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What does journalism mean for democracy: the role of objective reporting

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Jefferson feature image

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” – Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States

This quote from Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of our nation, shows that he truly appreciated the value of journalism in maintaining a free society. In fact, it appears he valued it higher than government itself.

Role of Journalism in Democracy

It is our belief that the role of journalism in a democracy is to:

  • report on those in power through what we call watchdog journalism;
  • report on the public’s needs, impressions, and wants;
  • provide reassurance and even panic prevention by shedding light on critical events.

The Pew Research Journalism Project provides a nice summation of both the purpose and the current challenges in an article titled A New Journalism for Democracy in a New Age. We love its conclusion: “Freedom and democracy depend upon individuals who refuse to give up their belief that the free flow of timely, truthful information is what has made freedom, self-government and human dignity possible.”

Gatekeepers vs. Referees

The 2005 article also has an important point to make about journalists becoming “referees rather than gatekeepers” for information. They note that the fences are already down with many, many other sources of information available. They were quite prescient in that now, some nine years later, there are substantially more sources of information available to anyone with a smartphone.

Referee red cardFrom another perspective, one need only look at the challenges of journalists in nations where democracy is either in its infancy or does not exist at all. In those nations—from Cuba to Russia and extending across continents—journalists face the very real threat of death for reporting what those in government do not want reported.

The World Movement for Democracy provides a short summary of the broad range of issues affecting journalists in a post titled “The Role of Journalists in Democratic Development.” This list includes a huge array of issues that we largely take for granted in the United States, from intimidation and violence to bribery and just trying to eke out a living from very low pay.

Objective Reporting or Advocacy Journalism

“Journalists believe that objective journalism provides facts and information to citizens who can then make their own judgment.” This is from Michael Schudson, professor of journalism at Columbia University, in his article titled “Reluctant Stewards: Journalism in a Democratic Society” in the Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Schudson further states that this mindset has often morphed into advocacy journalism, where reporters attempt to demonstrate that they “know best” regarding what you should think and act upon. He then tracks the development of traditional journalism, which he estimates is only about a century old. Schudson’s final key conclusion is that “Pluralism, pragmatism, and decentralized invention may do better at stewarding democracy than a coherent philosophy of moral guardianship ever could.” He further states that “fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy.”

Citizen Watchdog Journalism

In our viewpoint he is really pointing to the decentralized and pragmatic emergence of citizen watchdog journalism. This movement has been growing, due in part to the Internet’s ability to get the news out and do so in an extremely cost effective and rapid manner. It has also been growing because there are important areas that mainstream news outlets can no longer cover or where they have reduced their coverage. This includes our own statehouse reporting.

This does place into perspective what so many of us have come to believe is the normal of traditional journalism: newspaper, television, and even radio. We need to be reminded that the golden age of radio lasted about three decades. What we call newspaper journalism has been in place roughly a century and began its decline a couple of decades ago. Television continues strong in viewership, but its news reporting has substantially declined.

We also forget that Thomas Paine and his pamphleteering helped lead the way to the Revolutionary War. At the time his approach to getting the word out was pretty revolutionary, so to speak. Much of this type of revolutionary reporting is happening today. It is happening through citizen journalists, watchdog groups like our own, and even social media—think of the photo of the plane landing in the Hudson River that was first posted on Twitter.

You Can Help

Citizen journalism begins with you, the citizen. It can be as simple as your choices regarding news sources. Advertisers and funding will move with the readers.

If you see this growing threat to “fact-based accountability news” which is “the essential food supply of democracy” as the serious matter we believe it is, now is the time to step forward and make a difference.

Erik Telford responds to the FCC’s Net Neutrality ruling

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

February 26, 2015
Contact: Breyana Franklin
breyana.franklin@franklincenterhq.org
571-385-2926

Alexandria, VA — I’m disappointed to hear about the FCC’s decision today to achieve so-called net neutrality by regulating the Internet as a Title II public utility. The FCC’s party line vote mirrors President Obama’s proposal, reflecting blatant partisanship and making eleventh hour revisions to gratify the wishes of special interest groups such as Google and Free Press. This type of policymaking fails to provide a comprehensive road map for the online space that aims for the best interests of both businesses and consumers. Rather than follow the spirit of the federal court ruling that made this decision necessary in the first place, it uses a back door through a Great Depression-era law to subvert the court’s ruling and bring the Internet under an unprecedented level of government control.

