Richard Tofel on the rocketing success of ProPublica in a post-fact world

Trust in the media is one of those subjects which these days makes for a fairly depressing read – at least for those of us who work in the industry. A Gallup poll, published in September last year, put American’s trust in mass media around 32%, and findings from Pew Research Center further corroborated this rather gloomy figure. Frankly, the deeper you drill down into this data, the more negative it seems.

At the other end of the spectrum, the highest recorded figures during the time this poll has been in existence was an astonishing 72% in 1976 – a time which was significantly notable for several high-profile pieces of investigative journalism.

John Oliver, in his post-election monologue, urged people to champion news media and among those organizations he mentioned, was ProPublica, the not-for-profit whose mission is to pursue journalism in the public interest and whose star seems to be in ascendance.

The plea worked: small-change donations to ProPublica amounted to nearly $750,000 in the days and weeks after November 11, which compares notably to the $500,000 for the entire year in 2015.

Although you can (and should most assuredly) imbibe as many stories as you can from the website itself, distribution typically happens through the organization’s partners (New York Times, Chicago Tribune, NPR to name but a few), so its structure is obviously quite different to that of a more typical news organization. There can be no denying the fact that ProPublica would have been unlikely to have existed 15 or 20 years ago, but, as investigative journalism departments have shrunk across the sector, there’s clearly still a very real need for the services they provide. Richard Tofel, the President and General Manager of the company, gave us his insights into the current state of play.

Richard, we hear a lot about people’s trust in the media being at historically low levels. Is this so?

I think there’s no question: every survey says that it has been declining for many years. In this country [the USA] it took a particularly significant hit last year almost certainly in relationship to the election campaign, which I think a lot of people found very disappointing and distasteful on many levels, regardless of their political preferences.

How do you account for this broad trend?

I think the decline in trust is linked to many, many things, but one of them is that, clearly in the last 18 months or two years, one political party and particularly one person – the President and the people around him – launched a concerted effort against the press. When someone who has the support of 40% of American people keeps saying, “don’t trust the press”, a certain number of those 40% are going to adopt that view.

I wrote a piece for Nieman Lab at the end of last year in which I said that readers may not trust us, but they do believe us – and this is something we see in the reporting and opinion of President Trump. The president has, on the whole, been getting some very tough press coverage because of his substantial missteps and disorganization during the campaign and since he has assumed office. The fact that his approval ratings are the lowest for any new president I think supports the fact that people have been reading the investigations and reports in the press. So yes, I think the information the press is publishing is getting through to the vast majority of the American people.

“The fact that his approval ratings are the lowest for any new president I think supports the fact that people have been reading the investigations and reports in the press”

How does your content resonate with your audience?

That’s always a little bit hard to say, and I think it varies from story to story, but all the indicators particularly since the election have been enormously positive and, in addition to the significant growth in donations, we have seen a very, very significant growth in traffic, social media following and engagement.

To give you some specifics: January was our highest traffic month ever, up more than 100% over the previous year, and even in just the first week of February we are up more than 100% year on year. I looked at the figures for social media yesterday and we gained something like 500 twitter followers on a base of 525,000.

Facebook Instant Articles nine months on: who’s in and who’s out?

What happened yesterday?

It wasn’t an unusual day – that’s just what’s happening. We’re gaining a thousand fans a day on Facebook and on a base of a quarter of a million, so at that rate you’d more than double that inside of a year. That’s a pretty heady growth rate.

How else are you getting feedback and measuring engagement with your articles?

We’re not very different to anyone else. We look at how much things are shared – whether it’s positively or negatively – the substance of comments and the seriousness of them.

We also monitor things during the research and pre-publication period, so when we do callouts at the point that we’re trying to gather information or get people to tell us their stories, we look at how many people respond and how robust those responses are. There as well, it’s all extremely positive.

How many partners are you working with at ProPublica? The business model is, if not completely unique, very unusual…

We had 35 different publishing partners last year. It’s obviously early in the year, but we have a piece in partnership with the New York Times today, a piece scheduled to go in partnership with NPR on Friday – and that’s fairly typical for us.

Are you able to briefly explain how those stories reach your partners? Who initiates a particular subject or story?

It varies. Many stories we research ourselves and then report jointly with partners – and that’s what happened with the New York Times piece that went out a couple of days ago. In other cases we publish jointly and in coordination, like the NPR feature that’s going out on Friday. In all cases when we publish in partnership it’s jointly edited. As to the origins of it, it can vary from partners approaching us to us approaching them.

Editorial analytics are stranded in another era. It’s time to take them seriously.

Do you notice a difference in engagement or ‘success’ of an article depending on how or where it gets published?

We’re in business to make and spur change through journalistic means, so we try to pick our partners with that in mind. We’re not just looking for the most pageviews or readers with a particular piece – we’re looking at how effectively we can make those changes. Sometimes that’s best done through working with partners who have the largest audience – so the New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR – but sometimes it’s players who may have deep audiences in particular areas, like Stars & Stripes [the American military newspaper] or somewhere like the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Are people less or more engaged than they were before? Do you notice any kind of trajectory one way or another?

In this country, over the past ninety days, I think they’re substantially more engaged.

If we remove presidential politics from the subject of news articles, what kind of subjects do you find resonate best with your readers?

I actually think it’s the stories that are told the best, and that’s the oldest answer, right? A well-told, compelling story with a strong narrative or very surprising facts tends to resonate much more strongly than one that’s told in a fairly pedestrian manner, without new facts or without a compelling narrative.

So, it’s about the quality of the writing and research above anything?

Without a doubt, yes.

But aren’t people supposed to be tired of facts? Aren’t we in a post-fact age?

No, I don’t think so – that goes back to this idea of ‘they don’t trust us, but they do believe us’. Many people don’t follow the news most of the time. Let’s put those people aside for a moment – not that they’re not important, because politically they’re very important – but if people don’t follow the news, they’re not likely to be well-informed under any circumstances. If you take that subset that does try to keep itself well informed, are they less informed than they have been previously? I don’t think so. And I think that’s true on both sides of the political divide.

“I think people are well above being merely informed: they’re well informed and it’s certainly easier than ever to be so”

If you asked that group of people about the contents of the president’s recent immigration order, I think they could tell you. If you asked them about the president’s views on the Russians, I think could tell you. I think people are well above being merely informed: they’re well informed and it’s certainly easier than ever to be so. It’s more accessible, it’s less expensive and that, I think, is true regardless of peoples politics. In this business of post-truth, I think the people who are arguing that this is true always think it’s true in the minds of other people.

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