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Police took $4.1 million from motorists and built a police station: Watchdog covers civil asset forfeiture

By
Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Richland PD sign civil forfeiture

What’s the deal with the Richland’s new police station?

At first glance, residents of Richland, Mississippi were probably thankful for their new $4.1 million police station, complete with a top-level training center and a fleet of black-and-white Dodge Charger police cars, especially with the sign announcing that funds for it were “tearfully donated by drug dealers.” It seemed like a win-win. After all, who could argue against money from bad guys going to keep us safe?

Mississippi Watchdog reporter Steven Wilson, however, took a deeper look at the Richland Police Department, and uncovered a much different story behind the new station. While much of the money may have come from drug dealers, it was acquired through a much more controversial practice: civil asset forfeiture – property and cash seized from during traffic stops from motorists on the mere suspicion that they had committed a crime – no conviction necessary.

The sheer egregiousness of the practice launched Steve’s story up the ranks of top posts to reach the number two spot on Reddit, the “front page of the internet,” where nearly 6,000 readers upvoted the story and more than 3,000 commenters chimed in, driving tens of thousands of readers to learn about the huge forfeiture numbers racked up by Richland’s four-officer interdiction team, whose total civil forfeiture collection averages out to $72 per resident of the small town.

Watchdog Opinion contributor Logan Albright explains how civil asset forfeiture works: “If police or federal agents suspect that property has been involved in the commission of a crime, they can simply take it. No charges need be filed against the property owner, no trial must occur. In effect, the property itself is accused of a crime, and it’s up to the owner to prove its innocence if they ever wants to see it again.”

A long list of abuses

This story is hardly an isolated incident. Last year in Philadelphia, for example, Chris Sourovelis and his family lost their home after his son was caught by police selling $40 of heroin – a punishment that hardly seems commensurate to the crime. Reporting on the case exposed some of the worst aspects of Philadelphia’s civil asset forfeiture program, showing how the city’s police department and district attorneys’ office regularly seizes homes, cars and other property from suspected criminals without any conviction. In some cases this even took place without any charges being filed.

shutterstock_25312519At the federal level, many innocent business owners have been targeted by the IRS through civil asset forfeiture laws, such as the Hirsch family from Long Island, NY, who own a distribution company. They had more than $446,000 in assets and cash seized by the Internal Revenue Service in 2012, even though they were never charged with a crime. The federal government eventually dropped its case against the Hirschs, but it took nearly three years of legal battles for them to get their money back.

The issue has been steadily rising in the national consciousness lately, thanks to efforts by civil rights advocates and in-depth investigations by prominent mainstream publications like The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. It doesn’t take much political savvy to understand why civil asset forfeiture inspires activists and strikes a nerve with readers. The practice runs counter to many Americans’ sensibilities about property rights and the principle that citizens should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. It has its legal origins in British maritime law in the mid-1600s and first came into use widely in America during the Prohibition years, when police used it to seize cash and property from bootleggers. Since the war on drugs escalated in the 1980s, law enforcement has revived civil asset forfeiture to crack down on drug trafficking, and the practice has become steadily more lucrative. Justice Department seizures from a single program, for example, have risen from $407 million in 2001 to $4.2 billion in 2012.

The movement for reform

As more voters and the lawmakers who represent them become aware of civil asset forfeiture, proposals to reform the system have received substantial support from across the political spectrum. Two states that have passed reform this year, for example, have done so overwhelmingly despite having politically divided statehouses and governors.

Earlier this year New Mexico’s legislature unanimously passed a bill making significant reforms to its civil asset forfeiture laws, and it was signed into law by Governor Susana Martinez – a former prosecutor – in April. The state now requires a criminal conviction before property can be forfeited, proceeds from forfeitures will go into the general fund (rather than to local law enforcement budgets), and property owners have better due process protections such as a codified “innocent owner” presumption. New Mexico

In Montana, the Republican-dominated statehouse and Democratic governor Steve Bullock joined together in April and May to pass House Bill 463. Similar to reform in New Mexico, the law requires a criminal conviction before property can be forfeited, and it requires police to provide “clear and convincing” evidence tying the property to criminal activity for them to keep it. The Montana law does not go so far as to divert forfeiture revenue into a general fund, however.