Under the guise of openness and fairness, this decision to subject the Internet to stifling new regulations and government scrutiny will result in greater costs for broadband consumers, harm investment, and hamper technological innovation. I hope the FCC will choose to release its entire plan to the public immediately. And I call on those who support a truly free Internet to continue advocating for the principles of liberty to be applied in the online space in order to ensure a better future for us all.

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Burning bright: Watchdog.org covers environment and energy issues

By
Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

power plant coast

In the heat of the 2014 midterm election campaigns last September, Politico ran a story examining a new strategy among national environmental groups, such as liberal billionaire Tom Steyer’s super PAC NextGen Climate.

“Seeing no end to gridlock in Congress,” the story read, “national environmental groups are trying a new strategy for winning battles on climate change and green power: pouring record amounts of money into legislative races in a handful of states.”

The story went on to detail how these groups were making a multi-million-dollar push in races for the state legislature in places like Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, where flipping just a few seats could change the balance of power in the statehouse.

A month later, however, election results would prove their effort largely wasted, as Steyer-backed campaigns turned into a long list of losses. But since then, environmentalist groups have since shown no signs of pulling back from their agenda at the state and local level.

Just as Watchdog.org was on the ground during election season asking hard questions about alternative energy and environmentalist agendas, our reporters have kept up their scrutiny as statehouses around the country convene for a new term. Here are just a few issue areas where Watchdog.org is providing a counter-narrative to the environmentalist rhetoric of these groups.

The coal smokescreen

“Everyone wants as clean an environment as possible,” said Rob Nikolewski, National Energy Correspondent for Watchdog.org, “but one thing you quickly learn about energy is that in order to generate power there has to be a cost. Nothing is generated without it.”

Last year, for example, when the EPA announced its Clean Power Plan, an ambitious new proposal to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 30% by 2030 as part of President Obama’s climate-change agenda, Watchdog.org reporters were some of the first to look at the local- and state-level costs of complying with the plan in places like Missouri, Wisconsin, and Mississippi.

“EPA regulations come at a cost — and some states have to pay more than others,” Nikolewski noted. “It’s a big part of Watchdog’s job to get government officials to spell out how much these regulations will cost and let readers decided if those costs equal the supposed benefits.”

The flurry of media scrutiny over the Clean Power Plan has largely subsided, but our reporters have continued to investigate coal energy issues. In Wisconsin, Adam Tobias recently covered a new report that found the state would lose thousands of manufacturing jobs over the next several years if forced to comply with the EPA’s plan. Similarly, Vermont Watchdog reporter Bruce Parker noted that Vermont would see a 3.4 percent dent in manufacturing jobs, according to the report.

Furthermore, as Kenric Ward has reported, not all states are taking the crushing new regulations lying down. Several bills in the Virginia Senate would provide a last line of defense against tougher EPA rules by protecting customers from likely rate hikes and allowing the General Assembly to sue the EPA using State Attorney General funds.

Wind energy in the doldrums

Shutterstock imageWhen it comes to wind energy, Nikolewski said that “too much reporting simply parrots the talking points of its supporters and glides over inconvenient facts — such as the high cost of offshore wind farms and the number of birds that are killed.” Last year, for example, he covered the backlash that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suffered after enacting a 2013 rule exempting wind farms from prosecution for the unintentional deaths of bald and golden eagles. And in Watchdog.org’s Minnesota bureau, reporter Tom Steward has written a number of similar stories over the past year on the devastating toll wind turbines take on local wildlife.

As Steward has reported in other stories, concerns over wind energy are not limited to the endangered animals they may harm. They have also been the subject of costly tax breaks, such as when Minnesota recently waived $625,000 in taxes for a wind turbine manufacturer. And it gets worse at the federal level. At the end of last year, Kenric Ward reported that Congress voted for another $10 billion in renewable energy credits. Skewed heavily toward wind and solar, those credits help sustain industries that would have a hard time existing without help from taxpayers.

“Just about everyone touts the growth of the renewable energy industry,” said Nikolewski, “but it remains to be seen. . . whether renewables like solar and wind have the energy density to make really significant contributions, especially if they can ever stand on their own without government subsidies.”

