Sebastian Rotella: ProPublica

October 10, 2010 § Leave a comment


From drug-fueled violence along the Mexican-U.S. border to uncovering global terrorist networks in the Middle East, reporter Sebastian Rotella has probably seen it all.


The ProPublica senior reporter spoke recently as a guest at one of my journalism classes. It was both sobering and uplifting–sobering because it further elucidated the shaky state of investigative journalism, and uplifting because his career represents my ideal prospects for the future.

Rotella worked his way through the ranks as a copy clerk in Chicago, eventually making his way to a stint at UPI, and later to the Los Angeles Times, where he spent much of his 23 years at the paper as an international correspondent with an investigative edge.

He still works on the hard-hitting, international stories that have built his career–only this time from the web. As a senior reporter at ProPublica, Rotella can continue the long-form, in-depth style of journalism that was once the crown jewel of major dailies.

ProPublica, a non-profit website dedicated to investigative journalism and funded by the Sandlers (banking industry), became the first online-based news source to win a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for a piece on medical treatment in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The site is also unabashedly web while playing nice with print.

Indeed, as Rotella pointed out, much of ProPublica’s success has to do with its symbiotic relationship with traditional media [listed here], which significantly broadens the readership of what would otherwise be a primarily web operation.

It’s symbiotic because ProPublica gets the circulation that major dailies can provide, and in turn, newspapers and other outlets can get investigative reporting on the cheap–or rather, for free. [See their interesting “Steal our stories” clause here.]

As newsrooms continue to tighten their already narrow waists, whittling down staff and quality–expensive and time-consuming investigative reporting has also received the heave-ho.

But other than that, the transition to web hasn’t been all that big of a change for Rotella, who said that he still uses the same newspaper approach to investigative reporting, which emphasizes a multiplicity of sources.

It’s reporting that’s done with rigor. And sadly, it’s reporting that’s done less and less frequently.

Rotella, who said that he was growing “more and more depressed about the state of the paper [LA Times],” appeared more optimistic about the possibility of investigative journalism on the web. Specifically, Rotella said that ProPublica is “even better than the LA Times at its peak,” referring to both outlets’ trend of investigative reporting.

As a more than occasional reader of ProPublica, I was very much surprised to learn about how closely ProPublica works with traditional media in terms of free reign over publication of their articles in print or for broadcast.

It would almost seem counter-intuitive considering everything that I’ve been learning so far about the state of traditional journalism, but he brought up an excellent point about the clout and immediate impact that traditional media carries.

Come to think about it, big news doesn’t become big news until it’s carried on the evening broadcast or run in the city paper. Even websites seem to fall into certain credibility castes, with traditional media websites still leading the gamut alongside popular news blogging hybrids.

One thing’s for sure: while the current business model for journalism seems to be in need of a dire change, in-depth journalism itself seems better for wear.


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