The broad support for reform in these states suggests that for the rest of the country, one of the greatest obstacles to reform is ignorance. Watchdog stories are helping to change that though, and legislative efforts are underway elsewhere in the country.

In Virginia, a bipartisan group of lawmakers are leading an effort to curb the police’s ability to seize cash and property from innocent citizens. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers have begun calling for changes to the civil asset forfeiture system so that the “innocent until proven guilty” principle applies to law enforcement looking to take people’s property. And in Wyoming, the senate has supported civil asset forfeiture reforms with a decisive 80-9 vote on SF14. The measure was shot down by Republican Gov. Matt Mead, the legislature may consider updating the measure’s reforms to make them more agreeable to Gov. Mead.

A possible new logo for the state of Tennessee

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s website.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s website.

A story by Chris Butler in Tennessee Watchdog about a possible new logo has been going viral in the state. Here’s the story and a list of media hits below.

Will Tennessee get a costly new logo? State officials aren’t saying

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — A possible new logo for the state of Tennessee — bright red and white with a simplistic design — could cost taxpayers a lot of money and state employees a lot of time.

Apparently, no one in the office of Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam wants to talk about it, but a mundane, matter-of-fact item buried deep inside a federal website gives much away. (Read more)

 

In the News

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.09.27 PM

Butler appears on WSMV-TV, Nashville’s NBC affiliate, to discuss his story on the state changing its official logo to an unattractive, simplistic design at a cost of $46,000 to taxpayers.  “This is something a fifth-grader could easily produce on his or her computer at home,” said Butler, with Watchdog.org.

Check out WSMV-TV Facebook post on the story!

Nashville radio talk show host Joe Carr discussed Butler’s story on his morning radio show Thursday morning. 

The Nashville PostThe Memphis FlyerFOXNewsSportsWBIR of Knoxville, The RepublicWRCBTV of Chattanooga, ADWeek, all picked up the story.

Fox New, Special Report mentioned the logo redesign on the Grapevine.

The firm that created the logo even responded with a statement.

 

Pick your headline: Chris Christie spends $300K on food and booze

By
Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Sometimes, a news story breaks that transcends the conventional boundaries of political parties, culture, ideology, interests, and even parody. It’s the story that gets a reaction from news outlets as diverse as DRUDGE REPORT, Gawker, USA Today, The Huffington Post, Bleacher Report, and everyone in between. It’s the story that simply must be shared, the one you tell your friends about, the one that gets all the talking heads, well… talking.

Last week, that story was a New Jersey’s Watchdog analysis of spending records that revealed that New Jersey governor Chris Christie has spent more than $300,000 on food and alcohol during his five years as governor – including more than $82,000 to Delaware North Sportservice, which operates concessions at MetLife stadium where Christie often attends NFL games. Traditionally MetLife allows him to use the luxury boxes at the games for free, but he has to pick up the tab for food and beverages.

The money comes out of Christie’s annual $95,000 expense allowance, which he receives in addition to his annual $175,000 salary. Christie returns surplus funds to the state each year, but Treasury officials say he does not submit receipts or accounting for the public monies he spends.

The governor’s press secretary was quick to respond with a statement, which explained that “The official nature and business purpose of the event remains the case regardless of whether the event is at the State House, Drumthwacket or a sporting venue.”

It’s also important to note that the spending at NFL games took place during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The following year, in what appeared to be an attempt to save political face, the New Jersey Republican State Committee reimbursed the state for the football spending, so taxpayers ultimately were not on the hook for it.

You can’t undo the past, however, and if you do the math, the fact remains that Christie spent on average more than $2,500 a game on  concessions.

SL sign of the apocalypse

Watchdog in Sports Illustrated

More than 100 websites and news outlets picked up the story, with reactions ranging from subtle criticism to downright outrage. Here are a few of the highlights:

“Let he who has not spent way too much of other people’s money on beer and nachos cast the first stone,” quipped Buzzfeed.

“Chris Christie, I salute you: It takes skill to spend $82,000 on snacks!” read the Salon headline. “New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s spending may have been despicably wasteful, but it’s also impressive!”