Stories like that of the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, for example, which was intended to provide electricity to the area at a cost of $2.5 billion but then lost financing from its two biggest customers, raise hard questions about the future offshore wind projects in the U.S.

Fracking isn’t a dirty word

“A lot of reporters repeat assertions by fracking opponents about dangerous incidents,” said Nikolewski, “but few report that there have been no confirmed cases of groundwater contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing.”

For his part, Nikolewski says he tries to be specific and clear on this issue, and to keep in mind an important piece of context: the capability for fracking has been around for decades. Even though it has only started making frequent headlines in the past few years, the technology has improved markedly over the years. These improvements, however, have apparently not been enough to stop states like New York and Maryland from restricting fracking, as Watchdog.org has reported.

One of Nikolewski’s most important stories since starting on the energy beat focuses on a fracking ban that was later tossed out of federal court. His investigation revealed how a small county in New Mexico may have been taken for a ride as a test case when it was encouraged by a Pennsylvania-based environmental group to pass the ban. Now that the ban has been invalidated, the county – one of the poorest in the Southwest – may be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Context, costs and critical thinking

Energy is at the heart of modern society because it is a fundamental part of almost everything we do. As such, it makes sense that energy topics show up often in debates not only at the federal level but in statehouses and city councils all over the country. Informed debates that lead to effective policy, however, are only possible with accurate facts and honest analyses of our energy sources.

Because so many people are emotionally invested in seeing green-energy causes advanced, Nikolewski worries that reports that put the environmental movement in a negative light can be given short shrift or ignored altogether. Unfortunately, this attitude can bleed into media coverage.

“Reporters are skeptical by nature,” said Nikolewski, “but too many times reporters on energy beats across the country come across as cheerleaders, especially when it comes to green energy.”

“There needs to be more critical thinking when it comes to energy reporting and I think that’s what Watchdog.org provides.”

Who’s Watching Out for Our Rights? Legacy vs. Online Coverage of the IRS Scandal

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Shutterstock image

Let’s open with a quick quiz:

What news organizations first come to mind as the protectors of fundamental freedoms — 1st and 4th Amendment rights like speech, assembly, religion, privacy — against brazen government overreach and abuse of the little guy?

Did you answer The New York Times, The Washington Post, or maybe even an established TV news station?

If so, you’ll have problems with this next question: What 2013 scandal was one of the most egregious cases of governmental trampling of 1st Amendment-protected rights in recent years?

If you only rely on legacy news for your news, you’re not likely to know the answer: The IRS’ obstruction of hundreds of Tea Party applications for nonprofit status — an abuse that first came to light in May 2013 when the then-director of the IRS office in charge of these applications publicly apologized for the practice.

But you aren’t really at fault, not if you’re a legacy news-only reader.

When it came to reporting one of the most horrendous cases of government overreach and abuse in recent years, legacy news organizations looked the other way. Worse, they bought into the government’s excuses for such harassment – hook, line, and sinker.

An Egregious Case of Government Bullying

Here’s the background: In March 2010, as the run-up to that year’s midterm elections, the Obama administration began using the IRS to block Tea Party applications, and others from mostly conservative and religious groups, for tax-exempt nonprofit status by subjecting them to intense scrutiny and compliance demands. For example, the Ohio-based American Patriots for Against Government Excess, already halfway through the application process, was ordered in 2012 to provide all records of its social media activity, its membership and by-laws, and its interactions with politicians, among other things, in 60 days or have its application closed. Likewise, a Honolulu group told Watchdog.org of detailed IRS demands for photos, videos, names of attendees and speakers at public rallies, and copies and recordings of speeches at those events.

In contrast, in February 2010, the Champaign, IL Tea Party’s tax-exempt status request sailed through IRS offices in 90 days without a single question.

Investigators later found an August 2010 memo from Lois Lerner, head of the IRS applications office, instructing staff to target nonprofit requests containing “Tea Party,” “patriot” or “9/12″ — a reference to Glenn Beck’s group — and like phrases.

Lerner, coincidentally, initially blamed the scandal on the independent actions of a few low-level “line people in Cincinnati,” and Obama later insisted liberal groups were targeted, too.

Shutterstock imageThe IRS vs. Tea Party Scorecard: Legacy vs. New Media

Sure, legacy news organizations covered the IRS scandal. But how outraged were these news outlets, really?

