The first American press was the partisan press, underwritten and dictated by the political parties. Starting in the 1830s or so, the profit-seeking lords of the commercial press staked their major claim to the news business and established a primacy they have maintained to this day.
The third wave in American journalism—that of the foundation press—may be taking form now thanks to Bay Area billionaires Herbert and Marion Sandler. Waving $10 million that they promise to replenish annually, the Sandlers have founded the nonprofit ProPublica to produce investigative journalism. (Usual suspect the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is also chipping in some money to the ProPublica kitty, as are the Atlantic Philanthropies and the JEHT Foundation.)
Today's New York Times reports that ProPublica will soon hire 24 reporters and editors to create one of investigative journalism's largest staffs. Based in New York City and led by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, ProPublica promises to produce quality investigative journalism and give it—not sell it—to media outlets.
ProPublica's Web site claims that the business crisis in publishing has put a crimp in investigative units across the land, and philanthropy is needed to fill the gap. Other nonprofits muckrake, of course. The Center for Investigative Reporting has been doing so for 30 years and the Center for Public Integrity for more than 15. Nonprofits already publish investigative magazines such as Mother Jones. Some newspaper owners have given their properties to nonprofits to maintain independence and quality (the St. Petersburg Times, the Anniston Star, and the Union Leader; see Alicia C. Shepard's article). In the United Kingdom, a trust exists whose mission is to preserve the Guardian's financial and editorial independence "in perpetuity."
But nothing on this scale and with this investigative focus has been attempted before in journalism.
What do the Sandlers want for their millions? Perhaps to return us to the days of the partisan press. The couple made their fortune, which Forbes estimates at $1.2 billion, at Golden West Financial Corp. In recent years, they've spent millions on politics. The Federal Election Commission database shows the two of them giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic Party campaigns. In 2004, Herbert Sandler gave the MoveOn.org Voter Fund $2.5 million, again according to the FEC database. The Center for Responsive Politics Web site reports donations of $8.5 million from Herbert and Marion to the 527 group Citizens for a Strong Senate, in the 2004 cycle. CSS was formed by "a group of strategists with close ties to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards," writes the washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza. American Banker reported in 2005 that Herbert also gave $1 million to the California stem cell initiative and that the pair have also funded the progressive Center for American Progress.
The Sandlers' enthusiasm for journalism and journalists is late in arriving. Back in April 1992, at the American Society of Newspaper Editors' annual convention, Marion ascribed partial blame for the savings and loan disaster to the press. "Where were you when it was happening?" she asked, according to a story by the Chicago Tribune's James Warren. Her husband accused the press of making "stars out of bums and charlatans" like swindler Charles Keating. "The press is susceptible to the Big Lie, no matter how patently nonsensical," Herbert said.
What sort of assistance did the Sandlers give the press to get to the bottom of the S&L scandal while it was happening? Um, not much. Warren writes, "Herbert Sandler conceded that, apart from being an occasional anonymous source for one Wall Street Journal reporter, he declined to help journalists as much as he probably should have."
ProPublica's Web site vows that its investigations will be conducted in a "non-partisan and non-ideological manner, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality." But philanthropists, especially those who earned the fortune they're giving away, tend not to distribute their money with a blind eye to the results. How happy will they be if ProPublica gores their sacred Democratic cows? Or takes the "wrong" position on their pet projects: health, the environment, and civil liberties?
If I were a newspaper editor considering ProPublica copy for a future issue, the first thing I'd want is proof of a firewall preventing the Sandlers and other funders from picking—or nixing—the targets of its probes. And if I were an editorial writer, I'd call upon Herbert Sandler to provide ProPublica with 10 years of funding ($100 million), and then resign from his post as the organization's chairman so he'll never be tempted to bollix up what might turn out to be a good thing.