10 ProPublica Stories That Sparked Change, One for Every Year It’s Been In Business

As highlighted by the publication's '10 Years of Impact'

Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor in chief, talked to Adweek about how the industry has changed since the organization made its debut.
Animation: Yuliya Kim; Sources: ProPublica

After 10 years in business, ProPublica’s investigative work has brought about real change to communities throughout the nation.

To celebrate their first decade—and kick off their second—the publication rolled out a series entitled “10 Years of Impact.”

Here are 10 stories and the impacts they had:

  1. Cleared the criminal record of Demetrius Smith, who had been wrongly convicted of murder, but retained a felony conviction as part of a plea deal.
  2. Revealed details surrounding a massacre in a small Mexican town, Allende, and that an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had gone awry and triggered the massacre.
  3. Prevented additional women from dying after giving birth after reporting that the U.S. has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world.
  4. Illustrated how much U.S. colleges and universities financially support or burden their poorest students.
  5. Uncovered racial disparities in how police in Jacksonville, Florida enforced jaywalking rules.
  6. Encouraged temp workers to speak out against injustices in the system, including lost wages and high injury rates.
  7. Provided comfort to patients who experienced negative reactions to surgical procedures after exposing a range of errors made in the nation’s health care system.
  8. Allowed a retired coal miner who had cancer to keep his health insurance after a coal company went bankrupt and intended to use the money to pay for legal fees instead.
  9. Uncovered that a man’s cause of death, determined to be “unclassified” after Hurricane Katrina, was actually shot by police and died in custody.
  10. Disclosed the consequences of fracking, leading many to stand up to fight against it. 

Donations to ProPublica significantly increased after the presidential election. The number of smaller gift donors topped 34,000 in 2017, compared to 26,000 in 2016. In 2015 and earlier years, the organization saw fewer than 4,000.

Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor in chief, talked to Adweek about how the industry has changed since the organization made its debut and what it’s like to be conducting hard-hitting journalism in the era of “fake news.”

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: What’s different about the industry now compared to 10 years ago when ProPublica started?
Stephen Engelberg: I felt that we could not partner with major publications to publish pieces that were not written by their staff. I was not persuaded that this was going to work out. Not only has it worked out, we have had more than 200 partners at this point, darn near everybody.

Whether we’re talking NPR, network TV, The Atlantic, we have found that if you can really sort of create original, powerful stories, people are willing to collaborate. Frankly, I think the whole industry has seen much more collaboration over the past few years. I would not have expected we would see the transformation.

ProPublica got a lot of attention recently when it published audio of children who were separated from their parents at the border.
The audio tape was certainly not the most complex topic Ginger Thompson has ever investigated, but wow, I think it was a really important thing to add to the conversation.

How do you weigh pursuing a story with how much attention it might get on the website?
One thing that has stayed very, very constant and has been a north star for us is the focus on impact. It’s not always going to be possible that our coverage changes the conversation, but that is what we’re trying to do. Am I happier when stories are seen by a lot of people? Sure, but a reporter’s success here is certainly not judged on page views.

We did a series of stories back in the very early days that explored environmental issues surrounding fracking. The state of New York was allowed to frack everywhere. That ban on fracking is now permanent. The governor was about to assign the order that we could go ahead and frack because fracking had no environmental impact. But we wrote a story that showed it had lots of impact. And he changed his mind. I don’t know how many people saw it—3,000, maybe millions. But it was the right 3,000, ’cause one of them was the governor.

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