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

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.


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

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.”

Help us defend the First Amendment

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

Giving Tuesday-FirstAmendment_Donate

When I think of everything I’m thankful for this year, one of the first things that comes to mind is the generous support that makes great stories like the one I’m about to tell you possible. I’d like to share that story with you, and I’d also like to tell you how we can keep the momentum going into 2015 through the unique opportunity presented by Giving Tuesday.

A year ago last week, Matt Kittle, our Wisconsin bureau chief, received a startling tip: prosecutors had launched an investigation into conservative allies of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. It was a secretive “John Doe” investigation. Those subpoenaed or under scrutiny were bound by a gag order.

It was, Matt realized, a frightening abuse of prosecutorial power – an attempt to silence conservatives under cover of darkness. He decided that we needed to invest in fighting back, and that he would risk jail time to protect his sources.

One year and 145 stories later, Matt has blown the investigation wide open, exposing the politically-charged motives and dirty, often illegal tactics of the prosecutorial team. He’s helped halt the investigation in its tracks and supported Wisconsin’s reformers as they seek redress.

But this case is far from over. Progressive interests in Wisconsin continue to seek ways to punish conservative reformers, even as those reformers look to take their case to the Supreme Court by arguing that their First Amendment rights suffered a serious violation.

There’s still more work to do in Wisconsin, and we can’t do it without you. Next week is Giving Tuesday – a national day of philanthropy to begin the holiday season. Can you help us use this opportunity to raise $10,000 so that Matt can finish his investigations this year? For this very special effort, every dollar you give will be matched by a supporter, doubling the effectiveness of your gift.

Your support is vital in helping us meet our $10,000 goal so that Matt can finish the job in Wisconsin. Thank you for your generosity.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

How Wisconsin Reporter became a game-changer

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

By M.D. Kittle

The left likes to call it “an October surprise,” a nefarious attempt by the “right-wing” news media to sink the Democrat’s candidate for governor in the closing days of Wisconsin’s heated campaign.


Perhaps the most surprising thing about Wisconsin Reporter’s investigative report on Mary Burke’s troubled professional resume is that we were the first media outlet to report on what has been described as a “game-changer” story in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

True, we broke the story on Burke, the Madison liberal who spent the past year selling her executive experience at her family-owned company as admittance to the governor’s mansion, on Oct. 28 – exactly one week before the general election. Burke, at the time, was in a dead-heat race with incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Oct. 28 was, by the way, the same day that a good source tipped off Wisconsin Reporter that an insider had information that Burke was fired from Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycle Corp. in the early 1990s by her brother due to “non-performance.”

As I have told people since the story hit our Watchdog.org national website, if the tip had come in six months before, Wisconsin Reporter would have published it six months before.

What was most amazing to me, as I found out while talking to high-placed executives at Trek, is that Mary Burke’s checkered resume was perhaps the worst-kept secret in parts of Wisconsin and there is strong evidence to suggest that reporters at some of the state’s largest dailies had been notified of the discrepancies long before.

At first, it seemed like one of those too-strange-to-be true stories. After spending a couple of hours tracking down phone numbers of former Trek executives and getting nowhere, I started to think maybe there wasn’t anything here. Some wouldn’t talk, others couldn’t remember much from 20 years ago, many couldn’t be reached for comment.

Photo courtesy of Royal Broil

Former Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke.

And then Trek’s former human resources director called me back.

He said Burke, who had long struggled to explain her two-year work hiatus in the early to mid-1990s after mysteriously leaving the company her father started, was fired by her own family following overseas financial losses and plummeting morale among Burke’s European sales staff. The HR director said the sales team threated to quit if Burke was not removed from her position as director of European Operations, and that Burke was made to come back to headquarters and personally apologize to the employees about her poor performance.

The source was good. They don’t get much better than a human resources director with a company for more than a dozen years. But he had some baggage. He was active in local GOP politics and had made some incendiary comments on his Facebook page.

The source was eventually crucified in the press by a mainstream media that was livid about being beaten on this “bombshell” story. Instead of looking into the allegations, they attacked the messenger. For a time, anyway.

We had four other former executives or managers who corroborated the HR director’s accounts, asserting that, under Burke’s leadership, Trek’s operations in key markets such as Germany bled money. These were very good sources, one in particular extremely high placed. The trouble was, none of them wanted to go on the record. They feared retribution from the company, and some had retirements at stake.