Multiple accounts of the story, such as the Daily Caller‘s coverage, noted that Christie’s food spending dropped sharply at the same time as his own efforts to lose weight, with his monthly food spending dropping by 40 percent since he underwent Lap-Band surgery.

The Washington Post covered the story as a guilt trip by listing ten other things Christie could have spent $82,000 on, such as a block of Jersey Shore boardwalk rebuilding, a year’s household income for the average New Jerseyean, or three years of tuition at Rutgers.

The lede in the New York Times highlighted how Christie’s big personal spending clashes with his conservative rhetoric: “Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey likes to point out how he has made big cuts to state spending. But when it comes to using his allowance money as governor, he appears happy to be a high roller.”

Forbes echoed this sentiment: “One of the major policy tenets of the Republican Party is limiting government spending. But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, considering a run for the presidency in 2016, may not have gotten that memo yet.”

“We assume that $82,594 amounts to roughly seven beers and one soda in NFL stadium prices,” National Journal jibed. “While there’s nothing to suggest that the concessions spending was improper, especially since it was paid back to the state, it shows just how much Christie is willing to spend on football, or have spent on his behalf.”

Even the satirical Onion couldn’t resist taking a shot. “Impressive, but I’m still not sure he’s ready to misallocate funds at the presidential level,” wrote a fictional respondent.

At the end of the day, thanks in no small part to the sheer irony of the headline, the story turned into a huge media dogpile, thrusting Watchdog into the center of the national conversation. For Mark Lagerkvist and all the other reporters at Watchdog, it’s a refreshing reminder that substantive investigative journalism and viral internet stories do not need to be mutual exclusive things. And it’s an encouraging example of how audiences across the political spectrum – and even those who don’t closely follow their government and elected officials – can into a story that holds elected officials accountable for frivolous, freewheeling spending.

Watchdog reporter Andrew Staub awarded Novak Journalism Fellowship

By
Monday, May 18th, 2015

Andrew Staub profileOn Wednesday, May 13, Pennsylvania Watchdog (formerly PA Independent) reporter Andrew Staub (pictured) became the fourth Watchdog.org reporter to formally accept a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship. Andrew was awarded a $25,000, part-time fellowship during The Fund for American Studies’ annual Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship Awards Dinner at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

His project is titled “A Legacy of Prohibition: The fight to privatize Pennsylvania’s archaic liquor monopoly by introducing a free-market system to benefit state consumers.”

He sums it up like this: “That’s just a long way of saying I’ll be writing about how confusing it is to buy wine, liquor and beer in Pennsylvania.”

His work on the project begins September 1st.

Andrew previously worked as a reporter at The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, and The Citizens’ Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He graduated with a bachelor’s in journalism from Penn State University.

The Novak Journalism Fellowship Program was launched in 1994 to nurture a new generation of responsible journalists. Legendary journalist Robert Novak provided the inspiration for the program, which was named in his honor following his passing in 2009. Novak Fellows devote a full year to a journalism project supportive of American culture, a free society, and free enterprise.

Andrew joins Jon Cassidy as a current Watchdog.org reporter who doubles as Novak Fellow. Former Watchdog reporters Ryan Ekvall and Bill McMorris were also Novak Fellows.

Click here for a list of former and past fellowship recipients.

Local news in the digital age: it still matters!

By
Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Shutterstock image

The Pew Research Center recently completed an in-depth study exploring the radically changing landscape of local media. The report focused on three different cities of varying size and demographics: Denver, CO; Macon, GA; and Sioux City, IA. The report is quick to note that its findings should not be extrapolated to the rest of the country, but rather seen as three case studies through which we can gain some insight into how Americans value and consume local news.

The value of local news

The first and most important finding from the Pew study is that even in our globally-connected world, Americans in these cities still deeply value local news, with almost 90 percent saying they follow local news closely and half following it very closely.

Additional findings from the study paint a picture that is neither decisively favorable nor unfavorable to the state of local news. Clearly, citizens are involved and invested in their communities and care about the news, but for many, their media consumption is narrow and shallow.