Here’s a hint: the Columbia Journalism Review — hardly a Tea Party proponent — lumped legacy coverage into an August 2013 article partly titled, “How the media lost interest in IRS targeting, even as new facts emerged.”

In May 2013, when the scandal broke, two leading legacy papers reacted this way:

  • The New York Times published 8 articles, including 5 on Page 1
  • The Washington Post published 16 articles, including 8 on Page 1

Legacy coverage then plummeted in June, when the White House categorically denied any connection to the IRS’ singling out of Tea Party applications, and insisted liberal applications also were subject to IRS scrutiny. How badly did legacy coverage decline? The Times has published a total of five articles since May 2013 on the scandal, three of which are commentaries, including guest editorials.

The Big Three news channels haven’t done much better:

  • ABC, NBC and CBS news produced 136 broadcasts in the first seven weeks of the scandal, but only 14 more in 10 months that followed, according to NewsBusters.

The real outrage came from across new media — from the online news outlets that recognized the IRS’ manhandling of Tea Party applications as a targeted and eminently dangerous affront to constitutionally protected rights. And they went after the scandal with the saturation coverage that it, and the news reading public, deserved. Consider these numbers, from online-only news groups:

  • Townhall.com posted 41 articles in May 2013, and 1,890 articles to date
  • Real Clear Politics, 39 articles; 2,910 articles to date

And the list continues. Breitbart.com has posted 1,910 articles to date and the American Thinker, 921. Red State.com didn’t offer an aggregate number of its articles on a search, but has 39 pages to scroll through, and Watchdog.org, the news arm of the Franklin Center, has well over two-dozen pages.

Online, Government Isn’t Being Ignored

Online, reporters didn’t drop the story, as these numbers vividly attest.

These reporters didn’t accept at face value the government’s claims that no one was targeted on the basis of their political or religious beliefs. Rather, they pursued those claims and grilled government officials, to detail facts that proved otherwise. As Vox and RealClearPolitics, among others, noted, a full 83 percent, or 248 of the 298 applications “flagged” between early 2010 and May 2012, were filed by conservative groups — as were 100 percent of those subject to audits — compared with 9% of liberal groups. The IRS crackdown snared a few liberal outfits, sure, but almost by accident, said Reason.com, much “the way tuna nets catch an occasional dolphin.”

Online, investigations are continuing into government harassment and bullying, from wide new media coverage of the ACLJ lawsuit filed on behalf 41 Tea Party and conservative groups from 22 states, to Watchdog.org’s extensive series of questionable “John Doe” investigations by prosecutors into former aides and associates of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin (see “Wisconsin’s Secret War“).

Online, the abuse that results from the misuse of power is being debated and challenged — because online, new media reporters aren’t “losing interest” in the government’s use of tax power to suppress free speech, political or religious affiliation, and public assembly.

So, before the next quiz, you might want to check for news where it’s most widely and usefully being reported — online.

Search Engines to the Rescue of Investigative Journalism

Monday, February 9th, 2015

“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” – James Madison, fourth President of the United States and author of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and of the press.

The rise of search engines have given us the ability to advance and diffuse knowledge more rapidly than ever before. After all, we all use the Internet to find a definition or to learn more about issues and stay up to date on current events.

Future of News

Marc Andreessen (coauthor of Mosaic, the first widely used web browser, and cofounder of Netscape Communications Corporation) recently wrote an article titled “The Future of the News Business: A Monumental Twitter Stream All in One Place.” Andreessen wrote that he is the most optimistic person he knows regarding the future of the news industry. He feels there are three main factors at play:

1  Distribution, moving from locked down to completely open.

2  Competition, moving from narrow segments to everything is open.

3  Market size, growing by leaps and bounds around the world.

Andreessen further pointed out that the first two factors drive prices down while the third factor greatly increases volume. Given these factors, he feels that the opportunity for the overall news business is huge.

His next insight offers an intriguing business perspective. Andreessen notes the relatively small amount of money that is at play in the news business relative to other industries. He feels it is a simple problem to resolve, suggesting that a big opportunity exists to fund investigative reporting via philanthropy and even crowdsourcing. Andreessen goes on to note that despite $300 billion in philanthropic activity in the United States, the news industry does not tap into nearly enough of this funding source.