The mainstream players suddenly found one top executive, Trek’s former president during the time in question, who went on the record and corroborated Wisconsin Reporter’s story. Every detail. The mainstreamers reported the executive’s account with clinched fists and teeth. Even then, their headlines were, “Ex-Trek execs with conservative ties say Mary Burke was forced out.”

Because, they implied, conservatives cannot be trusted to act without political motivation.

Many of the same news outlets wrote scathing commentaries about that terrible, no-good Wisconsin Reporter, “a pseudo-journalistic publication bankrolled by conservative foundations,” as the Milwaukee Journal editorial board put it. Wisconsin’s largest newspaper said this, “The story was published by the conservative mouthpiece less than a week before the election — a classic political trick, an October surprise of innuendo and half-truths. It was intended by Walker partisans, if not the conservative mouthpiece itself, to confuse voters.”

Apparently confusing the voters is shorthand for telling the truth, giving Wisconsin’s electorate the critical information they needed that the mainstream media either was too lazy or, more egregious, too partisan to report on.

Feeling the heat, Burke and her campaign quickly called the story “ridiculous,” filled with “baseless allegations,” right after the candidate acknowledged for the first time that her position at Trek was “eliminated” after a company “reorganization.” As one political observer colorfully put it, successful companies don’t typically downsize their most successful employees, and Trek certainly has built a reputation as a successful company over the years.

While we were excoriated in the mainstream for our “October Surprise,” Wisconsin Reporter heard from many Wisconsin voters – conservatives, independents, even some liberals – who said they were glad that there are still organizations committed to investigative reporting, doing the important work that mainstream publications have all but abdicated.

Covering State Government Today: No Bureau Necessary

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

FranklinSlider Capitols

“Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty,” Andrew Jackson, 1837 Farewell Address.

This advice from the seventh President of the United States captures our concern over the decline in reporting at every level – especially those levels that are the least visible to many in our society. Recently the Pew Research Center released a report titled America’s Shifting Statehouse Press, and it’s subtitle raises an important question: “Can new players compensate for lost legacy reporters?” It provides great insight into the media landscape at the state level.

We will admit that reading through these research reports can start to make your head spin, and that’s even before you’ve begun to read the analysis and conjecture about the meaning behind the numbers. For our part, we boiled it all down to a few key numbers while we worked our way through the funnel — from overall perspective to the critical coverage at state legislatures. Here’s what we found.

Declining Reporting at All Levels

As online media and technology have launched creative destruction across most industries, they have been profoundly disruptive in the news business – particularly with traditional reporting. Of course, this has happened primarily in response to the crumbling business models of traditional newspapers, television news, and press services. It hasn’t helped matters that the reporters who remain with these media outlets are very capable of bemoaning their decline. But what are the actual numbers?

The Pew Research Center tapped the American Society of News Editors Newsroom Employment Census and presented yearly numbers of the overall newsroom workforce. Here’s what they show across the dates that closely match the statehouse press numbers:

total newsroom workforce 2012

Source: American Society of News Editors Newsroom Employment Census.

Statehouse Reporting Levels

As you can see, over the last decade or so, the number of reporters in traditional newspapers has declined substantially, although there is a bit of leveling off happening over the last few years. This, of course, has had a significant impact in all areas of reporting.

The recent Statehouse Press report shows a similar trend, summarized in the table below:

statehouse newspaper reporters 2012

Source: Pew Research Center, America’s Shifting Statehouse Press

So you can see that statehouse reporting levels have declined at a much sharper rate than overall reporting — a nearly 40% drop in statehouse reporting compared to a 30% reporting drop overall.

Obviously there are challenges inherent in obtaining a true apples-to-apples comparison. The latest overall numbers are from 2012 and the statehouse numbers are from 2014. Even so, this comparison does give us a good idea of the seismic changes that are underway.

The good news about the Pew Center’s statehouse research is that for the first time ever they’ve collected numbers not just from statehouse newspaper reporters but from all media sectors. Their total statehouse tally is 1,592, which is split across newspapers (604), television (263), wire services (139), radio (124), universities (109), nonprofit (92), and additional sectors. See Who Covers the Statehouse for further insight.

Why is Statehouse Coverage Important?