Most respondents said they did not get their local news from their main daily paper. Forty percent of Sioux City residents said they got their news from their main daily, 36 percent in Macon, and just 23 percent in Denver. This corresponds inversely to digital engagement. In Denver, which has the highest rate of broadband access among the three cities, residents are five to ten percent more likely to say the Internet is very important in keeping up with local news. That said, digital access is fairly strong across the board, with 68% of Denver residents, 66% in Macon and 56% in Sioux City accessing at least one local news provider digitally.

shutterstock_241933117In spite of the rapid growth of online news, television remains the dominant news source, especially in markets with fewer alternative news outlets like Macon and Sioux City (Denver’s 140 news providers are about two and a half times as many as Macon and Sioux City combined). Two thirds of people in these latter two cities rely on local TV for news, whereas Denver clocks in at a bit less – 58 percent.

Citizen participation

In each city, direct participation in the news process is fairly equal. About 10 percent have called in to a local TV or radio show in the past year, and about 20 percent have commented on a local news blog. When it comes to speaking with a reporter, the numbers diverge more between cities. Sioux City residents are nearly twice as likely as a Denver resident to have spoken with a journalist, 29 percent versus 16 percent, while Macon is right in the middle at 23 percent.

The numbers look a little less positive, however, when it comes to direct citizen engagement. Fewer than 10 percent of respondents in any of the three cities have submitted content to a local news provider in the past year. Twenty percent of local news stories in Denver, 13 percent in Sioux City, and 18 percent in Macon featured at least one citizen source, but stories with citizen bylines were extremely rare – fewer than one percent in any city.

One encouraging finding is that many people appear engaged in important issues that affect their lives, with at least four-in-ten in every city saying they frequently talk about local government, politics, and the economy.

What does it mean for journalists?

What should we take away from this study? For the Franklin Center, it highlights both the value and the relevance of our state- and local-focused journalism. Clearly, a huge segment of Americans still care about what is happening in their communities, and they depend on local news outlets to bring them stories that hit closest to home. True impact journalism doesn’t cover unrelatable policy debates in D.C., hundreds of miles away from Main Street. Instead, it shows how those government agencies and programs impact you and your neighbors, and it seeks to shine a light on abuse and overreach when those institutions betray the public trust.

The low citizen engagement seen in the Pew report means we still have a lot of work to do. More citizen bylines and citizen-supplied content would almost certainly make local news more engaging, substantial, and impactful. Politicians always try to at least appear like they can connect with and understand the average citizen, and the press should strive to do the same, speaking to readers in an engaging way that reflects the interests of the typical taxpaying citizen. One of the best ways they can do this is by involving citizens more directly in the newsmaking process. That is the chief focus of the Franklin Center’s citizen team, Watchdog Arena, which has empowered citizens to spark debates and effect change through the power of the press.

To learn more about how you can become a citizen journalist in your community, check out our citizen stories at Watchdog Arena, and download our free Video Tipsheet for advice on capturing newsworthy moments from politicians, public meetings, protests and more.

Counting the Kemper costs: Mississippi’s travails with “clean coal”

By
Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

Kemper_County_Coal_Gasification_Plant

By XTUV0010 (own work) via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a boondoggle of football stadium proportions – or sports cars, fighter jets, or just about any other absurdly expensive item you can imagine.

Mississippi’s Kemper Project is a first-of-its-kind integrated-gasification power plant designed to fulfill the growing need for electricity in the Magnolia State. Extolled as a great technological leap forward, it functions by converting lignite coal to natural gas-like synthesis gas, which fire its 582-megawatt turbines. Its appeal lies in its Holy Grail-like prospects of burning “clean coal,” because it captures and stores carbon much better than traditional coal-fired plants.

Reality, however, hasn’t delivered on the advertising’s glowing promises. Since its inception, news about the Kemper Project has mostly been a one note tune: costs have increased again. And again. And again. And again.

Mississippi Watchdog reporter Steve Wilson, who has been following the Kemper Project story for more than a year now, ticks off a laundry list of disconcerting facts along these lines. The clean coal plant has increased in cost by more than 70 percent over its initial projections and is two years behind schedule – due in part to delays and government regulations. It is held up as an example for future coal power plants, but the dirty little secret is that currently it does not work – and might never work. Unfortunately, it is the rate payers for Mississippi Power, the utility that built the plant, who have been saddled with 18 percent rate increases to pay for the plant’s $6.175 billion price tag. That makes it one of the most expensive power plants per kilowatt in the country.

