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The Story of Franklin

By
Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

The story of franklin slider

We could hear the critics from the very start. In the long and rich history of journalism, the profession had rarely seen a bleaker hour. With newspapers closing up shop by the day, scores of reporters leaving the profession, and a small number of 24-hour news outlets sucking up all the oxygen in the room, 2009 hardly seemed like the ideal time to launch a nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to covering waste, fraud, and abuse in state and local government.

Five years later, we’ve not only proven the doubters wrong, we’ve changed the very nature of journalism. Investigative reporting is on the rebound, in part because of the Franklin Center’s talented team of watchdog reporters. We’ve shown that people still care where their tax money is going, that citizens empowered with the tools of journalism can make a difference in their communities, and that sunlight is indeed the best disinfectant for government malfeasance.

The story of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity as it reaches its fifth anniversary is a story of hard work, innovation, growth, surprises, and ultimately, success. Although I never could have predicted its twists and turns, I’ve enjoyed almost every minute of the ride

Ambitious Beginnings

As 2009 began, I had spent my entire career working in public policy and electoral politics, mostly in the state of North Dakota. I got involved in politics because I wanted to fight for the same causes that eventually led me to the Franklin Center – limited government, personal responsibility, free markets, and state accountability. At the time, I believed that recruiting better candidates for public office and helping them win was the best way to advance these goals.

I was good at my job. Many of the candidates I helped were elected. But once they were in office, I found that far too many of these people betrayed the voters’ trust. As it turned out, it didn’t matter all that much which party was in office so long as no one was holding the government accountable. The media wasn’t doing its job, and like children without adult supervision, the politicians had free rein to run amok.

The blame didn’t entirely fall on the local media. By that time, the global media landscape was in the middle of a seismic shift. The growth of 24-hour cable news networks and click-bait websites made local, gumshoe journalism unprofitable, and hometown newspapers couldn’t afford to continue political coverage when the market was demanding celebrity gossip and cat videos. As news consumers, we got the media we asked for–and that media wasn’t interested in covering government.

Around this time, discussion started on an idea that would become the Franklin Center. What if we could put professional reporters on the ground in state capitols and give them a laptop and a mission to watchdog government officials? What if we could fund these reporters – through the contributions of people who care about accountability – so that they’d never have to sacrifice an important story for a sexy one that would get more page views? What if we could make these reporters’ stories available to local newspapers, who could no longer afford an investigative reporter of their own? What if we could get journalists back to serving the citizenry – the eyes and ears of the American people, in the halls of the government?

It was, as the saying goes, just crazy enough to work. And I wanted to be a part of it.

The Bureaus Are Born

NM watchdog old FB profile

At its launch, the Franklin Center was a small organization with just a few employees. In fact, for our first few years, most of our reporters weren’t on our staff – they worked for think tanks and other allied organizations in the states. We offered these reporters trainings, editorial and technical support, and a platform to promote their work nationwide.

For a while, this model worked well. The state-based organizations we partnered with had been fighting the good fight in state capitols for years, and found us reporters who knew their state governments inside and out. Our vision of a coordinated, nationwide network of investigative journalists came to fruition almost immediately, when our reporter in New Mexico discovered that money from President Obama’s stimulus was being spent in “phantom” congressional districts that simply didn’t exist. He passed this information along to our network of reporters across the country, who conducted their own state-level investigations and found the same discrepancies. Soon, what began as a local New Mexico story had been picked up by every major national media outlet, from ABC News to The Daily Show!

This was just the beginning of a long run of successful investigations, which produced real-world change. For the first time in a long time, politicians had to answer for their transgressions, and in many cases, righted wrongs that were exposed by our reporters. Free-spending state agencies had their budgets cut, misbehaving government employees (including one who tweeted death threats at our reporter from a government-owned computer during work hours) were fired, pensions were revoked, and indictments were handed down.

What’s more, American citizens started reading about their state and local government again. Media outlets, from small-town papers to Fox News, signed on as partners, reprinting our work and delivering it to millions of American news consumers.

As the Franklin Center’s network of investigative journalists continued to grow, we began to realize that our reporters were even more powerful as a team than on their own, and that our evolving in-house editorial staff was second-to-none in the industry. As we entered 2012, we made the critical decision to transition away from the state organization model and bring all our reporters under our own umbrella. With our entire team of reporters on the Franklin Center staff, we could offer more streamlined editorial support, and better execute nationwide strategic initiatives. Thus was born the Watchdog.org News Network – a single journalism organization ready to shine the light on corruption in all corners of the country.

Send In The Citizens

Around the same time, we realized that even the best team of investigative reporters couldn’t possibly cover every story in the country. Local government agencies – school boards, county councils, and city bureaucracies – matter, and it’s just as important to cover the government that hits closest to home as it is the government in the state capitol. Fortunately, we had another crazy idea: with the digital age empowering anyone with a laptop to let their voice be heard, why couldn’t we teach concerned citizens – college students, soccer moms, and retirees – to be local government watchdogs? With the right training, we believed smart people who are passionate about their community could do their neighbors a service by keeping an eye on the local government.

