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

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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.

The changing landscape of local journalism: Pulitzers in PR and nonprofit news

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

By Erik Telford

If you haven’t read about the 143-year-old-newspaper that went out of business or the reporter whose work exposing corruption and cronyism in a local school district was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize – but sadly only after he’d left for a job in PR, chances are it’s probably because your local newspaper doesn’t have the resources to cover these kinds of stories anymore. As traditional modes of journalism struggle to stay in business and more and more journalists leave the profession, citizens are at risk of losing one of their biggest allies in the battle to keep government and public officials accountable.

Since 2005, local newspapers in the U.S. have laid off one-third of their reporters, and since 2000 they have reduced state and local reporting output by 80 percent. Between 2003 and 2014, the Pew Research Center reports that the amount of newspaper reporters assigned to state capitol buildings has declined by 35 percent. Pew also found that in 2014 less than a third of U.S. newspapers assigned reporters to statehouses. Two of the biggest players in print journalism, The Washington Post and the New York Times, have even abandoned hyper-local reporting projects.

For some newspapers, cutting budgets isn’t enough.

Just last month the Toledo Free Press, a paper with a circulation of 72,000, announced it was ceasing operations after 10 years in the business. Much older papers are also feeling the crunch. In 2012, the Manassas News & Messenger, a newspaper that has been in circulation since the Reconstruction Era, went out of business. Its owners, BH Media Group (a subsidiary group of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway), stated that the paper suffered from too much “negative financial momentum” and was no longer viable in a digital world.

shutterstock_23792455It’s not just that newspapers are closing up shop. It’s that good journalists are leaving the field entirely.

Last month, Rob Kuznia was one of three journalists at The Daily Breeze, a small newspaper in southern California, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the widespread corruption within the Centinela Valley Union High School District. Today, instead of uncovering more cases of government corruption and saving taxpayers money, Kuznia is out of journalism and working in public relations.

According to Kuznia, his departure from journalism was because it was simply too difficult to make ends meet working in the newspaper business. It’s no surprise that Kuznia left the sinking ship of print journalism for a career in public relations—the pay gap between PR specialists and journalists is almost $20,000.

You know your industry has a problem when even those at the top of the field are leaving it.

The void in state and local government reporting is not driven entirely by a lack of consumer demand—local news usually ranks as the top priority of people surveyed— it’s that the economics of making a profit with local news in the digital era are difficult.

That’s where nonprofit journalism outlets are filling in the gap and playing a significant role. Groups like the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and Watchdog.org not only employ journalists that report on state and local issues, but they also train citizen journalists to keep their local governments accountable. Social media and smartphones have allowed citizens to become journalists in their own communities. The digital age has shown that it has the potential to make journalism better worldwide; in Russia and Spain, citizen journalists have helped uncover massive cases of corruption and electoral violations by public officials. Here in the U.S., Watchdog.org citizen jounalists frequently break stories which challenge public officials and hold them accountable. Recently, Texas citizen journalist Lou Ann Anderson uncovered that Texas Representative, and Public Education Committee appointee, Don Aycock’s daughter was a prominent education lobbyist in the state. Anderson’s report on the conflict of interest was picked up by the local paper and national news outlets, forcing Rep. Aycock’s daughter to resign from her lobbying job.

Many of the greatest threats to freedom and most egregious cases of corruption occur at the local level. Public officials at all levels of government need to continue to be held accountable, and we can no longer rely on traditional journalism outfits to do that. Not when newspapers are closing up shop and Pulitzer Prize winners are switching to PR.

Local news in the digital age: it still matters!

By
Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

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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

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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

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“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

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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.

What does journalism mean for democracy: fewer journalists on the beat

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

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You may have seen some of our earlier stories on “Covering State Government Today, On the Frontlines with Nonprofit News,” along with “The Changing Nature of News: A Study of Five Online Nonprofit Groups.” Nonprofit and online news organizations are where reporting is happening at the state and local levels as traditional news reporting recedes with declining advertising and funding. But what are the challenges, other than funding, that these smaller news organizations face?

Threats Facing Citizen Journalists

Even with all the foment of new media channels and multiplying sources of information, there are profound threats from having fewer journalists on the beat. We tend to think of some relatively recent journalistic work like Watergate, the Clinton Impeachment, NSA Wiretapping, and others. Wikipedia has even assembled a complete list of U.S. federal political scandals dating back to the 1700s.

A few things closer to home actually pose considerable concern. For example, GreenTech Automotive filed an $85 million lawsuit against the Franklin Center for our reporting. This suit was tossed out of court, but it is the type of thing that poses a considerable threat to fledgling news organizations and citizen journalists who do not have the resources or skill sets to defend themselves while continuing to report the facts as they see them.

Here are just a few of the threats and concerns that readily come to mind:

  • Libel Suits. These suits can be used by organizations and governments to shut down reporting, including any financial support. How does a citizen journalist or small organization defend itself in these situations?
  • Access Issues. There is a growing challenge of gaining access as a journalist if you do not have a business card from a major news outlet. How does a small organization or citizen journalist challenge a refusal to allow access?
  • Protecting Sources. You may have seen our work about media shield laws. How does a citizen journalist or small organization find the legal talent to help them battle court or government directed efforts to identify confidential sources?
  • Freedom of Information Requests. These can be blocked, delayed, or redacted to the point of obfuscation. How does a small organization develop the skill set and stamina to pursue this vital method of gathering information?