As a reference point, the facility’s original cost when construction was approved in 2010 was $2.4 billion. For a price tag comparable to the Kemper Project’s current cost of more than $6 billion, Mississippi could have built a pair of nuclear reactors – a proven, mature technology – capable of generating four times as much power.shutterstock_158535314

“This story is a classic example of the dangers of a ‘public-private partnership,’” said Wilson. It has its origin in the U.S. Department of Energy awarding Mississippi Power a sizable grant to build a first of its kind plant. The technology, however, hadn’t been proven to work and was bound to be expensive, so Mississippi Power decided to use a system of rate increases on its customers to pay for the rest. Just how much of the costs ratepayers will absorb is still a matter of controversy. Currently a cap on Kemper Project power plant construction costs is still in effect, meaning theoretically Mississippi Power can’t raise rates and cite the $6.2 billion plant as the reason. Mississippi Power, however, is arguing that under state law, the Mississippi Public Service Commission and the Legislature can authorize increases that exceed the cap of $2.4 billion.

“The worst thing for the company’s ratepayers is that it’s not like they can go elsewhere for their electricity, so they’ve been hit with the bill for a plant that is way over budget and not even proven to work,” said Wilson.

Based on Watchdog’s series of stories on the Kemper Project, it is apparent that so-called clean coal doesn’t work and that the Department of Energy’s investments in the technology have so far been wasteful and misguided. Trying to convert coal into natural gas (which is basically what the gasifier does) is hard to justify in terms of cost when you can already get natural gas out of the ground inexpensively. “Plus, the product of the gasifier (synthesis gas) actually has a lower energy content than natural gas, so you’re expending a great deal of time, effort and ratepayers’ money on a technological dead-end,” said Wilson.

The fact that there are only a handful of similar plants – most much smaller than Kemper’s – is evidence itself that the process isn’t economically appealing and certainly doesn’t reflect the will of any sensible ratepayer.

“If these coal gasification plants worked so well and natural gas was as expensive as Mississippi Power claimed it’d be when the plant came on line, there would be more of them,” Wilson said. “But as it is, turning coal into basically inferior natural gas is an energy-intensive science project.”

Few stories by the local media probe beyond surface-level coverage of the many cost increases to the Kemper Project, which has risen more than half a billion dollars in the past nine months alone. Wilson’s coverage has been instrumental for citizens seeking to understand the issue by painting a more complete picture.

“They don’t explain the why and that’s where Watchdog.org fills the void,” he said. Anyone who pays a power bill in South Mississippi is well aware of the impending rate hikes. They surely aren’t happy about it, and ought to be informed about the reasons for the hikes.

Electricity bills, however, are only the beginning of the story. “Eventually, more local businesses will have to pass these increased costs onto consumers served by Mississippi Power,” Wilson said. “Local governments will be affected as well, dealing with an added cost beyond their control.”

If and when they do, Mississippi Watchdog will be there to make sure the story is told.

Think you’re finished paying your taxes? Not so fast.

By
Friday, April 24th, 2015

shutterstock_240961027

“A century ago, the income tax form was a single page,” writes Watchdog Arena contributor Peter Ingemi, but “today the tax code has become increasingly complex to the point where very few people actually do their own taxes.” In fact, a recent survey found that most Americans get an “F” in their understanding of income tax basics, scoring an average of 51 percent on a ten-question quiz.

We may have solved the problem of taxation without representation in 1776, but “it has been replaced by something almost as bad and nearly as destructive: taxation without understanding,” Ingemi quipped.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mess that is the American tax system. Granted, it may not seem like that big of deal that most people don’t really understand the tax code when they can use a computer program like TurboTax or hire an accountant. But to send your taxes off to an expert or computer is to concede that you don’t understand precisely how much you’re paying Uncle Sam – and why. It also means sacrificing a substantial amount of time (or money) to work your way through all the forms. Estimates of how long it takes to do an average individual return range from eight to almost 12 hours, and total tax compliance costs for the country are estimated to be as high as $182 billion. If you are “fortunate” enough to get a refund, don’t celebrate too much; it just means the government has been taking your money all year as an interest-free loan.