Andreessen concludes by discussing business models and suggests that the wall between content and advertising must be torn down. We can hear the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments from the old-line journalism crowd. Yet from a true business perspective it all needs to be about delivering value to your audience.

Search engines get this difference and are delivering that value to their reader, or what we call “viewers.” When a viewer goes online to search for a topic or news item, they also get served links—or information—to make associated purchases. Search engines deliver more value to their viewers. 

Death of News

Well, if Andreessen is optimistic about the news industry, Robert G. Kaiser is not. In his recent article “The Bad News About the News” published by the Brookings Institution (a non-profit public policy organization based in Washington, DC), this retired editor of the Washington Post cites a litany of woes and notes a key recipient of the benefits of this change—search engines.

Kaiser states that advertising revenue of all United States’ newspapers in 2000 was $63.5 billion, and by 2013 had plummeted to $23 billion. On the other hand, the most popular search engine’s advertising revenue has moved from $70 million in 2001 to $50.6 billion in 2013.

Advertising Revenue

Newspaper advertising works on the broadcast principle of shipping everything to the broadest audience. On the other hand, search engines and other digital properties can target ads to people who are seeking a particular item. Advertisers get to optimize their investment through different types of behavioral targeting that can really make an impact on sales. In this way, search engines deliver greater value to their advertisers.

Kaiser offers further insight about newspapers and their advertisers who have yet to fully embrace digital marketing. He points out that Americans spend about 5% of their media time with magazines and newspapers, yet nearly 20% of advertising dollars still go to print media. Kaiser goes on to project that when these advertisers start awakening to the advantages of digital marketing, the shift of advertising dollars will be even greater.

Kaiser also reports that the number of journalists at United States’ newspapers has moved from 59,000 in 1989 to 36,000 in 2012. That has to hurt from the perspective of someone who has built his career at the top of that industry. You can understand still more of this downside at Newspaper Death Watch or by reviewing the Wikipedia list of defunct newspapers. 

Newspaper Reporters

Creative Destruction

It all adds up to yet another example of Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.” Schumpeter’s concept builds on the original work of Karl Marx, stating that capitalism must destroy and reconfigure previous economic orders to clear the way for the creation of new wealth. Here we are seeing the old economic model of newspaper and television broadcasting up against the Internet’s ability to “narrow-cast” information to smaller and smaller groups.

As the stories above demonstrate, those small groups, or even single individuals, have interest in specific news about their industry segment and/or communities but also expect to be served options on how to respond. Advertisers who are savvy enough to know who to target, what channel to use to reach them, and even the subjects of interest to those they are trying to reach, can readily fill this void. Search engines have built the delivery systems for advertisers and online news outlets that are fully engaged in “creative destruction.”

Franklin Center’s Role in the New Media Landscape

We will admit that we are right in the heart of the “creative destruction” of the traditional media order. Yet we began this journey–and continue to this day–defending the critical need for investigative reporting at every level of government. We are particularly focused on statehouse reporting, as that is where traditional media have retreated the farthest and, therefore, where the need is greatest.

Can search engines come to the rescue of journalism? Certainly the model of online narrow-casting and delivering value to the viewer is front and center for content delivery. Yet, we would argue that the need for sound investigative reporting, watchdog reporting, if you will, remains somewhat outside the mainstream of the economic factors at play in the creation of this new order. That is why we are a non-profit, generating funding from like-minded individuals and organizations to drive serious investigative reporting at every level.

You can learn more about how the Franklin Center is working in this new world of online journalism here. You can also find our top local stories that have been picked up by national media here.

Franklin Center bloggers amplify school choice

By
Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

School choice is more than just an academic subject. School choice–the right of parents to choose the best education options for their children–is an issue that touches the lives of families across America.

This past weekend, 40 bloggers from across the country gathered in the nation’s capital to see that firsthand at the Franklin Center’s AmplifySchoolChoice conference.

On the first day of the conference, attendees visited two schools in the DC area.

First, bloggers visited Archbishop Carroll High School, a Catholic school that serves many underprivileged students. Some of the school’s top students gave tours of the school, allowing conference goers the chance to see students and teachers hard at work. Later on, a panel of students answered questions. One student explained that he travels more than an hour to get to school each day.

Many students at Carroll are able to attend the school thanks to the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. Originally signed into law and later defunded by President Obama, the program was reauthorized by Congress in 2011.