We were right again. Our Citizen Watchdog program has been a resounding success. With over 650 volunteer contributors writing for WatchdogWire.com – many of them graduates of trainings led by our team – we’ve proven that ordinary Americans can do extraordinary things with a little help.

Today’s Watchdog Network

Jason-Stverak_THUMB NRA

Today, the Franklin Center administers Watchdog.org news bureaus in 25 states – from Vermont to Hawaii – plus a national team of investigative reporters. Together with Watchdog Wire–which includes 13 state-specific subsites–the Franklin Center family of news websites continues to grow, with traffic up 15 percent over this time last year. Yet while good numbers are nice, they wouldn’t mean a thing to me if we weren’t producing the hard-hitting journalism that keeps government in line. And we are!

Over the past five years, we’ve emerged as an authoritative voice. In Wisconsin, we’ve tracked the state’s union wars and subsequent super-secret investigations of conservatives by Democrat public officials. We’ve taken the lead in exposing rampant pension abuse in New Jersey, and won awards from state-level press clubs for our beat and investigative reporting in states from Virginia to Oklahoma.

Last year, we went toe-to-toe with Terry McAuliffe as the powerful former Clinton official ran for governor of Virginia – and didn’t blink, even after the green car company he claims to have founded sued us for factually reporting on its questionable business practices.

Through it all, we’ve continued to grow. As we look ahead to the next five years, we’re excited to expand our presence on the airwaves through Watchdog Radio, and replicate the success of our Spanish-language Florida Bureau in other states. We’re looking to grow our national reporting on key issues like energy, education, and technology, and ramp up our coverage of elections in anticipation of this fall’s critical midterms. This summer, we’ll take over the prestigious Journalism Internship Program previously administered by the Institute for Humane Studies, as we attempt to help cultivate the next generation of truth-seekers.

Five years ago, we may have seemed crazy for rushing into what had been declared a dying industry. But it’s been said that it’s always darkest just before dawn. As it turns out, 2009 wasn’t such a bad year for journalism after all.

We’re More Than Just Another Obamacare Cancellation Statistic

By
Thursday, January 9th, 2014

This week, my employees opened their mailbox to find a letter informing them that the Blue Cross Blue Shield healthcare plan we had chosen to offer them had been discontinued–thanks entirely to the Affordable Care Act. Since President Obama signed this bill into law nearly 4 years ago, I’ve written about it several times, focusing on its astronomical costs, massive expansion of government powers, and disastrous rollout. But I had never fully grasped the law’s human costs until now.

President Obama has spent the last 7 years traveling around the country, meeting ordinary Americans like my employees and telling them that they need to get covered. The President claimed he was going to act to make health insurance affordable, accessible, and available to all. Many who heard his message voted for him because they believed in the power of health insurance to deliver wellness and financial stability to their families.

Read More on The Blaze

Fox News fixes what wasn’t broken — and makes it better

By
Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

When Roger Ailes decided to shake up the prime time lineup at Fox News — the most successful lineup in the history of cable news — earlier this year, many in the pundit class were all too eager to criticize the move.

But those who expected Ailes to rest on his laurels simply don’t understand how this media visionary operates. Never satisfied with the status quo, Ailes’ spirit of innovation has fueled FNC’s unprecedented run of dominance atop the cable news ratings.

Six weeks into FNC’s primetime shakeup, the verdict is in, and to the surprise of no one except perhaps the punditry, it’s been a resounding success.

Read More on Watchdog.org

Shutdown Consequences are just Beginning

By
Friday, October 25th, 2013

The federal government may have been shuttered for a few weeks, but that sure didn’t stop federal agencies from wielding unprecedented power. In fact, government bureaucracies, like the National Parks Service, did everything they could to make life even more difficult for an already struggling American public. The NPS made “life as difficult for people” as they could, closing national parks and trails, and damaging the local economies around them.

The NPS took their newfound authority to a new level. From kicking the elderly out of their privately owned homes because they reside on federal land to blocking veterans from visiting memorials erected in their honor, the bureau construed a ludicrous level of control over the American people.

Read more on The Blaze

Opinion: A media law that stifles the press

By
Friday, September 27th, 2013

 

cameranewsThere is a sad irony in the proposed media shield bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month.

Lawmakers introduced the bill after the federal government violated press freedom by probing the phone records of Associated Press reporters without permission last year. According to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the proposed law “ensures that the tough investigative journalism that holds government accountable will be able to thrive.”

Yet an amendment attached to the bill does the very thing the legislation purports to stop: Rather than providing a “shield” so that the government cannot force those who do journalism to reveal confidential sources, it determines who is and is not legally a journalist, offering protection only for those who fit a too-narrow definition of the term.

