Paul Steiger and Rupert Murdoch passed each other in the revolving doors at The Wall Street Journal. As American finance's newspaper of record changed hands in a seismic deal in 2007, Steiger was retiring as its managing editor after 16 years, having hit 65. It was the acquisition of the Journal, with its locked-down, subscribers-only website, that taught Murdoch the value of his journalism. It got him thinking about erecting paywalls around his other titles, as he is now doing at The Times and The Sunday Times online. As for Steiger, he span out in entirely the opposite direction. For him, journalism is so valuable it has to be free.
This is the story of what Steiger did next. Indeed, what he did first, because his post- Journal venture, ProPublica, has been a pioneer, blazing a trail followed by an increasing number of news organisations in the US.
Amidst the hand-wringing about the decline of newspapers it seems to offer one potential beacon of hope: an online-only, not-for-profit organisation conducting investigative reporting in the public interest. Shorn of the costs of distributing its content in inky form, and handed a beefy budget by a pair of California philanthropists, it has already uncovered suspended nurses continuing to work, corruption among the 'air marshalls' hired to ensure safety on US planes, and – in a piece that won a Pulitzer prize, the first for an online organisation – a piece revealing the shocking life-and-death decisions made at a New Orleans hospital as the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina rose.
For most of its major investigations, it brings in distribution partners to make sure they get to the right audience and get the biggest bang for their buck. It has jointly produced reports for the prime-time CBS show 60 Minutes, the US equivalent of Panorama, and for papers as small as the Albany Times Union, circulation circa 90,000. It's horses for courses.
The breathtaking view from ProPublica's offices, overlooking the tip of Manhattan, is testament to the sums of money being pumped into this venture – for starters a $10m (£6.8m) per year dowry from Herb and Marion Sandler, left-leaning bankers whom Steiger has known since his days as business editor of the Los Angeles Times. The couple pocketed billions by selling their mortgage-lending operation at the top of the housing bubble. And they are not alone in their fears for democracy and accountability in a post-newspaper era – what will governments and corporations get up to if the watchdogs' teeth have fallen out? – so that there is something of a flood of grants coming from philanthropic foundations across the US.
Local facsimiles of the Pro-Publica model are springing up, such as The Bay Citizen in San Francisco, and more or less scrappy citizen journalism outfits reach across from San Diego to Minneapolis, spending a mix of small donations and foundation money.
"Whether this is a bubble or a trend we'll have to see, but I think a good case can be made to make it into a trend," Steiger says. "In a country that supports classical music, museums, ballet companies and clinics on the non-profit model, supporting some kinds of journalism is consistent. It wasn't necessary before; it's useful, and possibly necessary, now.
"Certain kinds of journalism, particularly investigative or accountability journalism and international journalism, are expensive. In the vertically integrated model that worked for most of the 40 years that I worked for newspapers, you could call them loss leaders; advertisers wanted to be in a quality publication, and a quality publication was defined as one that did these public-service things. The web disaggregated all of that and made each activity stand on its own feet. And the investigative reporting, except in relatively rare circumstances, doesn't bring eyeballs relative to what it costs to produce."
And make no mistake, he says, this sort of journalism takes real money, because it takes time and it takes reporters of experience to make it work.
"Some people misjudge this. You can look at our newsroom and think, 'Aha, what they have here is a Potemkin village, colonial Williamsburg. They've created a throwback newsroom to the glory days of yesteryear. It's just a fetish.' That couldn't be further from the truth. This notion that the blogosphere and wikis replace journalism – it does replace journalism in a lot of domains, but not in this one."
Which blogger, he asks, would have spent 18 months researching a New Orleans hospital, or making hundreds of phone calls to check names on a nursing register?
"The blogosphere is good for what I call the 'single scoop investigation'. Compelling stuff. You get it, put it before the public, give it some context and it changes the nature of the debate – like the University of East Anglia climate change memos that completely changed the atmosphere around the Copenhagen summit. But if you don't have the kind of reporting that ProPublica's folks did, you are never going to get the information that they found out."
There's a fatherly manner to the way Steiger trots through the details of ProPublica's scoops as if he is proudly reeling off the achievements of his children or grandchildren. But the commitment to public-service journalism puts some steel into it, as he declares that state governors have changed their energy policy, or health insurers have ended unfair practices, as a result of ProPublica's work. In another role, he is also chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which works internationally to support reporters who risk their lives in dangerous countries or pursuing risky stories.
He was asked to take on that chairmanship after the murder of Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau chief, Daniel Pearl, abducted and gruesomely killed by militants in Pakistan in 2002. The CPJ had assisted in the frenetic attempts to reach and reason with Pearl's captors. As Steiger recounts those events, his fists become clenched tight.
"We were not able to succeed with Danny. I can go months not thinking about it, then you think about it five times in a week. It's something that is always there. He was an absolutely wonderful guy. Assuming it was [accused al-Qa'ida terrorist] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who killed him, there was just a desire to demonstrate ruthless, hateful violence."
The Journal's offices, in the World Financial Centre, were wrecked on the morning of 11 September 2001, as the Twin Towers opposite were attacked and felled. In Steiger's office today sits the Remington typewriter that has been a trinket of his for many years, but from which he was parted for several months after 9/11. In the typewriter is the official "notice of decontamination and restoration", which signaled it had been cleaned of the dust and debris of the towers. It is dated 11 January 2002.
And what of the Journal these days, under Murdoch and his right-hand man, Robert Thomson, ex of The Times of London, who sits in Steiger's old seat? While the business community grumbles that the new regime has taken the paper down-market, or allowed editorial opinions to infect the news pages, these are not criticisms that Steiger thinks are fair.
In fact, Murdoch's determination to invest and grow the paper – aggressively to take on The New York Times – is something that gets Steiger's support. "Had the company stayed independent, they would have had a 30 per cent cut in staff and 30 per cent cut in news. What would morale have been like then? They have been hiring, they are starting new sections. That usually has people's spirits up."
He allows himself one barb, when asked about the furore over how the Journal used a picture of New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger's chin to illustrate a feature about effeminate men. "I just wouldn't have gone there," he says, cautiously. "I think Robert has done a great job improving the Saturday paper, but that particular story was not one of my favourites. And to this day, I don't know whether it was his chin or not. I know Arthur pretty well and I can't tell for sure. If it was, it was sophomoric."
ProPublica is more concerned with weightier topics, most recently some acclaimed work on the BP oil spill and on mortgage trades by the Chicago hedge fund Magnetar Capital that were criticised for fuelling the credit crisis.
The organisation presents one possible vision of the future of journalism in which investigative reporting is the province of charities and rich philanthropists, and in which the distributors of news are no longer necessarily, or even mainly, the producers of news. For the time being, though, everyone, Steiger included, is feeling their way into a new world.
And having fun. "There is a double satisfaction," Steiger says of his staff. "It was very hard work, and they did it very well, but the second satisfaction is that it was important. It's important that you get bad nurses out of hospitals. It's important that you provide medical benefits to people who risked their lives for US soldiers. It's important that you draw the public's attention to decisions by doctors after Katrina [about which people to save] because they were afraid they couldn't evacuate them. It's important, so that it doesn't happen again."Reuse content