In the end, this widespread public ignorance makes it all the easier for government to collect and spend ever more money in ways unbeknownst to the typical taxpayer.

Image courtesy of Tax Foundation.

What can the average citizen do to start making sense of it all? The journalists and citizen contributors at Watchdog believe the first step toward understanding the present situation of our tax system is to realize just how much Americans are taxed. Every year the Tax Foundation releases a report that calculates America’s Tax Freedom Day, the point in the year at which the nation as a whole has earned enough money to pay off its tax bill for the year. This year, Tax Freedom Day falls on April 24th, which is 114 days – or 31 percent – into the work year. It’s also a day later than last year. When all federal, state, and local coffers have been filled, Americans will have paid a grand total of $4.85 trillion in taxes, according to the Tax Foundation report. That’s more than they will spend on food, clothing, and housing combined.

But that’s not all; it gets worse. As Watchdog Opinion contributor Kathryn Hickok pointed out, when you include annual federal borrowing in that calculation (which we will eventually have to repay anyways), Tax Freedom Day falls back another two weeks to May 8th.

You can find where your state ranks on this map. If you live in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Oregon, or Virginia, Watchdog writers and contributors have written a more in-depth analysis of their state’s ranking and what it means for you.

Want to learn more? Get the latest news about how government is spending your tax dollars at Watchdog.org

 

Booze, babes, and EBT: Watchdog.org covers welfare abuse

By
Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

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The Washington Post recently ran a series of articles purporting to explain how welfare benefits are spent in America. They open with ledes like “Poverty looks pretty great if you’re not living in it,” and “There’s nothing fun about being on welfare, and a new Kansas bill aims to keep it that way.” The idea behind such pieces is to provide a counter-narrative to the “suspicion” that the poor use food stamps and other government benefits to buy luxury goods like lobster and filet mignon.

Absent from the Post’s coverage is clear, convincing data about how much abuse takes place when it comes to welfare spending. They skirt the obvious question: Can anything be done to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent more responsibly?

For Watchdog.org, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

The Post’s stories were prompted by welfare reform bills in statehouses, such as House Bill 2258 in Kansas, which tightened restrictions on government assistance. In short, it means no more spending welfare funds on movies, gambling, or tattoos.

What drew lawmakers’ attention to welfare abuse in the first place? The story was nowhere until Kansas Watchdog began reporting on the issue in 2013. When reporter Travis Perry first investigated trends in the state’s distribution of funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, he was stonewalled and told that his request for records posed “an unreasonable burden on agency resources.”

Asking for such information was well within reason, especially since rumors of welfare fraud at the time had already prompted investigations in New York and Tennessee. Perry kept digging into the story, and eventually was able to expose thousands of abusive transactions where welfare cash had been withdrawn at liquor stores, smoke shops, casinos and strip clubs. In all, he calculated that Kansas residents receiving assistance through TANF spent about $43,000 on potentially-illicit goods and services from August to October of 2012.

EBT card

Kansas law prohibits the use of government assistance to purchase alcohol, tobacco, or lottery tickets. But the rule is more bark than bite because most businesses that cannot process EBT cards conveniently have an ATM location nearby, allowing welfare recipients to skirt the law with ease.

Just a few months after Kansas Watchdog exposed the poor enforcement of the law, Watchdog.org’s Tennessee bureau found itself facing a similar situation. In response to Tennessee Watchdog stories detailing a plethora of questionable EBT transactions, Governor Bill Haslam signed legislation into law prohibiting the use of EBT cards at adult establishments like liquor stores and strip clubs. But when Tennessee Watchdog followed-up on the story, reporter Chris Butler found that the law had been slow to go into effect – the owner of a Memphis liquor store, for instance, hadn’t even been notified of the new law!