Bloggers next visited the middle school campus of Achievement Prep, a top-rated charter school in Southeast DC, serving students in grades 4-8. Achievement Prep scholars–as they refer to their students–are nearly twice as likely to be proficient in math and reading than other students in the District of Columbia.

The goal of Achievement Prep is to prepare its scholars for high school and beyond, which they achieve by creating an environment that fosters a love of learning. Susan Cannon, the school’s Chief Academic Officer, told the bloggers about a parent who said her child used to not know what he was doing next weekend, but now he’s talking about where he wants to go to college. That kind of change is common with Achievement Prep scholars.

Throughout the rest of the conference, the bloggers heard from experts in the field of school choice.

On day one, Moriah Costa of Watchdog.org and Andrew Clark of IJReview discussed their ideas for reporting effectively on school choice. Additionally, Dick Komer of the Institute for Justice gave his take on school choice as one of the leading litigators of the school choice movement. Bloggers tweeted his remarks as part of an interactive “tweet-up” using the hashtag #AmplifyChoice.

U.S. Senator Tim Scott surprised the bloggers by joining the conference via Skype to explain to the audience why he supports school choice.

Later on, Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute discussed the importance of curriculum, Gina Mahony of the National Alliance for Public Charters explained the importance of charter schools, and in one of the highlights of the conference, Robert Enlow, President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, gave his take on the issue and interviewed a parent and student of Archbishop Carroll High School.

The mother and daughter discussed how the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program and other forms of school choice have made a major difference for their family.

On day two of the conference, bloggers learned about bipartisan outreach from Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform and Virginia Walden Ford of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Later they got tips on marketing school choice from Greg Reed of the Institute for Justice, Matt Frendewey of the American Federation for Children, and Tanzi West of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Next Ben Scafidi of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice explained the economics of school choice. His research shows that school choice programs can actually save the government money, contrary to the refrain from school choice opponents.

To close out the conference, Don Soifer and Naomi DeVeaux of DC Public Charter School Board discussed their role in bringing greater choice to DC-area parents. As an independent authorizer, they can approve charter schools without much interference from the government. In many jurisdictions, the local school board holds the power and refuses to approve charter schools.

By the end of the conference, the bloggers were motivated to amplify School Choice: by blogging, tweeting, and more.

School choice certainly affects students and their parents, but it affects us all. What will you do to Amplify School Choice?

For more on school choice and to read the work of bloggers who attended the conference, check out AmplifySchoolChoice.com, a project of the Franklin Center. 

Boiling down the Net Neutrality debate – FREE whitepaper

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

Net Neutrality Whitepaper Slider

Net neutrality is arguably one of the most important, yet least understood, tech policy issues of the day. Often intimidated by the technical jargon, any attention mainstream pundits might give to the issue is but brief and shallow, leaving the debate to be fought in policy corners like ideologically-slanted niche tech blogs and Washington, D.C. luncheons sponsored by special interests.

Net Neutrality, however, has serious implications for domestic and international economies – and for civil liberties. The U.S. economy is already tightly integrated into the Internet, and any debate about the future of the American economy without serious consideration about the future of the Internet is incomplete and laughable.

This white paper attempts to distill the debate for the layperson, i.e., someone without the policy or technical background.

Click here for your FREE download

Watchdog.org reporters amplify school choice

By
Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Photo courtesy of National School Choice Week

Few choices that parents make about their children are as important as where they will be educated.

Important, that is, if they are actually permitted to choose.

Looking at the polling data, school choice programs should be sweeping the nation. Simply put, school choice is the idea that children and parents should be able to choose from a variety of educational options rather than being forced into a publicly mandated school. Time and again, they have proven effective at improving students’ test scores and graduation rates. And recent polls have found strong bipartisan support for this idea, with 69 percent of Americans saying that parents should have the right to use education tax dollars to send their child to the public or private school that best serves their needs. Yet in reality, school choice programs are still relatively rare across the country, despite their popularity.

This week is National School Choice Week, when groups and organizations from all over the country work together to “shine a positive spotlight on the need for effective education options for all children.”

