On March 16, 2020, our world, like everyone else’s, was falling apart. We were suddenly homebound. Our incredible staff was juggling pandemic fears, upended home lives and uncertainty. But one thing was immediately clear: We would not stop reporting.
Our reporters and editors immediately scheduled a Zoom meeting with me, their newly minted general counsel. They were interested in public records requests. They needed a strategy. Now. This was an unprecedented health crisis that would require action at every level of local and federal government. It is the press’ responsibility to hold them accountable, but to figure out how effective the government response was, we’d need information.
That afternoon, I wrote to my lawyer colleagues at The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal (yes, we all know one another; no, we have no other friends). “Not sure if this is a dumb idea,” I wrote, but these extreme times might call for deep collaboration among competitors. Let’s strategize together, sue together and share documents together. This moment is too overwhelming, and government agencies were in disarray.
For all their rivalry, news organizations actually work together all the time, especially on the legal side. The reaction was enthusiastic.
But it wasn’t until the end of April that my colleague at the Post had a brilliant idea. Congress had earmarked hundreds of billions of dollars for the Paycheck Protection Program (the PPP) to help small businesses weather the crisis. But as gobs of money flew out of the government, it was quickly clear that there were issues. The rollout was a mess. Money seemed scarce. And we couldn’t answer basic questions: Were the people who were supposed to get help actually getting it? Were the politically connected disproportionately benefiting? What about small businesses? Rural businesses? Minority-owned businesses? Were they getting enough? Too much? We had no idea.
Of course, all of the major news organizations had similar questions. But the government — specifically, the Small Business Administration — was stonewalling everyone. The agency would make the data public when it damn well pleased (and with the virus, who could say when that would be?), and then only the information it thought we should have. The public interest in this data seemed so obvious. There were livelihoods at stake and astonishing amounts of taxpayer money cascading into the economy. Readers needed to know whether we, as a society, could meet the moment. It was bigger than one news organization. Maybe together, we wouldn’t be ignored.
The Post led the charge into federal court, welcoming a motley crew. First the group from the March email chain. Then Bloomberg. Soon The Associated Press was there too. NBC. ABC. CNN. Reveal. American City Business Journals. They had hired a law firm, Ballard Spahr, where I used to work. (I highly recommend turning your old boss into your client who has to tell you your ideas are great. The tables have turned, Chuck!)
After we sued, the SBA finally posted some information. But, in the words of the judge, it contained “glaring gaps”; the agency wouldn’t give the precise amounts of loans over $150,000 and the identities of many recipients. We pressed. As the judge would later write, there were many reasons to think that shoving billions of dollars out the door needed public scrutiny. Among them, this was likely “the ideal environment for fraud.”
The judge also pointed out that everyone who applied for a PPP loan was told that their information could be public, and that the nature of the PPP program rules meant that people looking at the data would generally not be able to discern other potentially sensitive information about the recipients, like the size of their payroll or individual salaries. As we note on our site, the data reflects loan applications that have been approved, but not necessarily money distributed to or used by a given company.
In November, the judge issued a 40-page opinion. He said it better than we ever could: “Here, the Court has little doubt that disclosure of the withheld information would serve the public interest. In light of SBA’s awesome statutory responsibility to administer the federal government’s effort at keeping the nation’s small businesses afloat amidst an economic and health crisis of unprecedented proportions, the public interest in learning how well the agency fulfilled its charge is particularly pronounced.” (That’s the judge equivalent of lighting fireworks in the street.) In the end, he said, the decision was “not particularly close.”
ProPublica decided to turn this trove of data into a news application to let the public see in an organized way what its government has been up to. It’s a journalistic strategy that has become a ProPublica signature. Recent projects have included a collection of hundreds of videos from Parler that showed the extent of the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, a tracker for all of the “midnight regulations” the Trump administration tried to impose in its waning days (and of the Biden administration’s efforts to undo them) and thousands of civilian complaints against the NYPD that give an unprecedented look into how internal police discipline actually works.
We included some, but not all, of the information we got from the SBA (we didn’t include street addresses, for example). The data helped our reporters uncover a method big businesses were using to take advantage of the loan program. And the app, originally published in July and since updated, has continued to be a valuable resource for various outlets and many readers.
Interestingly, we have heard recently from a number of people — mostly small-business owners — who found themselves in the app. Some were upset and disagreed with the finding that the public interest in scrutinizing the government justified making this information available, saying that this data should be private. Some were confused, saying that they don’t think they ever applied for a loan in the first place (if this happened to you, our reporters want to hear about it). What’s clear is that the range of businesses that used the PPP reflects the fact that the pandemic devastated a huge swath of our nation. That includes many people who never thought they would be on the receiving end of taxpayer assistance.
What this tragedy, and our attempt to make this information available, also shows us, I think, is that there isn’t, and shouldn’t be, any stigma. This is a story about government doing big things and quickly, both a sign of relief working as intended and a way to identify how it fails. And the only way we can parse it out is if we can actually look at what happened.
The court ordered the government to pay more than $100,000 in lawyer fees for making us fight so hard, but we are pressing for the release of even more critical information. ProPublica separately filed suit against the Department of Health and Human Services for information about the federal stockpile that was woefully lacking in the early days of the pandemic. And we’ll keep digging for more. Agencies around the country have been stalling in getting us records, but we haven’t given up.
Who knows. We may just get the coalition back together again.