Q&A: Ben Hallman on the launch of The Examination


In 2018, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or ICIJ, invited me to embed with a project that it coordinated to investigate medical devices, a four-hundred-billion-dollar industry—making pacemakers, breast implants, and more—whose products were inconsistently regulated and frequently caused patients injury and even death. The project, which brought together hundreds of reporters in thirty-six countries, was something of a departure for ICIJ, which had recently made a name for itself by drilling into massive leaks of offshore financial data and incriminating the global super-rich. The devices project, by contrast, involved the herculean task of collecting data from sources all over the world—what one staffer described to me as a “patchwork quilt” approach. And the story was not about the world of finance, but public health.

When I embedded with the investigation, one of my key points of contact was Ben Hallman, the lead reporter on the story. At the time, Hallman became more aware “of this big gap in coverage of health issues, global health issues especially,” he told me. Five years and one pandemic later, and Hallman is now striking out as founder and executive director of The Examination, a nonprofit news site that will launch next week and promises accountability reporting on the global public health beat—from tobacco to the fossil-fuel industry, via food—in partnership with news organizations large and small around the world. The Examination has so far received financial support from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Pulitzer Center, and Hallman has assembled a team that includes his fellow ICIJ alums Asraa Mustufa and Will Fitzgibbon, as well as Raquel Rutledge, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist formerly of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Ahead of the launch, I caught up with Hallman about his plans for The Examination, the state of global collaborative journalism, and what he makes of this moment for nonprofit news following high-profile layoffs at other outlets. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

JA: What was the inspiration for
The Examination?

BH: I’ve been an investigative journalist for two decades. Throughout my career, I’ve looked for stories and subjects that I feel have massive human implications but are relatively undercovered compared to the threat they pose. We’re coming at the global health beat from the understanding that some of the gravest threats to human health also receive the least attention. We’re especially focused on the ways in which commercial activity—industrial products and practices—intersect with human health, being informed by the research around it. I don’t think there’s really any more important beat than that.

We last spoke in the context of the medical devices project that you worked on at ICIJ. I’ve noticed that you’re bringing some other ICIJ folks over with you to The Examination. Is there any ICIJ spirit baked into your new site? How do the two compare?

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We are terrifically inspired by ICIJ, which is an amazing news organization that does just stunning work. Like ICIJ, we are going to operate across borders. Like ICIJ, we are going to develop deep relationships with news partners, especially in places in the world where we feel the problems we’re writing about are most acute. And there are some ways in which we’re probably going to diverge as well. We have a beat focus—a narrower focus than ICIJ does. I think that allows us to develop a depth of experience and expertise around public health. We’re a mix of folks who have investigative reporting experience, corporate accountability reporting experience, and now we’re adding a couple of folks with really deep public health reporting experience as well. Hopefully, we kind of meld that together and have a formidable squad.

What are you looking to do differently when it comes to coverage of global public health?

Let’s just start with health reporting in general: my contention, and I think this is backed by the evidence, is that a lot of newsrooms, especially in the modern age, lack even a single health reporter—which is insane, given there’s no issue it feels should be more important to readers. And the communities that are most impacted by a whole range of health threats are the very same communities that traditionally have gotten the least amount of attention from Western media. So we want to help bridge that gap.  

Can you talk about any of your early stories?

We have a project that involves smoking in China; we’re working on that with a large European partner and a Chinese-language news outlet that is based offshore. We are working with a large US partner about the ways in which health professionals disseminate potentially misleading information online. Will Fitzgibbon—who was ICIJ’s Africa partnership coordinator, and probably has more experience working with African journalists than any other Western journalist—just got back from Cameroon, and he is working on a story about a very specific health threat that is endangering the children of a community there; he’s been working on that project directly with his Cameroonian counterpart. We have a story about chemical regulation in the US. We have an explainer story that helps to unravel the science around vaping. I’m hoping that this suite of stories at launch will help show the public what we’re about and what our priorities are.

A key theme of my article on ICIJ’s devices project was the state of global collaborative journalism, and how that particular story represented a departure from ICIJ’s previous blockbuster investigations in that it required stitching together a story from disparate sources and data sets. Since then, we’ve only seen that type of global investigation become more common. What are your reflections now on the state of global collaborative journalism, compared with the last time we spoke about this five years ago?

