ProPublica is a non-profit corporation based in New York City. It describes itself as an independent non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. In 2010 it became the first online news source to win a Pulitzer Prize, for a piece written by one of its journalists and published in The New York Times Magazine as well as on ProPublica.org. ProPublica's investigations are conducted by its staff of full-time investigative reporters and the resulting stories are given away to news 'partners' for publication or broadcast. In some cases, reporters from both ProPublica and the news partners work together on a story. ProPublica has partnered with more than 90 different news organizations.
ProPublica was the brainchild of billionaires and major Democratic donors Herbert and Marion Sandler, the former chief executives of the Golden West Financial Corporation, who have committed $10 million a year to the project. The Sandlers hired Paul Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, to create and run the organization as editor in chief. At the time ProPublica was set up, Steiger responded to concerns about the role of the Sandlers' political views, saying on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer:
Coming into this, when I talked to Herb and Marion Sandler, one of my concerns was precisely this question of independence and nonpartisanship... My history has been doing 'down the middle' reporting. And so when I talked to Herb and Marion I said 'are you comfortable with that?' They said 'absolutely'. I said 'well suppose we did an expose of some of the left leaning organizations that you have supported or that are friendly to what you've supported in the past'. They said 'no problem'. And when we set up our organizational structure, the board of directors, on which I sit and which Herb is the chairman, does not know in advance what we're going to report on.
ProPublica had an initial news staff of 28 reporters and editors, including Pulitzer Prize winners Charles Ornstein, Tracy Weber, Jeff Gerth, and Marcus Stern, but has since grown to 34 full-time working journalists. Steiger claimed that he received as many as 850 applications upon ProPublica's start. The organization also appointed a 12-member journalism advisory board consisting of professional journalists.
The newsgroup shares its work under the Creative Commons no-derivative, non-commercial license.
While the Sandler Foundation provided ProPublica with significant financial support, it has also received funding from the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and the Atlantic Philanthropies. ProPublica and the Knight Foundation have various connections. For example, Paul Steiger, President of ProPublica, is a trustee of the Knight Foundation. In like manner, Alberto Ibarguen, the President and CEO of the Knight Foundation is on the board of ProPublica. In 2010, it received a two-year contribution of $125,000 each year from George Soros' Open Society Foundations.
ProPublica has attracted attention for the salaries it pays its employees. In 2008, Paul Steiger, the editor of ProPublica, received a salary of $570,000. Steiger was formerly the managing editor at the Wall Street Journal, where his total compensation (including options) was double that at ProPublica. Steiger's stated strategy is to use a Wall Street Journal pay model to attract journalistic talent. In 2010, eight ProPublica employees made more than $160,000, including managing editor Stephen Engelberg ($343,463) and the highest-paid reporter, Dafna Linzer, formerly of the Washington Post ($205,445).
Engelberg is a former New York Times editor who co-wrote the non-fiction book Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, with Times reporter Judith Miller.
In 2010, ProPublica jointly won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting (it was also awarded to another news organization for a different story), for "a story that chronicles the urgent life-and-death decisions made by one hospital’s exhausted doctors when they were cut off by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina." It was written by ProPublica's Sheri Fink and published in the New York Times Magazine as well as on ProPublica.org. This was the first Pulitzer awarded to an online news source. That investigation also won a National Magazine Award for reporting.
In 2011, ProPublica won its second Pulitzer Prize. Reporters Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their series, The Wall Street Money Machine. This was the first time a Pulitzer was awarded to a group of stories not published in print.
ProPublica's reporters have also received the Selden Ring, George Polk, National Magazine, Society of Professional Journalists, James Aronson, ABA Silver Gavel, Overseas Press Club, Online Journalism, Investigative Editors and Reporters, Society of News Design, Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and Dart Center awards (among others) for their work.
In December 2012 and January 2013, ProPublica published and reported on confidential pending applications for groups requesting tax-exempt status. In May 2013, after it became known that the IRS had inappropriately targeted conservative groups, ProPublica clarified that it obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request, writing, "In response to a request for the applications for 67 different nonprofits last November, the Cincinnati office of the IRS sent ProPublica applications or documentation for 31 groups. Nine of those applications had not yet been approved—meaning they were not supposed to be made public." ProPublica reported on six of them, after deeming information within those applications to be newsworthy.
ProPublica conducted a large-scale, circumscribed investigation on Psychiatric Solutions, a company based in Tennessee that buys failing hospitals, cuts staff, and accumulates profit. The report covered patient deaths at numerous Psychiatric Solutions facilities, the failing physical plant at many of their facilities, and covered the State of Florida's first closure of Manatee Palms Youth Services, which has since been shut down by Florida officials once again. Their report was published in conjunction with the Los Angeles Times.
Dave Kopel, a policy analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute and a former columnist for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, criticized a ProPublica report on hydraulic fracturing as a "one-sided series of facts arrayed to support a point of view". He argued that a common theme in ProPublica's work is that "the government is not doing a good enough job in controlling things, particularly things involving big business". ProPublica later responded to his article, countering those claims and saying, "using carefully culled quotations and selected statistics, Kopel asserts 'indisputably false facts' in ProPublica's reporting". Kopel later disputed the claims of ProPublica's response.