Nov 15, 2013 · 6 minutes

What if Contently bought ProPublica?

That's a crazy question. It sounds stupid. It may be stupid.

In fact, let me just go ahead and pre-package a tweet for those among us who have their outrage-phasers set to Reflex:

PandoDaily recommends ad startup save journalism; in process, performs vigorous prostate massage for said company <insert link>.
But bear with me. There might not yet be a serious case for a content marketing company to finance an investigative journalism unit, but the scenario is at least worth contemplating as a thought experiment. A startup with journalistic impulses that has ended up as a chief enabler of "native advertising," which some media watchers consider corrosive to the profession, might find that such an arrangement has both ethical and business advantages.

Contently is just three years old, but its timing is propitious. It has built story-assignment software and a network of 27,000 freelance writers just as the native advertising craze, in which brands commission stories on specific subjects and pay to have them placed in various publications, is hitting high gear. It's a nascent industry, and Contently, along with fellow startups such as NewsCred and the recently acquired Compendium, got in on the ground floor. Now major publications such as the New York Times and The Washington Post are building their own native ad platforms, even as some expectorate at the very mention of the term.

Things appear to be going well for Contently. It has signed up clients such as American Express, Anheuser-Busch, and PepsiCo, all of which pay $3,000 to $25,000 a month for access to the startup's software and network. It has $2.3 million in venture funding, 24 employees, and, if market trends hold true and Contently doesn't mess everything up, it will be counting annual revenue in increments of tens hundreds of millions within a few years.

Earlier this week, New York Times media reporter David Carr dedicated his weekly column to the company. In the piece, he quoted co-founder and CEO Joe Coleman as saying that the founders want to grow the company to the point "where we end up with the name on the side of our building."

Here, insert numerous caveats about withstanding the competition, native advertising possibly being just a fad, and about most startups failing. But consider what could happen if Contently, or something like it, could become a long-term profitable concern. If it did grow to the point where it had its own building, or even just a couple of floors, maybe funding a serious and independent journalistic endeavor wouldn't be a bad idea.

The media industry, in case you haven't been paying attention, is in a state of financial distress. Although there are some exceptions, print advertising dollars are shrinking, subscription revenues are drying up, and the lion's share of digital ad dollars go to Google and Facebook. While companies such as BuzzFeed and Business Insider are investing in investigative reporting, no one is sure that their business models will ultimately be robust enough to support the sort of expensive, high-quality reporting that Kardashian-krazed readers ignore in droves. And even if some companies figure it out, whether or not they can produce enough good investigative journalism to keep society from descending into anarchic chaos – which, I am reliably informed, is what would happen if the Koch brothers got their hands on a city newspaper – is very much open.

To date, one of the best answers to the "How are we going to save investigative journalism?" question has been ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom that partners with other news organizations to disseminate its work. You'll notice that the "non-profit" part is an especially prominent feature of that description. It is funded by a foundation and philanthropic contributions.

In financial terms, ProPublica is a liability. But in terms of contributing to society's well-being, it's an enormous asset. Its mission statement says that its work "focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with 'moral force'." Consider, for example, its series on China's censorship of Sina Weibo, or its 33-story investigation into the quality of US healthcare. None of that reporting is especially well suited to "going viral," nor does it lend itself well to the pageview-driven economics of online media. Because newsroom budgets have been shrinking, it's also the sort of work that is increasingly being squeezed out of even the top newspapers in the US.

The work that ProPublica does is a journalistic treasure in search of a funding model. The work that Contently does is a funding model in search of journalistic credibility. What if the two met in the middle? Just as Google has a non-profit arm,, through which it develops technologies to address global challenges, Contently could see ProPublica as a way to offset the slightly distasteful business of being a major purveyor of branded content that's dressed up as editorial. It'd be the media equivalent of carbon credits.

Provided Contently could guarantee ProPublica absolute independence and keep it walled off and insulated from the rest of the company, this would be a mutually beneficial arrangement. Not only would this have a bottom-line impact of improving Contently's brand image among readers and its partners, but it would also be a positive contribution to the ecosystem on which it depends for its own business – kind of like how the oil companies want to get the Keystone pipeline approved so they can more efficiently kill the planet. (Yeah, not really like that, but, fuck oil companies, right?) The cherry on the top is that Contently could be comforted that it would be doing society a favor by giving it a watchdog with actual teeth.

It's not a ridiculous concept. Investigative journalism in particular has never been able to pay for itself – it has always been subsidized by the more lucrative sections of newspapers, such as business and real estate, which deliver targeted, moneyed-up audiences and therefore larger ad dollars. A Contently-owned ProPublica would be a similar case of subsidy in action, but its business section would literally be a business – and one kept at a further remove. It would be a case of building an advertising business first and then laying a news operation alongside it rather than the other way around, as things have traditionally been done.

Native advertising is not what Contently set out to do. When it entered the Techstars accelerator, the startup saw itself as a support network for freelance journalists who could find assignments and receive payments through the software platform. That is actually what Contently is today, but the main customers turned out to be brands instead of news organizations. So instead of writing about, say, 3D printing for the Los Angeles Times, the freelancers are getting paid by Pepsi to write about – um, I don't know, the greening of the soda industry? It's usually some sort of that "We're good corporate citizens!" bullshit.

But, even now that the New York Times has hailed it as the connective tissue between content and companies, I'm betting that Contently hasn't forgotten its roots and idealism. Here is a chance to honor its initial mission of helping journalists. As it grows – if it grows – to become a more profitable business, it should channel its cash and energy into shoring up the rickety infrastructure of public-interest journalism. It should start by buying ProPublica.

Then, maybe, we could all agree that native advertising isn't such a bitch.