To amplify this conversation about the power of school choice to transform both the lives of children and the communities in which they live, the Franklin Center’s professional journalism division, Watchdog.org, has devoted more reporters to the education beat than any other subject over the past year. This is unique among almost all other media organizations. Our five-person team of education reporters is seizing the school choice narrative all over the country – from our nation’s capital to the suburbs and inner cities.

learn more amplify school choiceIn doing so, they help fulfill a critical part the Franklin Center’s mission to keep government accountable to the people and act as a watchdog for taxpayers. Local government is often the “laboratory of democracy” where new education policies are road-tested – and either succeed or fail. On the micro level, it is important for reporters to cover new policies and schools because taxpayers in those communities deserve to know whether the money devoted to education is well-spent. And on the macro level, these stories deserve national attention because they can provide a template for education reform for other cities and states across America.

What does this look like in action? Our coverage of school choice issues tends to focus on two basic narratives, highlighting how school choice programs are giving poor children or those with special needs a quality education that they would not have otherwise received, or looking at communities where school choice does not exist and seeing the great lengths to which families will go to try to give their children a better future.

This may mean shining a light on low-income students in Washington, D.C. who have been denied scholarships through the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Perhaps it means telling the story of Paul Davis, a single father in St. Louis who works part time as a taxi driver to supplement his Social Security income. Davis’ son has mild to moderate autism and was often bullied at Normandy Middle School. He had no other option, until the school lost its accreditation and a state law allowed Davis to transfer his son to new school in one of the highest performing districts in the state, where his experience has been much better.

Or on a more positive note, covering school choice may look like this story about the success of Hope Christian School in Milwaukee, which recently opened a new campus. The new campus has grown from just 47 K-4 students when it opened in 2002 to a current student body of 580. The school has posted huge successes, such as a 100 percent college acceptance rate for its seniors over the past two years.

These are just a few of the scores of stories told by Watchdog.org’s education reporters over the past year. Together they are shaping the narrative of the state of education in America, showing readers how school choice could be the key to a better future for the next generation.

Off the rails: Why streetcars just aren’t making it

By
Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

streetcar FC piece 1

You know things are bad for public transportation projects when even “transit-supporting urbanites” have started questioning their value.

That’s the verdict of a recent story in Politico, which investigates why the plethora of streetcar projects in urban areas across the country just aren’t making it. With setbacks, delays, snags, and cancellations even in more liberal locales like Virginia’s Arlington County, it suggests that with a little more political courage perhaps some of these projects could turn around and become one of President Obama’s great policy triumphs. The issue isn’t nearly that simple, however.

A flurry, then failure

Throughout the piece, breadcrumbs of cost overrun, ridership and political opposition keep appearing, until finally the writer hits upon a root problem:

(The Department of Transportation’s) little-noticed change to its funding criteria scrapped a George W. Bush-era rule that had weighed funding decisions most heavily on whether transportation projects were cost-effective and would reduce commuting time — factors in which streetcars fare relatively poorly. Instead, criteria like economic development and environmental benefits now get equal footing.

Before you could say ‘Blanche DuBois,’ the result was a flurry of streetcar projects on a scale that hadn’t been seen in decades, as cities rushed to lay down tracks to replace the ones they had torn up at the start of the automobile era 60 years earlier.

The subsequent stories of public waste, delays, and boondoggles are ones that Watchdog.org has reported on time and again since our inception. In just the past year, for example, our reporters in Wisconsin, Florida, Minnesota and Virginia have seen local streetcar projects turned into nothing more than a dead-end for taxpayers and their communities.

Covering streetcars and light rail projects

streetcar FC piece 2In the aforementioned Arlington County, Watchdog.org’s Virginia bureau has a series of stories detailing the incessantly rising price tag of a controversial streetcar project that was eventually scrapped in the face of elections. The project was initially pegged at $110 million, but had spiked to more than half a billion dollars by the time it was finally canned. One study claimed the streetcar would generate $4.4 billion in revenue, but as Watchdog.org reported, the study came out 11 days before a special election in Arlington, and many were skeptical of its bullish projections.

In fact, Watchdog.org’s streetcar series is credited with directly swaying the county’s decision to reject the project.

“I believe your series of articles on the Pike streetcar will become a classic and be required reading in other cities considering or applying for federal money,” said Joe Warren, a member of the Arlington Transit Committee. “There are several lessons about the Arlington streetcars that can be applied nationally.”

