June 4, 2012; Source: Star Tribune

Marion Sandler, who headed Golden West Financial Corporation along with her husband before selling the company to Wachovia for $24 billion, has passed away at the age of 81. But beyond her work with Golden West, Sandler will be remembered as the founding mother of ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism organization that “shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

In troubled times for investigative journalism, ProPublica has been a beacon of hope. In a tribute on ProPublica’s website, ProPublica notes that “Marion shaped every key decision that brought ProPublica into being,” while also maintaining a strict wall between her role as funder and the organization’s editorial department. ProPublica staff notes, “She never saw a story before it was published, never asked to, never tried to interfere in news or editorial matters in any way — always insisted that no donor or Board member do so.”

Established by the Sandlers in 2007 with an annual $10 million funding commitment, in 2010 ProPublica became the first online news entity to earn a Pulitzer Prize and a second Pulitzer followed in 2011. The level of funding from the Sandlers, supplemented by foundations such as the Knight Foundation, MacArthur, the Carnegie Corporation, and others, has given ProPublica a resource platform for conducting top-notch investigative reporting. However, ProPublica has been subject to some criticism for the annual compensation it pays its top employees. As of 2009, that compensation included $572,000 to Editor-in-Chief Paul Steiger, $341,000 to Managing Editor Stephen Engelberg, and $321,000 to Treasurer and Secretary Richard Tofel.  The obvious and debatable criticism is why a nonprofit news source such as ProPublica would pay Steiger, for example, a level of compensation not far off from his compensation in 2006 when he was the editor of the for-profit Wall Street Journal

Sandler and her husband came under some criticism for selling Golden West Financial not long before the financial crisis that began in 2007, with “Saturday Night Live” lampooning the couple as predatory lenders. While Sandler’s legacy in regard to the housing market may be a matter for debate, her dedicated leadership in promoting and sustaining investigative journalism is clearly evident and deserves our sincere recognition. –Mike Keefe-Feldman