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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.

The changing nature of news: A study of five online nonprofit groups

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

nonprofit news changing nature feature image

In our previous post examining the Pew Research Center’s report on growing nonprofit news outlets, we identified five examples out of the 172 in the report that stand out as somewhat representative of the various levels of organizations working in this area of online news reporting. We included older organizations as well as those from the wave of nonprofits that news organizations founded in 2009. We also selected those that are well-funded and those that are making things happen on a shoestring.

What do these select few nonprofit news outlets look like?

To answer this question from a financial perspective, we spent some time examining their IRS 990s for 2012. The IRS 990 is a required annual report for all 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. We felt that this publicly available information would at least provide a ready base of financial information to compare these five organizations, and allow us to dig beyond the Pew report’s concerns about their ongoing business viability.

We also spent some time on each organization’s website to gain more information about its staff numbers and the nature of its reporting, including any journalism awards.

Online, New Media Works Side-by-Side with Old Media

For this review, we looked at these five nonprofit news organizations:

  • Center for Investigative Reporting – Founded in 1977, nonprofit and nonpartisan. Over 300 news outlets partner with it or feature its reporting.
  • Texas Tribune – Founded in 2009, nonprofit and nonpartisan, it has the largest statehouse bureau of any news organization in the country, including newspaper and broadcast outlets.
  • Texas Observer – Covering the statehouse for 60 years (since 1954).
  • Connecticut Mirror – Founded in 2009 to provide deep coverage of statehouse policy and politics.
  • VTDigger.com – Founded in 2009 to publish watchdog reports on state government, politics, consumer affairs, business, and public policy.

Financially, A Mix of Struggles and Success

As we examined the financial data on each of these organizations, the Pew Center’s research was confirmed. Those with more revenue had more staff, and were in generally sound fiscal shape. They were also able to allocate more staff to the business side of the operation.

In 2012, total revenue for these organizations ranged from a high of  around $11.5 million to $330,000. Three operated at a loss that year. Balance sheet assets reflected a similar trend, ranging from about $7.5 million down to $120,000. You can see this displayed in the charts below. Click here for a more detailed infographic about these organizations.

Assets

Revenue vs Expenses

A more challenging task came when using IRS 990 data to look a bit closer at the sources of revenue. The form allows a broad interpretation of how to label different revenue sources. It was a bit like comparing apples and apricots. But even so, you could gain some understanding of the base of funding for each organization.

For example, the Center for Investigative Reporting reports that 97% of its revenue came from contributions and grants, with the remaining 3% from content fees. The Texas Tribune reported the broadest range of revenue sources, consisting of contributions and grants (71%), membership dues (16%), subscriptions (4%), and content production (4%), along with advertising revenue (2%), festival ticket sales (2%), and sponsored events (1%).

The Texas Observer reports 57% of its revenue comes from contributions and grants, while 25% comes from sponsored events, 15% from subscriptions, and 2% from advertising revenue. Virtually all of the CT Mirror’s revenue comes from contributions and grants. The VT Digger shows 58% from contributions and grants, with 38% from sponsorships, and 4% from news revenue.

Nonprofit News by Other Numbers: Staffing

As you would surmise from a review of the financials, the better funded organization is going to have the larger staff along with more reporting. Moreover, the better funded organization will be able to allocate more staff to the business side of the operation, including fundraising.

We gathered these staffing numbers from the websites of each organization. This differs significantly from the methodical survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, our review isn’t able to make the distinction between full- and part-time staff members. Even so, it does provide a quick-hitting basis for comparison and insight into nonprofit news outlets.

The Center of Investigative Reporting shows that it has 42 staff members working across the newsroom, including photo and multimedia, with another 18 working on the business side. The Texas Tribune’s split is 34/11. The Texas Observer is at 11/3 with use of contract design services. The CT Mirror is at 10/1, and the VT Digger at 7/2. Of further note, it isn’t readily apparent from the website listings whether some of these are part time or perhaps even volunteers.

Prestigious Awards

An important aspect of the nonprofit news business is the quality of reporting that is generated by each organization. Our quick review of websites showed that, as expected, the better funded organizations have more resources, including time, to generate better stories.

As the best funded of the five, the Center for Investigative Reporting was able to list a number of prestigious awards, including the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in public reporting and 2012 Pulitzer Prize in local reporting, as well as the 2011 and 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism.

The Texas Tribune in 2014 listed 16 news awards, including the Investigative Reporters and Editors Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism and the National Edward R. Murrow Awards for Overall Excellence and Best Website (Video). The others on our list also showed their awards, often from organizations with a decided local and/or regional focus.

