ProPublica Needs A Bigger Ambition


The challenge – and opportunity – is that the public doesn’t currently read ProPublica.


ProPublica’s prize-winning accountability journalism just keeps getting better and better. But the country’s leading non profit news organization is at a crossroads. I believe it needs a new strategy, and must start building a large direct audience, if it’s going to have an impact worthy of its journalists over the next few years.

For all its amazing journalism, ProPublica’s current direct audience is tiny: less than half of one percent of U.S. adults (see footnote below for more detail).

And that’s no surprise: ProPublica has essentially been a wire service for investigative journalism, relying on other brands’ distribution, and reaching mostly elite influencers and the affluent. It spends almost all (87%) of its $25 million annual payroll on its journalists, leaving less than ten percent for the teams it would take to build a direct audience: product development, technology, and marketing.

ProPublica has essentially been a wire service for investigative journalism… reaching mostly elite influencers and the affluent.

I can understand the thinking that drove this strategy:

1) That there’s more impact in reaching power brokers who can get things fixed – like congressional staffers – than a general public that doesn’t really want to read investigative journalism anyway (‘no mass market’).

2) That it’s more cost-effective to distribute ProPublica’s journalism through partners, even at the expense of a direct relationship with readers.

But the world has changed.

It’s never been easier and more cost-effective to build direct relationships with large digital audiences… especially with high quality information like ProPublica’s.

And it’s never been more important to reach the general public, which has more political power and more reasons to use it than ever. They’re the ones suffering from the wrongs ProPublica uncovers: in hospitals and nursing homes, schools, poverty-stricken cities, polluted rural areas, unsafe military ships, unsafe work environments, the list goes on.

The general public has been abandoned by journalism’s winners (and ProPublica’s partners): the elite for-profit, paywalled Timeses and Posts and Journals who mostly serve affluent subscribers. This leaves a gaping void that can only be (and must be) filled by non-paywalled, non-profit media. And ProPublica is in the best and strongest position to do it.

The general public has been abandoned by journalism’s winners (and ProPublica’s partners)

It’s no longer enough to expose wrongdoing, put it out there and hope it will get noticed by elite insiders who can fix it. It needs to be proactively and directly marketed to the masses who have a stake and can push for change. That channel and dialog and trust needs to be built.

Reaching all 250 million U.S. adults is ProPublica’s biggest opportunity. The wire service model was a great start, but to really matter and have sustained impact on the Internet you have to build direct relationships with very large numbers of people.

It’s no longer enough to expose wrongdoing, put it out there and hope it will get noticed by elite insiders who can fix it.

I believe there’s enough money out there to support a 500-person ProPublica newsroom in five years if its direct audience can scale to tens of millions. For donors of all sizes these days, the bigger the impact, the better.

ProPublica’s team has innovated and fought like hell for fourteen years to produce prize-winning journalism that holds the powerful to account.

Now I hope they can innovate and fight like hell to get that journalism (and even more of it) to the many tens of millions of people who need it most.


P.S. Some ideas for getting started.

Some specific ideas for going down this path if ProPublica so chooses:

  1. Develop something similar to the New York Times’ 2014 ‘Innovation Plan’ that gets everyone bought in to the urgency of prioritizing aggressive investment in direct audience growth.
  2. Set clear, ambitious, goals for the next several years, including audience growth and engagement and revenue from an expanded donor/supporter base.
  3. Commit to changing the culture so audience building, product development, technology, and marketing are as highly valued as the journalism (and seen as crucial to its success).
  4. Publicly evangelize the vision of a more ambitious ProPublica. Tell the world powerfully and unmistakably what ProPublica’s goals and mission are (holding the powerful accountable and spurring reform), and how it plans to grow to achieve that mission.
  5. Commit to producing even more great journalism. Expand and broaden the reporting. Absorb other non-profit newsrooms who can benefit from ProPublica’s scale, direct audience and financial strength.

Footnote: Estimating ProPublica’s direct audience.

ProPublica publishes two numbers about its direct audience: 4.3M unique visitors per month (average), and 9M page views per month on average. Those sound big, but the actual reading audience is a lot smaller.

Many media websites have a high ‘bounce rate:’ people who arrive by clicking some link, then leave without clicking on or necessarily even reading anything. SimilarWeb, which tracks ProPublica.org along with every other U.S. website, estimates ProPublica’s bounce rate at 73%. That cuts out most of the 4.3M unique monthly visitors, leaving only 1.2M who actually clicked on something.

If 3.1M of the monthly uniques (73% of the 4.3M) ‘bounce’ (only view one page), that leaves 1.2M to account for about six million page views per month (out of ProPublica’s reported nine million). That’s five pages ‘visited’ per non-bouncing visitor. In a normal distribution, the bulk of these non-bouncing people probably view just two pages (they clicked twice), and may or may not have read an article.

That leaves probably a couple hundred thousand people who actually read one or more articles per month (‘active users’). ProPublica may have this data, but doesn’t disclose it. It does say it has about 400,000 email newsletter subscribers.