability for war crimes?

Posted by: pmorlan1 | July 2, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Interesting. And now the Ombudsman's blog about the "Salons" had vanished in a puff of digital ones and zeros.

Posted by: janowicki | July 2, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

"Pretty close to a public relations disaster?" That's wrong on so many levels! First this is a disaster, not just "pretty close" to one. Second, the disaster is the substantive one of selling access to the Post for money, not just a "public relations" disaster. Please don't pull your punches.

Also, I'd like to see you do some actual investigation of this. The publisher, editor, and reporters are all busy people with busy schedules, so this event must have been on their calendars for some time now. All these "I know nothing" Sargent Schulz type excuses ring hollow, and I wish you'd call them on it.

Posted by: swamus | July 2, 2009 6:22 PM | Report abuse

Ethical purity? Of the Post? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
You almost had me there.

Posted by: LarryG62 | July 2, 2009 6:38 PM | Report abuse


(WASHINGTON DC) The Pulitzer Prize Committee cancelled all Wash Po awards for the last 7 years due to the Wash Po cash for splash scandal.

"We had to be as ethical as the NCAA which rescinds cheating team's victories and strips away their National and conference titles," a saddened Official explained.

Posted by: JaxMax | July 2, 2009 8:09 PM | Report abuse

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