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
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
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
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.