Not all news has been discouraging, however. Many of Watchdog.org’s reports on welfare spending have led to more promising government action. Last year, for example, Colorado Watchdog published a series of stories showing that withdrawals from ATMs at casinos, liquor stores, and strip bars were still happening even though both federal and state laws prohibit it. Worse, Colorado Watchdog also discovered that welfare recipients had withdrawn money at pot shop ATMs and out of state in places like Las Vegas, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands. All in all these abuses totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the stories prompted a federal review of whether the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) is doing enough to stop them.

The state legislature soon acted to curb the abuse, introducing bills that would help keep CDHS more accountable by requiring it to regularly report illegal withdrawals to lawmakers. Businesses would be required to post a sign near ATMs saying welfare withdrawals are prohibited at their establishments, and owners of businesses or ATMs could face penalties if they do not act to stop the abuses.

Kansas, Tennessee, and Colorado do not represent isolated incidents. Watchdog.org has uncovered similar stories across the rest of the country, such as New Mexico, Iowa, and Texas. In each state, these stories represent a textbook case of what Watchdog.org was created to do – shine a light on abuse so that our government can do better. And now after years of faithfully reporting on the issue of welfare abuse, the national conversation is finally starting to turn. Legacy media outlets like The Washington Post may attempt to take the moral high ground and dismiss efforts at reform, but they only tell part of the story. These states ultimately acted to make better use of their tax dollars because Watchdog.org dared to undertake a grueling investigation and fearlessly report the facts.

Read more Watchdog.org stories about welfare abuse.

Social Media for News Consumption

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

watchdogorg-ipad

In our past blog posts we discussed the growth of nonprofit news versus traditional media coverage – with a particular focus on the increasing impact of digital news. Most of that digital news takes the shape of a website with news reports, videos, and photo coverage. That web content is also supported by social media, which typically gets the headlines out and attempts to draw readers into the full story.

Growth of Social Media

The Pew Research Internet Project’s January 2014 research on social media shows that 74% of all adults online use social networking sites. The 18–29 year-old segment leads the way with 89% using social media, while the 30–49 range is at 82%, 50–64 at 65%, and 65+ at 49%.

In a deeper social media study from September 2013, the Pew Research Internet Project reports that 71% of adults online are Facebook users, 22% use LinkedIn, 21% use Pinterest,18% use Twitter, and 17% use Instagram. They also report that 63% of Facebook users visit the site every day, while 40% visit multiple times each day. The International Business Times has posted a superb News on Facebook Infographic that does a great job of summarizing all this data.

We can see from the numbers and our own experience that social media is truly embedded in our daily lives. Foremost, it is about sharing experiences with family and friends. We can liken the image of social media to sharing stories over the backyard fence. It’s just that the backyard fence connects New York to Los Angeles and beyond. So what is happening on social media around the news?

Using Social Media for News

Again the Pew Research Center provides some keen insight – this time from their Journalism Project and recent report on social media and news. They report that half of Facebook and Twitter users get their news from those sites.

The Pew Research Center has parsed the numbers slightly differently in that they report 64% of the United States’ population uses Facebook. Note that this is different than the aforementioned 74% of adults who are online, a slightly different perspective on the numbers.

The big takeaway is that 30% of the United States’ population report getting their news on Facebook. Of those who consume news on the site, 78% find the news while on Facebook for other reasons. Just 22% of users think of Facebook as a useful way to get news, while only 34% “like” a news organization, commentator, or journalist. With Twitter, 16% of the United States’ population is on the site and 8% get their news there. You can see this in the chart below provided by Statista.

chartoftheday_2069_News_consumption_on_social_networks_n

Some interesting differences between Twitter and Facebook for news consumption emerged in Pew’s State of the News Media 2012 report. As expected, most of the news links that people report seeing come from friends and family. Yet 13% of Facebook users report most of their news links come from news organizations versus 27% of Twitter users. From this, it would appear that news organizations are a bigger part of the conversation on Twitter.

It is also important to examine what type of news topics people report seeing on Facebook. The breakdown from the Pew Research Center Facebook News Survey 2013 is:

  • Entertainment 73%
  • Community Events/People 65%
  • Sports 57%
  • National Politics 55%
  • Crime 51%

The Pew Research Center also reviewed traffic data from top news websites and found that those referred from social media sites as well as from search sites spent far less time on the site, inferring less engagement with the news and the site itself. They found that those arriving directly spent just over 4.5 minutes on the site, while users arriving from Facebook or from a search engine spent 1.5 minutes. That is a significant difference.

