The Stories of ProPublica

for the netzwerk recherche 2012 conference

Dan Nguyen twitter: @dancow / @propublica
June 1, 2012


About Us

ProPublica is an independent non-profit online newsroom, based in Manhattan, focused on "investigative journalism in the public interest"


The Staff

Employs about 40 full-time journalists (editors, reporters, online developers and producers). The vast majority of ProPublica's editorial staff comes from print.


Executive editor: Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.

Managing editor: Steve Engelberg, formerly of the Oregonian and NYT

General manager: Dick Tofel, formerly of the Wall Street Journal

Monetization model

Primarily funded through foundation grants, but also through small donations from readers.

Small amount of adspace, no paywall/subscription fees. Stories are freely republished.

Office life

Operates much like a traditional news organization's investigative team (long deadlines, not expected to fill daily stories), except that the whole organization is working on projects.


The web (and our website is our press.


However, we often reach out to other news outlets for partnerships in order to increase the reach of our stories.

January – April 2012: 29 partner stories with 14 different partners.

Steal our Stories

Our funding model does not rely on subscriptions, so we allow other outlets to copy (and correctly attribute) our work at no cost, in order to spread our work's reach.

Use our Data

We generally make the data behind our data-backed projects available upon request (usually by researchers or other reporters).

Use our Software

We open source a lot of our general-use programs for others to adapt and use

And we do "how we did it" technical write-ups on our blog.


Informing readers what we we want to investigate and how they can help.

The Pulitzer Prize Stories

Deadly Choices at Memorial Hospital

2010 Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting

A 13,000-word piece, co-published on ProPublica's site and in the New York Times Magazine

First time an online-only news organization wins a Pulitzer.

The Magnetar Trade: How One Hedge Fund Helped Keep the Bubble Going

2011 Pulitzer for National Reporting

Aired on radio programs, This American Life and Planet Money, and ran as a 6,000-word piece on ProPublica's site

First Pulitzer to be awarded to a story that didn't originally appear in print.

Reporters Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein were approached by NPR's Planet Money in 2009 with a "theory about the underpinnings of the 2008 financial meltdown"

The collaboration included a Broadway show tune:

Interactive graphics to illustrate complexity

CDOs’ Interlocking Ownership

California Nurses: When Caregivers Harm

2010 Pulitzer Finalist for Public Service

Co-published with the Los Angeles Times and on ProPublica's website.

Included a news application listing all the sanctioned nurses and a "recipe" for other reporters to investigate their state nursing boards.

Charlie Ornstein and Tracy Weber won a Pulitzer in 2005 at the LA Times for their reporting on deadly problems at a major hospital.

They learned of problem nurses while covering their beat and compiled a database of thousands of nurses and researched each case and their result.

The day after the report, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger forced out half the nursing board.

California Nurses News App

Allowed readers to look up their own nurses while showing all of our work and research.

News Applications

What is a News App?

"A news application is a big interactive database that tells a news story. Think of it like you would any other piece of journalism. It just uses software instead of words and pictures."

Scott Klein, Editor of News Applications at ProPublica; quoted in the Data Journalism Handbook

Lets the reader find his/her own story

Recovery (stimulus program) Tracker:

Allows for transparency and collaboration

The Dollars for Docs search widget on NPR's news page

Creates order and meaning out of dry data

Congressional Sponsors of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) on

SOPA Opera at ProPublica

Case Study:
Dollars for Docs

How drug industry money reaches our doctors

About Dollars for Docs

Traditional investigative reporting + programmatic data gathering and analysis

Published as:

Dollars for Docs Impact

Call it shameless promotion or kickbacks or a necessary part of sponsor-organization relations—whatever you call it, ProPublica will continue to make sure that the financial relationship between pharma and other healthcare industry players is fully transparent to all stakeholders – including the public.


Example: Cephalon's Actiq

Actiq, a powerful narcotic "lollipop", is a drug marketed by Cephalon.

It is considered 100 times more powerful than morphine.

The FDA limited its use to opioid-tolerant cancer patients.

Actiq's financial success

What happened?

From a 2008 U.S. Department of Justice press release (emphasis added):

...the Actiq label stated that the drug was for "opioid tolerant cancer patients with breakthrough cancer pain, to be prescribed by oncologist or pain specialists familiar with opioids."

Using the mantra "pain is pain," Cephalon instructed the Actiq sales representatives to focus on physicians other than oncologists, including general practitioners, and to promote this drug for many uses other than breakthrough cancer pain.

In 2008, Cephalon ultimately agreed to pay $425 million to settle the Justice Department probe.

Part of the agreement included publishing on their website the list of doctors who they pay to promote their drugs.

Several other drug companies, including Pfizer and AstraZeneca, reached similar settlements.

Hard to Parse

Pfizer, which released its first batch of data on doctor payments on March 31, said its Web site made it easy to look up individual physicians.

Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall, Pfizer’s chief medical officer, said the company was “committed to ensuring these relationships are transparent to the public and are carefully managed.”

But the company declined to identify its top recipient.

"Data on Fees to Doctors Is Called Hard to Parse," New York Times, 4/12/2010

Started with a personal blog post

On my personal blog, I wrote an article trying to show journalists how to program and used Pfizer's website as an example.

Pfizer's site made it very difficult to sum up amounts or find out the highest-paid doctors.

Expanding the scope

Reporter Charles Ornstein, who has covered the health beat for years, noticed my post and proposed we do it for all the companies that so far disclosed.

Making Data

After some programming, data was gathered from the companies' many formats into one database so that we could sort and analyze the big picture.


– Hospital official's response when told how much one of his doctors made from pharma

Once the drug company payment lists were in database form, we could at least find the highest earners.


Step 1: Read doctor's name from a payment record

Step 2: Cross-reference it with another database

Step 3: Inquire, Investigate

Programmatic searching

Narrowing the field

Allowed us to efficiently find doctors on pharma's payroll – ostensibly hired for being great leaders in the field – who had questionable backgrounds.

Unprecedented sharing

ProPublica offered embargoed data to 15 partners, including NPR, PBS, and the Boston Globe.

We coordinated our coverage and stories for same-day launches.

The power of news applications

The Dollars for Docs news app draws the lionshare of the project's traffic. We wanted readers to be able to inform themselves and talk to their doctors.

Making this information universally available has shaken the debate.

Many doctors hadn't realized that their names were on these records. Or that these records had been made public.

Collaboration keeps on giving

By giving news outlets our data freely, they spread the awareness and impact of Dollars for Docs. The countless local stories end up driving their readers to our news application.

There is more data than there are clever reporters

Even researchers and investigators regularly ask for our dataset, even though the programming for gathering it isn't hard.

Many important stories aren't being done because the information-gathering part seems hard, even when the information is completely public.

Never assume that a given body of public information has ever truly been looked at.


Feel free to contact me by twitter: @dancow or email