These Journalists Spent Two Years and $750,000 Covering One Story

It costs a lot, but investigative reporting can save lives. And non-profits lead the way in producing high-quality, in-depth stories. So who's going to pay for them?

In recent weeks, ProPublica has published a major—and scathing—investigative series on the dangers of Tylenol's main active ingredient, acetaminophen. Two years in the making, this series shows yet again the essential role of investigative journalism in providing public information that can literally save lives.

On the chance that the impact of the revelations has already been overtaken by other news, here again is the gist of the stories. Tylenol’s marketing has long emphasized its safety. Among the more memorable of its advertisements was that Tylenol was the pain reliever "hospitals use most" and packages asserted that the pills provided "safe, fast pain relief." It turns out that these claims were dangerously misleading, and were known to be so by both the pharmaceutical manufacturer and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. To expand the reach of its findings to millions of radio listeners, ProPublica, brought in public radio's This American Life as a collaborator which incisively summarized ProPublica’s evidence of the dangers of acetaminophen. "During the last decade," the first ProPublica piece begins, "more than 1,500 Americans died after taking too much of a drug renowned for its safety.” Moreover, the series and broadcast showed that the FDA has known for decades about the scale of the problem, but has failed to fully implement a succession of recommendations and warnings.

Since its founding in 2007, ProPublica's work in investigative journalism has set a remarkable standard for quality on a range of subjects that is especially impressive when you consider that the total staff is about 40 people, of whom only 23 are reporters. By now, the organization is justifiably recognized as a leader in the field of deeply reported examinations featured on its own website and apps, and often in conjunction with another media partner. This American Life's podcast of the acetaminophen story is an example of superb radio narrative on a highly complex subject. It is, of course, worth noting that all the acetaminophen stories and the radio podcast are available on-demand and gratis. While these accolades may no longer come as a surprise, the purpose of highlighting this investigation is to emphasize that, at their best; the vitality of nonprofit news organizations is an important asset in this era of upheaval in the news business.

The Pew Research Center/Knight Foundation held a conference in mid-September that assembled representatives from a number of the news sites as well as funders, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and MacArthur Foundation, to assess how the nonprofits are faring and what can be done to increase support of them from philanthropy, individuals, and sponsors. As of last June, according to a Pew study, there were 174 nonprofit news sites, ranging from such established and nationally known organizations as ProPublica, The Center for Public Integrity, and the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting, as well as enterprising regional news sites such as the Texas Tribune and MinnPost. Naturally some start-ups have faltered when money ran out, and others are still too small to be considered viable. But the entrepreneurial success of the most prominent enterprises and their capacity to diversify funding is a vital indicator that the concept of nonprofit, digitally-based news gatherers is gaining traction.

With the quality of the reporting gaining respect (and top-tier prizes, including the Pulitzer), there is inevitably a focus on how to provide the resources to enable the sites to pay their way. At its start, ProPublica received almost all of its $30 million in support from Herbert and Marion Sandler. By last year, the Sandler contribution was only 38 percent of the annual budget, with the balance from foundations and individuals. But to do work on the level of ProPublica is expensive. At my request, Richard Tofel, ProPublica's president, compiled this accounting of the cost of the Tylenol probe:

We conservatively estimate the cost of this coverage at $750,000; it could be more. This covers the reporters, news applications and web developers, editors, video production, social media and PR, travel, legal review, half of the public opinion poll etc. It does NOT include any costs of the work at This American Life.

Clearly, $750,000 is a very expensive story. On the other hand, what price do you suppose a parent with a young, feverish child might put on these disclosures? As a society we have to find the means to underwrite reporting of this magnitude. Of all the funding ideas that are mainly predictable—foundations, sponsored conferences (a particular specialty of the Texas Tribune), annual appeals, donor buttons on the sites—one notion that deserves far more attention than it has received so far came from Steven Waldman, the author of the Federal Communication Commission's massive 2011 study of the country's news media in the broadband era, including "shortfalls in robust accountability journalism." According to a report by Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute, Waldman told the conference that he believes that the tech companies that have grown in scale and revenues to a considerable degree from their distribution of news—Apple, Google, Verizon, AT&T—owe these nonprofit content providers a portion of their massive proceeds. "The winners of the new economy. . . . If they would put just a tiny bit of their wealth into this," Waldman said, serious journalism could thrive.

Waldman’s manifesto is on the money. Technology companies that have earned billions in a relatively few years could well afford to become backers of invaluable journalism that is one of the mainstays of their industry.