Patron journalism

Paul Steiger, editor of the well-funded investigative journalism non-profit ProPublica, came by Lippmann House recently to talk to us Niemans. These sessions are all off the record, but I can note that I listened to him with ambivalence. I admire the work ProPublica is doing, but I find its very existence depressing. Why should such good work be done for free? I also really dislike that I have to compete with it for space in major magazines. Let’s say I was working on a reasonably equivalent story and could get the attention of a magazine like the Atlantic or the New York Times Magazine. To do the same story, those publications would have to pay me a substantial amount of money. They don’t have to pay ProPublica for the writing. The magazine would have to edit and then copy edit my piece, which ProPublica will already have done (though of course there will be more editing and tweaking to cater for the individual tastes of the magazine). My wife says the solution would be for me to go work for ProPublica or something like it. Perhaps she’s right. No less a literary figure than Samuel Johnson made a living not from his words but from patronage. In some ways, patronage offers a better model for writers than the one I built as a freelancer. But really, I think ProPublica should publish its own stuff, and show the market that money can be made from investigative journalism, just as 60 Minutes showed that television news can pay for itself.

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