I have a lot of reflections. I’ve been doing collaborative journalism for twelve or thirteen years, initially as a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, and it was very common for us to hit major roadblocks in approaching partners about collaboration—they didn’t get it, they didn’t understand, they didn’t know why they would want to do it. There’s been a massive sea change over those years, thanks to places like CPI, ProPublica, ICIJ, and more. And now the doors are open, and it’s really wonderful. There’s just a wide acceptance throughout the news industry that collaborations can be beneficial. 

Like with all things in life, the relationships really matter, and those are built on trust. Just because a partnership sounds cool doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good idea. So I do think that I’m probably more choosy about partners than in the past. Some of the ICIJ collaborations, while amazing, involved dozens or even hundreds of partners. ICIJ has built an entire infrastructure to help manage that. We’re not going to have that, so we feel like the sweet spot for us is going to be a collaboration of two or three newsrooms. We want to ensure that every major investigation we have includes a partner from wherever it is that we’re focused on—that’s sort of a given—and then ideally we want a larger partner as well: first of all so they can provide valuable reporting and editing, but, frankly, so the stories can maybe reach power brokers who have the power to change conditions. If we were to stumble upon some massive trove of documents, maybe we would call up ICIJ and have them help organize a mega-collaboration. But I don’t think that that’s going to be the norm for us.

We’re talking at an interesting time for nonprofit news: the Texas Tribune just executed the first layoffs in its history, which led to a lot of concern in the industry given that the Tribune had been held up as a model for other nonprofit outlets to follow. Futuro Media also recently made layoffs. What’s been your experience of launching a new nonprofit news site in this kind of environment? Have you faced any of these same challenges?

There’s no segment of the news industry that is not challenged by economic forces. Local media has been decimated; everyone but a very small handful of the largest newsrooms is struggling in some way, and even some of them are as well. I think it makes [sense] that, a decade into the nonprofit-news revolution, as it were, there would also be some growing pains in this neck of the woods. I don’t have any insight as to what happened at the Texas Tribune. I think it’s an amazing news organization, really a trailblazer. They’re also pretty big, and have a different model to what The Examination is going to pursue. 

Ultimately, I think that it’s incumbent on us to proceed with a clarity of mission and be able to execute that mission over and over again. I think successful nonprofit news organizations are ones that can do that. I don’t see a retreat in funders from journalism—I think it’s actually the other way around; I think, increasingly, philanthropic organizations are interested in donating to journalism. There are some, obviously, that support journalism for journalism’s sake, but everyone else, they need to be shown why it makes sense for them to support a news organization rather than a whole bunch of other potential priorities. What I try to do, and what I think a lot of journalists are trying to do, is be able to speak to what the return on investment is. I know that’s a weird phrase for a journalist, but that’s how a lot of funders think, so we have to think that way as well. We’re writing stories that we believe can inspire positive change. I just don’t see a for-profit solution to this coverage gap that we’re trying to fill.

Other notable stories:

  • During (and since) the Trump era, books about the former president have juiced sales for publishers—but Politico’s Daniel Lippman reports that books about Biden haven’t generated anywhere near the same level of interest. “What makes for stable governance makes less dramatic copy,” the literary agent Keith Urbahn told Lippman. The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer is trying to buck the trend with his new book on Biden, out this week.
  • Digiday’s Sara Guaglione dug into recent workplace-diversity reports released by Gannett, the Washington Post, and Insider, and found “very little—if any—change in overall employee diversity year over year.” The Post and Insider did improve the diversity of their editorial staffs, but the diversity of their overall workforces showed less change, and leadership diversity at the three outlets didn’t move much either.
  • Ahead of hosting the G20 summit this week, India’s right-wing government has referred to the country, on official invitations, as “Bharat”—presaging a possible effort to officially change its name. Government allies say that “Bharat” is interchangeable with “India,” which has colonial overtones, but critics see the change as exclusionary of Muslims. The Post has more (and I wrote about how the media should handle country name changes).
  • Recently, in the UK, Peter Wilby, a former editor of the Independent on Sunday and the New Statesman, was convicted of possessing images of child sexual abuse. For The Observer, Dean Nelson, an investigative journalist, alleges that Wilby once worked to kill his reporting on the abuse of children in care—and that Wilby went on to lead a backlash “against whistleblowers, victims and journalists who paid too much heed to their claims.”
  • And CJR’s Jem Bartholomew profiled Fabrizio Romano, an independent journalist who has come to dominate the frenzied business of reporting on soccer transfers and, as a result, may now be “the most famous reporter in the world.” Romano’s “magic trick has been getting people to trust him in a business that often runs on suspicion,” Bartholomew writes, “building a reputation for accuracy, speed, and trustworthiness.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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