It was also intriguing to see that the Texas Observer grants its own award. It’s The MOLLY National Journalism Prize that recognizes superior journalism in the “Tradition of Molly Ivins.”

Conclusion: What’s Essential for Vibrant News

Given this deeper review, you can see that the better funded and typically longer lived the operation, the more resources it has to do reporting. This includes funding and staffing. Moreover, those organizations no doubt have more time to conduct longer investigations and stick with a story rather than running from one event to the next trying to keep up with the broad sweep of news emanating from the statehouse.

As the Pew report noted, all nonprofit news outlets are doing an important job of addressing the decline of traditional news coverage at statehouses and local government. And as we noted in our post, state and local governments are where the action is happening — where the majority of laws that most intimately affect our lives are being made today.

 

We need the clear reporting of well-funded new media news outlets, and they need our enduring financial support.

On the Frontlines with Nonprofit News

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

tablet newspapers

As recent studies by the Pew Research Center have documented, newspaper reporting at the state government level is on the decline. Here at the Franklin Center, one of the key things we’ve already explored is how Pew’s research found that nontraditional media are increasingly picking up the important reporting task of keeping the public informed about state level activity. Today we’ll examine one segment of this “nontraditional” media—nonprofit news.

So What is Nonprofit News?

Overall, a nonprofit news organization’s business operation is designed to sustain itself and serve its mission rather than generate dividends for investors. Typically, they seek IRS 501(c)(3) status or they fall under the status of a sponsoring organization such as a think tank, university, or other nonprofit organization.

In June 2013 the Pew Research Center identified 172 digital nonprofit news outlets and reviewed their funding sources and the focus of their operations.They also provided a listing of Nonprofit News Sites with a more detailed look at the stories they generate and their staffing levels. Their full report can be found at Nonprofit Journalism: A Growing but Fragile Part of the U.S. News System.

They found that all but 9 states have at least one nonprofit online news organization. They further noted that more than a third (38%) of nonprofit outlets focus on state-level news, while 29% focus on metro-level, 15% national, 8% hyper-local, 6% international, and 4% regional.

Financial Support

The Pew report on nonprofits focused on the fragile business foundation for these operations. They cite the need to find staff on the business and fundraising side for a number of these organizations. In fact, of the 172 nonprofit organizations their research documented in 2012, their current online listing of nonprofit organizations notes that seven have already closed or become inactive.

Their full report states that 55 out of 77 responding to their survey said that they brought in no more than $500,000 in 2011. Many launch with relatively large start-up grants but struggle to find on-going funding to further their mission. Therein lies the fragile nature of these news outlets. Other sources of revenue are pretty small — individual donations at the top followed by advertising/sponsorship and events. Yet it is these types of funding that can serve to support the organization over the long-term versus the hit and miss timing of a large grant or donation.

reportersThey are further challenged by spending most of their time and resources on journalism and limited time on fundraising and business operations such as advertising sales. This is often endemic for nonprofits of all stripes.They feel that they need to demonstrate to current and potential supporters that a very high percentage of every dollar donated goes toward fulfilling the mission rather than into “overhead.” However, business and fundraising operations are not “overhead” but essential to maintaining the organization’s mid- and long-term viability as an on-going operation.

One quote in particular from the report stood out:

When one small nonprofit news organization discussed its ongoing struggle to raise money, the message was simple. “We don’t have time to do this,” it reported. “And we don’t know how.”

So if the typical nonprofit news organization is not allocating its resources to business operations or fundraising, what’s happening with reporting?

Staffing and Stories

The Pew study of nonprofit websites over a two-week period found that close to half (44%) produced 10 or fewer pieces of original content. Roughly one-third published at least 11 straight news stories of 500 words or less, while two-thirds produced no long-form stories of 1,000 words or more.The study further found that 77% produced no opinion or commentary during this two-week assessment.

To provide some perspective, on the staffing side of things they noted that traditional newspapers had an average of 29 full-time journalists in 2011, down from 39 in 2001. Of the 93 nonprofit organizations who responded to the Pew survey, three-fourths had no more than five paid full-time staffers across all aspects of the business — both reporters and business. Right at half of the nonprofits had between one and five paid, part-time employees. Yet nearly three-fourths also used unpaid volunteers, interns or contributors, and some had only unpaid volunteer staff.

Nonprofit News Examples

So what do these nonprofit news outlets look like? Here’s a quick listing and, as noted above, you can find the full list compiled for the Pew study online.

  • VTDigger.com has three full-time reporters in Vermont.
  • TexasTribune has the largest statehouse bureau of any news organization in the country: 15 full-time year-round reporters and 10 students.
  • Center for Investigative Reporting — started in 1977. Reported over $7 million revenue for 2013, $11 million in 2012.
  • Texas Observer — covering the statehouse in Austin for 60 years (1954). The Texas Observer has three full-time reporters and three students.
  • The Connecticut Mirror has four full-time reporters.