Some of these lessons are evident in Milwaukee, where Watchdog.org’s Matt Kittle and Adam Tobias have reported on a fierce local debate in which a diverse coalition has banded together in opposition to Mayor Tom Barrett’s $124 million streetcar plan. Mayor Barrett has made all the usual arguments that the project would spur economic development and create jobs, while his opponents counter that previous transportation-led funding priorities in the city have been “dismal failures.” These concerned citizens point to the fact that the current price-tag has already ballooned by millions of dollars since its initial estimation due to utility relocation costs that the city would be responsible for if it decides to actually construct the line.

In Florida’s Pinellas County, a proposed 24-mile long light rail train connecting St. Petersburg to Clearwater hangs in the balance. It is projected to cost about $2 billion. To pay for it, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is asking Pinellas County residents to vote themselves the highest sales tax rate in the state, a raise that would cost the county’s 900,000 residents about $100 million each year. To make matters worse, the PSTA’s chief executive is under fire for several scandals, including a misspent federal terrorism grant.

Studies covered by Florida Watchdog are critical of the proposed light rail system, projecting high costs and low passenger capacity. As Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the CATO Institute wrote in a commentary for Watchdog.org: “This would be a disaster for transit riders, taxpayers, and auto drivers in the region.” So far, it seems his prognosis is accurate.

Minnesota’s state capital, St. Paul, has encountered similar difficulties in its attempts at light rail. During the construction of its $1 billion, 11-mile-long light rail line, both businesses and taxpayers took a direct hit. Businesses along the line received almost $4 million in 0-percent “forgivable loans,” courtesy of taxpayers. Yet retailers along the line suffered an average 30 percent loss in sales. And to add insult to injury, “hundreds of St. Paul property owners were assessed some $2.3 million for their share of more than $16 million in upgraded street lighting, curbs and sidewalks,” reported Minnesota Watchdog’s Tom Seward. “No wonder they call it the ‘Green Line.’”

It remains to be seen whether these businesses will recover from the assessment, which leaves them with nicer curbs and streetlights but fewer parking spaces and less traffic. For many of them the future looks bleak.

Waking up to reality

Back in 2010, when he was the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood proclaimed to an optimistic gathering of business leaders and public officials that “today, streetcars are coming back.”

The trend that Watchdog.org stories have been capturing over the past five years tells the opposite story, however. Many cities have ended up millions of dollars poorer with little to show for it, and taxpayers are starting to realize that these shiny new public transit projects often don’t provide their promised economic boon.

It looks like LaHood couldn’t have been more wrong.

Infographic: Decline in old media vs. rise in new

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

Traditional versus Digital Media Infographic

Over the past few years, the Pew Research Center and others have been publishing a great deal of information about the overall decline of traditional news outlets (newspapers, radio, and television). They have also been sharing the data and insight following this market trend of taking the reporting of stories from newsprint to your computer. Franklin Center and many, many others have also been reporting and blogging on those numbers.

Given this flurry of stories and data, we thought it would help to compile all that information visually in an infographic. As you can see below, infographics are a relatively new tool in the journalist’s toolbox. They combine the best of reporting with graphic design to clearly show trends and patterns. Ideally, they let you quickly grasp the essence of the story and move on to the next thing in your frenetic world.

For those of you who still want some words with your graphics, here are the big takeaways that we see in this data.

Newspapers

Daily use has declined from 42% of the population in 2004 to 29% in 2012. Circulation and newsroom staff have declined sharply. Readership across all age categories is declining, but there are far fewer younger readers.

Television News

Daily use has moved from 60% in 2004 to 55% in 2012, a slight decline. Market share by the network news shows is declining. Local news is growing but an increasing share of that coverage is going to sports, weather, and traffic.

Radio News

Daily use has moved from 40% in 2004 to 33% in 2012. This is a decline – but not as steep as with newspapers. Weekly radio news listenership has remained relatively constant. Listenership by age peaks in the 30–64 age groups. Online weekly radio listeners have grown rapidly, and are now at nearly 35% of the United States population.

Digital Media

Daily use has grown from 24% in 2004 to 39% in 2012. A whopping 71% of 18–29 year olds say digital media is their main source of news. Digital news outlets are growing and more people are getting their news on social media.

As you can see, this is a great snapshot of all the data that you have been seeing, but it does not entirely digest every research report, news report, and blog post. Is there something we have missed? Let us know what you see.

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