In a nod to citizen journalism, Pew studies also found that people are not only sharing news stories on social media (50%) but are also using their mobile devices to post photos (14%) or videos (12%) of news events. We can still recall that one of the first prominent uses of Twitter was the photos posted of passengers standing on the wings of an airliner that had just landed in the Hudson River—citizen journalism at its best.

What Does All This Mean to the Future of News?

Social media is where people spend their time, and this will only grow in the future. No longer is it enough to drop the newspaper on the front door step at a set time each day. Likewise, publishing the news on a website, while providing deep coverage, is not where people will “find” the news. They will be finding it on social media, through posts from friends and family.

Yet another avenue of news distribution are mobile platforms and news apps. We’ll explore this growing channel in a later post.

New Jersey Watchdog: Cultivating hard-hitting news in the Garden State

By
Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

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New Jersey Watchdog reporter Mark Lagerkvist is as much of a veteran journalist as they come. This year marks his fourth decade as an investigative reporter. His experience spans the gamut of network television, local stations, newspapers and magazines, and he has won more than 60 journalism awards over the course of his career. For him, however, reporting for New Jersey Watchdog isn’t simply the latest in a long line of media gigs. Journalism at Watchdog.org is different because it gives him the opportunity to follow his reporting instincts, find the hidden stories, and tackle complex issues.

“This is the most professional freedom I’ve enjoyed to pursue great stories,” he said, “and I appreciate that.”

Indeed, if you ask Lagerkvist about the most important story he has covered, he refuses to pick one and elevate it above the rest.

“All of New Jersey Watchdog’s reports are important. We don’t waste time with fluff, trivia or infotainment,” Lagerkvist said. “The most important stories have yet to be written.”

This relentless forward-thinking has propelled New Jersey Watchdog from an upstart, investigative website trying to find its place at the state media table to a critical source of substantive news coverage and analysis. Whether it’s crunching the numbers and cutting through government spin of the state’s public pension woes, or calling out the governor’s office for a lack of transparency, the result is bound to be both original and significant for readers who care about where their tax dollars are going.

For an in-depth look at New Jersey Watchdog’s coverage of the state’s public pension predicament, download our free whitepaper.

“New Jersey Watchdog specializes in original investigations and in-depth reports – tough stories on important topics that otherwise would not be told,” said Lagerkvist. “As traditional news outlets have cut back and downsized, New Jersey Watchdog has stepped up to the plate in the Garden State.”

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Lagerkvist (left) accepts a New York Press Club Award for political coverage.

Through the reach of media partners and outlets that use New Jersey Watchdog content, including television, newspapers, radio programs, and websites, the influence of New Jersey Watchdog is multiplied far beyond its own web traffic. This means the broader public is being informed about issues ranging from their highway system to their county sheriff department to their governor’s travel expenses. And equally important, that influence has reached the state’s movers and shakers.

“New Jersey Watchdog has been a major force in bringing the scope and extent of the state’s public pension problems to light,” said Lagerkvist. He notes that one of New Jersey Watchdog’s most comprehensive reports, “The Seven Deadly Sins of NJ Pensions, was recently cited by Gov. Chris Christie’s blue ribbon task force.

The shift in attention did not happen overnight. It has taken years of tenacious, persistent coverage, and will likely take many more to continue bending New Jersey’s media narrative around hard-hitting investigations into the uses and abuses of its taxpayer dollars. But so far Lagerkvist sees an encouraging change in how the public has grown more concerned about truly pressing issues like public pension reform.

“When New Jersey Watchdog began reporting on the state’s pension problems in 2010, no other news outlet was focusing on the issue,” said Lagerkvist. “Now it is center stage, widely seen as an obstacle to the state’s fiscal health.” It has taken such a focus that Christie devoted his annual budget address to it in February, but it remains to be seen whether lawmakers will act.

 

For an in-depth look at New Jersey Watchdog’s coverage of the state’s public pension predicament, download our free whitepaper.