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The following is a conversation between Richard Tofel, President of ProPublica, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: There have been few industries that have been disrupted more in recent years than have newspapers and magazines. And as they fight to survive by cutting costs, one of the areas that many have jettisoned has been investigative reporting. And that’s not good for any of us. So what was needed was a new business model — a nonprofit one — to help carry on this work. And this is how ProPublica came into existence back in 2007. And with us this evening is the president of ProPublica, Richard Tofel.
Good evening, Dick, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Dick: Denver, thank you so much for having me.
Denver: Tell us about ProPublica and the mission and goals of the organization.
Dick: ProPublica, as you suggested, is a nonprofit investigative journalism newsroom. We print, publish everything on our own website at propublica.org but we also work with leading journalism organizations in partnership. And as you say, we’ve been publishing now for a little bit more than nine years. We focus on investigative journalism in the hopes that it is a critical part of democratic governance in our society, revealing to people things that people in power don’t want them to know… that we hope that will make them more effective citizens.
Denver: Well, you have had a really sensational first decade of existence. How has your audience grown? And how has the organization been recognized for some of its outstanding work?
Dick: We’ve been very fortunate. We’re now reaching directly on our site somewhere between two– we’re recording somewhere between– two and three million people visiting us in an average month.
Denver: That’s impressive.
Dick: Between four and five million pages of our material is read on our own site. And then, of course, there’s the material being read when the stories are published by our partners. We’ve had 149 journalistic partners, pretty much every leading news organization in the country. And in terms of recognition, thank you for asking, we’ve been fortunate enough to win four Pulitzer prizes… I think literally, half of the Pulitzer prizes awarded to digital journalism organizations so far.
Denver: Congratulations. Well, since the presidential campaign, Dick, last year, I know more people dialed in, and I’m following the news more than I ever have in my life. What has the impact of the Trump presidency been on your operations?
Dick: It’s been very, very significant. Traffic is up 40%, 50%, 60% one or two months… over 70% this year over the previous year. Funding has been up enormously. So, without drowning people in numbers, we had 3,400 donors in total in 2015. We had 26,000 in 2016. And so far this year, although most of that kind of activity occurs, or much of it occurs, at the end of the year…
Dick: So far, in 2017, we’ve had more than 21,000 donors.
Denver: That’s fantastic. Let’s talk about trusting the media a little bit. Something that the president talks a lot about… actually, not trusting the media. It’s at an all-time low, but I would say that trust for almost all of our institutions are at an all-time low. You have said that many people very well may not trust the media, but they believe it. Share with us what you mean by that.
Dick: So, here’s what I mean about that. I certainly wouldn’t dispute the surveys about low trust in the media, and as you say, I think that extends across almost all of our institutions. My favorite example of this is the president’s approval ratings. The president’s approval ratings, as folks probably know, are the worst of any new president in our history. Already after just 200 days, the president’s low point in approval is lower than 7 of his 10 predecessors ever were across 42 years between them… of occupying the presidency.
So the question is: where are they getting the basis of the conclusion? So many people, a very substantial majority of the American people don’t approve of the president’s performance in office. And I think the answer is: they’re getting it from what’s being reported in the news media. I think frankly, that’s why the president is so frustrated. He is frustrated because he’s not getting a lot done. He’s not delivering on his promises, and the press is telling the American people that that is the case.
Denver: So, whereas people may say, “I don’t trust the media,” somehow it is having an impact in the responses to how is the president doing.