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.

With Trump as president and in this era of fake news, what’s it like to be conducting hard-hitting, investigative journalism right now?
It’s a very tough environment to be doing journalism. There are challenges now, because there are swaths of the public on all sides of every issue who pretty much dismiss things they read that don’t comport with their preconceived notions of what the facts are, and that’s hard. If we can bring to light information that causes at least some readers to have new thoughts, that’d be nice. I still think we have people like that in the universe.

As a publication that depends on donations, how do you prepare for the future?
It’s complicated. We try to make our very best guesses in savings and investments. We do need to find some sort of halfway here where we are investing appropriately as people want us to do, but not putting the organization on an expansion path that we can’t sustain.

Where are we going to see ProPublica and the industry in the next 10 years?
God, I have no idea. I’ll tell you what I think is the biggest question—I think it’s pretty clear at the national level the vigor and quality and intensity of reporting is in relatively decent shape. I think the big question is local journalism. It’s so crucial and so vast [that] we’re certainly not going to be the only answer, but as an industry and as a country, how can we make sure cities and towns and statehouses can continue to have oversight?

@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.