journalism

Richard Tofel, President of ProPublica, Joins Denver Frederick

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.

Richard Tofel

Richard Tofel © ProPublica.org

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…

Denver: True.

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.

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Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, Author of Problem Solved, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, Founder of CSE Consulting and Author of the book, Problem Solved: A Powerful System for Making Complex Decisions with Confidence and Conviction, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.

Cheryl Einhorn

Cheryl Einhorn © LinkedIn

Denver: If someone were to ask you what your decision-making process was when addressing a big problem or facing an important decision, what would you say? Well, for many of us, the answer would be pretty imprecise, a little circumstantial, and far from rigorous. In fact, we might come to the realization that there isn’t much of a system at all.

That observation was not lost on my next guest.  So she set out to do something about it, and the result was her new book, Problem Solved: A Powerful System for Making Complex Decisions with Confidence and Conviction. She is an award-winning journalist, media consultant and adjunct professor at Columbia University. She is Cheryl Strauss Einhorn. Good evening, Cheryl, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Cheryl: So happy to be here. Thank you!

Denver: Well, you have certainly identified a significant need that exists out there, but what gave you the impetus to develop a system and then write a book about it?

Cheryl: Well, really it was such an unexpected journey. My background is in investigative journalism, and I spent a decade working as an editor and columnist for Barron’s, the business magazine. At Barron’s, I sort of ended up specializing in what you might call the “bearish company story” – those stories that take a skeptical look at a company’s finances or at their strategy. When these stories would come out, a lot of time, there’d be a big reaction – not only would the share price fall a lot, but regulators could get involved, and sometimes these kinds of stories really had a very big impact. And I started to feel a little bit uncomfortable about the fact that it wasn’t just impacting somebody’s retirement account or their portfolio, but actually their ability to go to work or to buy the products and services from those types of companies.

And so I started to really think about: Is there a way that I could have better confidence and conviction in my own decision-making? And also, Could I better understand the incentives and the motives of the sources who often gave me those stories? And right about the same time, all this new research was coming out saying that we’re all flawed thinkers. We have these assumptions, biases and judgments. They certainly help us every day, so that when we’re in the supermarket, for instance, we’re not overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices in the cereal aisle. But those same well-worn pathways, those shortcuts, they don’t go away when we’re solving for complex problems.

And so given my background in research, I started to think about:  Could there be a way where I could apply a process that acknowledges that we really can’t say we’re going to be objective… and just be objective, but that instead recognizes maybe I should go all in on my mental flaws? And could I construct a process that works within the fact that we have these biases, assumptions and judgments, and be able to better understand how to solve problems more holistically… by also accounting for the incentives and motives of others?

Denver: And then you throw in an emergency appendectomy in the process and say, “I think I have the time!”

Cheryl: That’s exactly right! I was getting down after I had an emergency appendectomy, and I was thinking to myself: I really need a good project. So I had already written up my AREA Method, which is what Problem Solved introduces into a textbook to use at Columbia Business School –and also at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism– and I thought: You know what? I have so many friends asking me:  What do I do about my aging parents and helping them find the right housing accommodations?  Or, my son’s about to start the college journey, or I want to switch careers; I want to re-enter the workforceand when I looked on Amazon to see what’s out there for you and me…

Denver: Nothing!

Cheryl: That’s exactly what I  realized, and I thought I’ll rewrite the textbook into a general interest book because we all deserve the ability to have a system that can uniquely help us to solve high-stakes decisions for ourselves.

…we’re very inconsistent decision-makers. If we’re faced with the same decision, but we’re in two completely different situations–either environmentally, or socially with different people– we may make entirely different decisions.

Denver: Make it accessible to everybody with this kind of a book. How do most of us go about making our decisions? Is there a typical pattern that we generally fall into?

Cheryl: Well, I think that’s a very interesting question. I think the best that I could answer that is that we’re very inconsistent decision-makers. If we’re faced with the same decision, but we’re in two completely different situations–either environmentally, or socially with different people– we may make entirely different decisions.

So I think that what I was looking for here is:  Could there be a way where we wouldn’t just rely on who we’re with, or where we are, or the well-worn pathways that have served us well when we make small decisions? Is there a way that we could actually pry open cognitive space to allow for new information and new insight, which is what we really need when solving for complex problems?