Read More Politico.com

Media Shield Law Doesn’t Protect First Amendment, Free Press

By
Monday, September 16th, 2013

Alexandria, VA –Today the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a non-profit journalism organization dedicated to exposing government waste, fraud and abuse,  spoke out on the proposed media shield bill being debated in Congress.

President Jason Stverak made the following statement:

“There is a sad irony in the proposed media shield law passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lawmakers introduced this bill after the federal government violated press freedom by probing the phone records of Associated Press reporters, yet it does the very thing it purports to stop.

“Rather than provide a “shield” for journalists so that the government cannot force them to reveal confidential sources, it defines who is and isn’t a journalist and leaves gaping loopholes of vague language ripe for government exploitation.

“Simply put, our digital age allows anyone to be a journalist, regardless if you are employed by a specific company or have a degree from a specific institution. Journalism is something you do, not something you are.

“The government shouldn’t be allowed to determine who is or who is not a journalist.”

Forest Regulations Hurt the Housing Market

By
Friday, September 13th, 2013

shutterstock_117337837The housing market’s strong rally is welcome news for construction workers, whose industry was one of the hardest hit during the recession. Unfortunately, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is hampering the recovery, helping to drive up the price of timber and ship American jobs and dollars overseas. The organization’s ill-conceived double standards are yet another example of well-intentioned regulations killing jobs while doing little to actually protect the environment.

In 1992, a United Nations summit introduced the concept of “forest certification” to help consumers identify forest products — wood, paper, cardboard, and much more — that had been harvested in an environmentally responsible way. The intentions of this summit, to bring standards to a growing international industry, were noble, but not all of the standards that emerged were fair and uniform for the participating countries. And while the certifying organizations are private, governments often require builders to receive certification, either to participate in subsidy programs or just to build at all.

Read more on Real Clear Policy

 

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Wisconsin is a true laboratory of democracy

By
Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

By Jason Stverak

If Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky are the showhorses in the Republican Party’s presidential stable, Gov. Scott Walker is 2016′s workhorse.

If Walker’s recent tax cuts, expansion of school choice and reforms of the public employee system are part of a “stealth campaign” for the presidency — as recent speculation suggests — then the other Republican hopefuls would do well to take a page from his playbook if they want to capture the hearts and minds of the grass roots across America.

As Congress returns to take up seemingly impossible budget negotiations, Walker stands as a principled leader who helped rescue his state from soaring deficits. With state spending on public employee entitlements spiraling out of control, Walker exhibited courage under fire and made tough decisions that have lessened the burden on Wisconsin’s taxpayers.

Walker’s 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 tackled the familiar problem of deficits and strained local budgets from a unique perspective. Instead of raising taxes, cutting classroom funding or conducting mass layoffs of state employees, Walker empowered local governments and school districts to tackle the problem of pricey public employee benefits on their own, without having to work through public sector unions. This solution allowed cities and counties to balance their budgets — many for the first time in years — without significant cuts or layoffs.

READ MORE HERE

 

Obama’s Coal Regs Will Harm Working Families

By
Monday, July 8th, 2013

By Jason Stverak

As featured in RealClearPolicy.com

President Obama’s call for the EPA to impose new regulations on coal-fired power plants was a giveaway to the environmental lobby at the expense of the American worker. By crusading against coal, Obama is willfully hurting the very working-class Americans around whom he structured his reelection campaign and endangering the economic recovery he continues to promise.

Coal is mined in 25 states and is responsible for over 550,000 American jobs, most of them blue-collar. It’s also the cheapest source of electricity available — 22 of the 25 power plants with the lowest operating costs in the U.S. are fueled by coal – which is a major reason why Americans enjoy some of the lowest electricity costs of any free-market economy.

No matter which way you look at it, coal is the backbone of American power. With 272 billion tons of coal – one quarter of the world’s coal supplies — readily available within our borders, it is a secure, low-cost fuel, and it accounts for nearly half of the nation’s electric power supply. The administration has not yet released the precise details of its plan, but a emission limits could cause utility rates to skyrocket and cut to the core of our nation’s system of generating power — precisely the goal of the green groups cheering Obama’s anti-coal agenda.

Read the full story here at RealClearPolicy.com

Happy Independence Day!

By
Thursday, July 4th, 2013

4THOFJULY2Today, we remember that moment 237 years ago when America declared her independence and became a new nation. Today, we spend a little extra time reflecting on our freedoms, celebrating the American spirit, and enjoying the unity we have as one nation in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

That’s why I want to hear from you as you think about what it means to be American! They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. If you had to depict America’s spirit in one photo, what would it look like?

Click here to join our photo contest! In true democratic fashion, we’ll vote on which one best captures the American spirit.

Just like the founding fathers on that fateful day, here at the Franklin Center we’re proud to continue the legacy of keeping our republic in the hands of the people by holding government accountable and promoting transparency.

Thank you for following us on our mission to keep the government accountable by exposing waste, fraud, and abuse.