Reporting Limitations

reporter typewriter b&wIn addition to threats there are limitations to news reporting that happen as a result of smaller organizations or even solo journalists reporting the news. These include:

  • Multiple Stories. It can come down to production capacity. How does a solo journalist or smaller organization cover multiple stories at any one time?
  • Big Data. More and more we are finding large news organizations sifting through big chunks of data to identify trends and develop insight into changes. How does a small organization find the skills and staff to accomplish this task? 
  • Legislative Activity. While a small organization may be able to dig into one or two key stories, how does it keep on top of all that is of concern on its particular beat? For example, BillTrack50 provides mounds of data on legislation underway at the federal and state level. If your beat is California, how do you keep up with the more than 1,000 bills? Plus, state resources vary by how up-to-date and robust their website is with legislative information and more.
  • Fact Checking. How does the smaller organization dig deep to back up their facts and do so without breaking the bank or running out of time? FactCheck.org and Politifact.com are two resources, but there needs to be more.
  • Power of Brands. There is a real power of brands. For example, the New York Times generates a great deal of credibility and power in addition to bringing considerable resources to bear on reporting. For small organizations or citizen journalists it is BYOB—Build Your Own Brand.

Positive Trends

The good news is that for nearly every threat a growing capability is being developed on the Internet to assist journalists. But even so, a critical mass of resources and expertise are still required to defend lawsuits and pursue leads that elude the best of citizen journalists or the smaller news organizations.

Another promising trend is for larger news brands to pick up stories from the smaller outfits. This is particularly appropriate in statehouse or investigative reporting where the mainline news organizations have significantly cut back on their own coverage and capabilities.

How Can You Respond?

Those threats can be overcome by supporting the revolution in reporting across the breadth of new media that has been emerging over the past several decades. These include our own watchdog reporting that continues to grow – now in place in 36 states, and expanding its coverage within those states.

You can also support those organizations and issues that are near and dear to your own heart. For example, we have invested considerable energy and resources both publicizing and shaping the debate about a media shield law. John Fund at the National Review says, “What the Franklin Center is doing is the most exciting thing in journalism.”

Step into the light: Franklin Center celebrates Sunshine Week

By
Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

sunshine week logo cropped

On Monday the White House made a startling announcement: it was removing a federal regulation that made its Office of Administration subject to the Freedom of Information Act. This is the office that handles record-keeping duties for the White House, like e-mail archiving.

Sadly, such obfuscating tactics reflect a widely-accepted line of thought that assumes transparency isn’t helpful for reform and is actually part of the problem in our government. The change in policy appears intentionally timed in conjunction with the scandal erupting around Hillary Clinton’s email usage as Secretary of State. But there’s another national event taking place this week, and the White House’s move only goes to underscore its importance: Sunshine Week.

What is Sunshine Week?

Sunshine Week is an annual celebration that takes place among news outlets, activists, and community organizations across the country. It centers on access to public information (or lack thereof) and aims to show how important it is for you and your community.

Sunshine Week originated in Florida – the appropriately nicknamed “Sunshine State” – as “Sunshine Sunday” on James Madison’s birthday in 2002. The Florida press at the time was reacting to efforts by the state legislature to close information off to the public in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the controversial death of Dale Earnhardt, both in 2001. The idea caught on, and now includes a broad and deep coalition ranging from the Associated Press, to local papers like The Oklahoman, to high school students who live-tweeted an open records audit of their local government.

The aim of Sunshine Week – to shine the bright light of accountability on our government and those who serve in it – fits perfectly into the mission of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Over the past five years, this week of heightened attention on the importance of transparency has given the Franklin Center an opportunity to celebrate the work we do year round to fulfill the vision of our namesake, Benjamin Franklin, of bringing integrity to our public institutions.

What is the Franklin Center doing about it?

shutterstock_128822344 edited“We need to guard against this being a press-only event,” said Andrew Alexander, a former Washington Post ombudsman and award-winning journalist, at a Newseum panel celebrating the Freedom of Information Act.

He’s right. Sunshine Week can only work to the extent that citizens are engaged and informed. Last year, for example, our citizen journalism team performed audits of their city, township, and county websites. They found that in many cases, their local government was actually doing a good job of making public information easily accessible, but hurdles to filing open records requests often remained.

This year, the professional journalism team at Watchdog.org is taking the lead through a series of stories made possible by OpenTheBooks.com. Through the government spending website, they uncovered stories about how the federal Small Business Administration has been poorly tracking the default rate of its loans, giving loans to luxury goods retailers like Lamborghini and Rolex, and essentially gambling millions of taxpayer dollars behind a wall of state secrecy.

In addition to this, Watchdog.org reporters have been drawing attention to failures to achieve greater transparency, such as an utter absence of support for transparency-increasing bills by the congressional delegation from Alabama and Mississippi.

Even the contributors for Watchdog Arena, our citizen reporting arm of Watchdog.org, got in on the action, reporting that even though a recent bill allowing more fees to be charged for right to know requests was defeated in New Hampshire, local bureaucrats still make accessing documents as hard as humanly possible. And in New York, they found that Hillary Clinton isn’t the only politician with email troubles. Governor Andrew Cuomo has found himself in the middle of an email controversy after he instituted a policy of deleting emails after 90 days.

We still have work to do

Such stories, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. Penetrating the dense government bureaucracy to make sense of what goes on behind the scenes is still notoriously hard. Current laws make it virtually impossible for government employees to go on the record, which is just one facet of the many-sided challenge of watchdog journalism. Such challenges are no reason to give reporters a pass for neglecting to ask hard questions and unearth the story behind the story. The role of the newsman has always been hard, but that is what makes it indispensable to democratic governance.

“We are not there to be their PR agents. We are there to do our job,” Alexander said about the tendency for reporters to content themselves with statements from government spokespersons.

The journalists at Watchdog.org could not agree more.