The AREA Method inverts traditional decision-making… instead of saying: What problem do you want to solve? AREA inverts it to ask what I think is a far more empowering question, which is: What constitutes a good outcome to you uniquely?

Denver: Well, before we get into the steps of the AREA Method, tell us if there is an overarching philosophical view that kind of undergirds this approach?

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Alberto Ibargüen, President and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Alberto Ibargüen, President and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

Denver: There haven’t been too many newspaper guys that have gone on to lead one of the premier foundations in the country. But if my next guest, who has served as a publisher at the Miami Herald… and has done stints at the Hartford Courant and Newsday among other places… is any indication, then it might be a good place for a foundation seeking a CEO to take a look. He is Alberto Ibargüen, the President and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Good evening, Alberto and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Alberto: It’s a great pleasure to be here. 

Denver: Tell us about John S. and James L. Knight, who started this foundation back in 1950… what their original vision was, and the influence that vision has on the work of the foundation today..

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Alberto Ibargüen

Alberto: They were originally from Akron, Ohio. They were newspaper people. They saw newspapers as a way of informing communities, and in Jack Knight’s own words, “So that the people may determine their own interest.” Although I would say, not actually really sure that he was a partisan, but I would say he was a patrician, republican, very wealthy man who was actually a small-d democrat. He truly believed in an informed society. He also believed in technology, and he used new technology to advance his business, to advance the telling of news and information–reliable and consistently reliable product– that people would come back to as a matter of habit and as a matter of staying informed about things that were going on in their community. He used the telephone as the new modern thing in the early part of the 20th century in the 1920s to go from Akron, first to Miami, then later Charlotte, Detroit, Philadelphia, and so on… And created what in his day was the biggest newspaper company in America, when newspapers were the key source of news throughout the country. 

Denver: As a matter of fact, I understand he even had some fax technology back in 1948. Although it was short lived, he was delivering the news like that. 

Alberto: It’s actually a great story, I didn’t know it until somebody pointed  out there’s a German engineering magazine that talked about this crazy American, who in 1948…I don’t think 99.9% of the world knew what a fax was…in 1948, there’s this American guy talking about one day faxing his newspaper to his customers. They also lost a lot of money, early internet with Viewtron. I think this was before pictures, before motion, before video. It was just text, but they made a big investment, and I think it’s typical of the history of the Knights– and then later Knight Ridder– that the early Knight Ridder should have invested in whatever the technology was, so that when the customers were ready to go there, they were already there with their reliable news package.

…it was absolutely clear that we had to move away from ink on paper. Why? Because the world had moved away from ink on paper, and it was never about the paper, and never about the ink.  It was always about the news. And how do you get people really well-informed so that they can make the best choices? That’s what journalism should be– always about, it seems to me. 

Denver: Well, that spirit of adventure is still alive today with the Knight Foundation as you do all you can to try to stay ahead of the curve. Now, you’re a national foundation, both I think, in impact and scope, but you’re also a local foundation in that you’re rooted in the 26 cities which had Knight Ridder newspapers. That’s a somewhat unusual structure for a foundation. Have there been advantages and disadvantages in that kind of set-up? 

Alberto: I think there are huge advantages from my perspective. In the first place, we’re not a behemoth like Gates, or even extremely large, like Ford. Two billion dollars sounds like a lot of money until you start figuring out how much it costs to do all these various things in 26 cities. The Knight Brothers were really pretty clear: they explicitly said, “We don’t have a crystal ball, and we know that just like our business, the foundation will need to evolve to stay relevant. What we care about is journalism and the communities that made us successful.” And so, that gives us a really clear “true north” for what we do, and how we do it depends on what’s available now.  And so for me, it was absolutely clear that we had to move away from ink on paper. Why? Because the world had moved away from ink on paper, and it was never about the paper, and never about the ink.  It was always about the news. And how do you get people really well-informed so that they can make the best choices? That’s what journalism should be– always about, it seems to me. 

Denver: Well, when you arrived at Knight, a bit over a decade ago, the foundation was apt to make some really large gifts to universities to endow some chairs in journalism.  But you started to fund innovation along the lines you just said– with smaller grants to start-up enterprises. Tell us how that change evolved, and how it changed the way the foundation both operates– and its corporate culture. 

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