Growing Need for Nonprofit News Outlets

There’s clearly a need for these nontraditional media outlets, as indicated by their growth and their efforts to fill the gap left by the decline in traditional newspaper coverage in the statehouse and many other areas. There is also a growing level of support for them either through grants or philanthropic efforts. Yet it’s clear that more focus needs to be paid to the business side of their operations along with serious year-round fundraising through donations, subscriptions, or advertising sales — perhaps even all three.

 

Stay tuned for our next post, which will take a deeper dive into a few of these organizations to learn more about how they operate and the impact of their efforts. In the meantime, you can subscribe to our email newsletter at the top right hand corner of this page to keep up-to-date on all our efforts.

Leading the charge for nontraditional journalism

By
Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

watchdogorg-ipadAmericans are rapidly embracing the digital space as an outlet for legitimate news. According to a recent Pew Report, a whopping 87 percent of respondents said that the Internet and cell phones “have improved their ability to learn new things, including 53 percent who say it has improved this ‘a lot,’” and three-fourths said they are “better informed” about national news as a result.

At the Franklin Center, which has always operated as an online-only platform, these findings are hardly surprising. On the contrary, we have embraced them from day one. Over the past year, we’ve invested in the preeminence of the digital space by training and supporting a new type of “nontraditional” journalist that excels in the chaotic world of the internet.

For example, this year we launched our inaugural Journalism Internship Program – a full-time, paid internship program for college students and young professionals pursuing a career in investigative journalism.

“Too often internship programs focus on prestige of the institution, rather than the actual intern experience,” said Rachel Swaffer, Outreach Manager at the Franklin Center. “We want to turn that idea on its head – placing our interns in media organizations where we can ensure that they will have an intense, hands-on experience, and be intimately involved in the research, writing, and editing process.”

In just a few months, program interns have make a difference in the communities where they’ve worked. For instance, Raleigh News and Observer intern Clare Myers took the watchdog philosophy to heart by launching an independent search of government documents. Her findings led her to a story that exposed how a state government agency failed to recover nearly $300,000 in wasted tax dollars.

Over the past year the Franklin Center has also rapidly expanded our network of bloggers. In May, we hosted the Future of Media Summit. For two days, bloggers, journalists, and activists all gathered at the National Press Club to participate in top-notch media panels. They learned about the importance of producing original content and gained new tips for finding and breaking the big stories that challenge the mainstream narrative. The message from the event was clear: the news need not be the domain of professional reporters.

For example, as we celebrated at the Breitbart Awards, nontraditional journalists like California political blogger Jon Fleischman, who runs the Golden State’s go-to political news site, or Mark Newgent, an engaged citizen in Maryland who writes for the premier blog of conservative politics in the Free State, have made waves this year in their states and communities through digital channels.

Detroit is a phoenix croppedAs one example of nontraditional journalists countering the wisdom of media elites, the Franklin Center spearheaded a conference focused on owning the narrative of Detroit. It’s no secret that Detroit has the potential to be the definitive example of the disastrous consequences of radical progressive policy. So when the progressive Netroots Nation held their annual conference in downtown Motor City last July, we decided to stage a conversation of our own.

Citizen journalists, policy experts, and local businesses gathered together for several days to highlight the past policies that failed Detroit, and to look ahead to the city’s increasingly bright future of private entrepreneurship. It gave bloggers and analysts a chance to immerse themselves in the culture and economy of Detroit so that they could tell the story of Detroit’s decline – and potential to rise again – through their own writing and debates. Looking back, there is no question it helped a new group of journalists put a face on Detroit’s recovery process.

We’ve also created a unique blogger fellowship program to support top non-traditional journalists connecting with grassroots readers. Inaugural blogger fellows Amelia Hamilton and Ben Howe have taken their work to the next level. Howe covered Detroit’s bankruptcy and reported on the policies and politics that are contributing to its fiscal crisis.

“Being a blogger fellow with the Franklin Center means that I get to tell stories that really matter – stories of everyday Americans,” said Hamilton. “Whether these are stories of school choice, success in the energy industry, or other stories, they show that what happens in government has a very real effect on lives across the country.”

“Ben and Amelia have done an incredible job and have shown great initiative and interest in their work,” said Lauren Bouton, Online Outreach Manager at Franklin. “I think that the benefit of having bloggers write about topics is that they have a different angle than many traditional journalists. They are able to report about issues that are very important to them in their communities… and I think that the personal level on which they communicate makes a huge difference.”