BillPassed_NewsfeedThere are some more staggering numbers from the Pew Center’s report that highlight the importance of the statehouse and its potential for impacting just about every aspect of our lives. They point out that the 112th Congress (2011 to 2012) passed 283 bills that were signed into law. While that is significant, they go on to point out that during 2012 California’s legislature passed 1,013 bills and Michigan 948. A total of 24 state legislatures enacted more laws than Congress.

They also quote Gene Rose, former communications director for the National Conference of State Legislatures: “I think you’re seeing fewer stories. The public is not being kept aware of important policy decisions that are being made that will affect their daily lives.”

What’s Franklin Center Doing?

The Franklin Center has long recognized the threat from declining media coverage of all levels of government, from federal to state to local government. There are over 87,000 units of state and local government that spend a combined $3 trillion annually (and growing).

NonTraditionalMedia_NewsfeedIt’s nice to see the Pew Research Center’s Statehouse Report recognize our effort and place us in the segment of nontraditional (which includes nonprofit), government insider, ideological, and for-profit. They note that “in seven states — Connecticut, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont — the outlet with the largest number of full-time statehouse reporters is one of these upstarts.” We’re proud to be included with the upstarts.

They also note our efforts at syndicating these stories to the legacy media, all of which goes to advancing our mission of addressing falling standards in the media and the steep falloff in reporting on state government. We do this by providing professional training; research, editorial, multimedia and technical support; and assistance with marketing and promoting the work of a nationwide network of nonprofit reporters. This includes Watchdog.org.

How Can You Make a Difference?

For starters, you can reach out to these “upstarts” who are reporting on state and local government and support their efforts. That support might be a simple as reading their stories and sharing them with your friends. It could also be financial support or volunteer time.

One such volunteer outlet is our own WatchdogWire. With this site you can not only find news and insight you typically can’t find anywhere else, you can also “Sign up as a Citizen Journalist and get involved in Information Activism.” You can be up and running in no time, reporting on your state or local government, and then published on WatchdogWire. It’s a great way to get involved and make a difference.

Plus, as you can see from the declining number of reporters at the state level, your involvement is more important than ever. We need all the help we can get to keep citizens informed and government accountable.

Hot on the trail: Watchdog.org drives 2014 election coverage

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Voting pins

As the last leg of the midterm races begins this week, it serves as a reminder of how elections are much more than the opportunity to choose new political leaders. To be sure, the candidates that we vote into office matter, but the election season can also stoke debates that go much deeper – and have much more important ramifications – than a senate term.

What role does money play in politics and campaign funding? Is the voting process free of fraud and intimidation? To what extend should the federal government have the power to regulate campaign advertisements?

Voting issues

Just as in past elections, Watchdog.org stories have been driving many of these debates in 2014. For example, Watchdog.org contributor Paul Miller reported that a voting machine in Cook County, IL, was automatically marking votes for the Democratic candidate, even when voters repeatedly selected otherwise. The Cook County Clerk’s Office Deputy Communications Director said the machine was taken out of service and tested, and that it was found to have had a “calibration error.” The story was quickly picked by Drudge Report, scandalizing the country, and later Fox News and a number  of other outlets.

Amazingly, Watchdog.org reporter Kenric Ward found almost the exact same thing happening in Maryland, as several voters reported that their “x” would not stay on the selection of the candidate they wanted to vote for. And again, the local election director chalked it up to a “calibration issue.” Ward’s story is particularly troubling for a state that already has some of the loosest election rules in the country and is seeking to “modernize” its online registration process. Under some of these newly proposed rules, Ward reported earlier, people would not have to show proof of legal residency to register to vote.

Election wars in Wisconsin

Voters could also have a hard time at the polls in Wisconsin, where Wisconsin Reporter’s M.D. Kittle reported that the Democrat-heavy City of Milwaukee Election Commission essentially banned a 78-year-old grandmother from doing her job as a poll observer. The commission’s executive director turned in Marguerite Ingold to the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, which she said they did because the election director believed should could have become “violent and stormed the city hall.” Yet by all accounts, Ingold is a professional, highly trained and well versed in the laws and procedures of elections and what observers can and cannot do. She is nothing more than a concerned citizen who takes her job seriously.

Candidate microphonesIt seems she isn’t alone, however. In a subsequent story, Kittle reported that the Republican Party election observers monitoring in-person absentee voting at Milwaukee’s largest polling place say partisan election officials are shutting them out. And this all comes from an election commission that is pushing a policy that would keep election observers farther away from voters. Poll watchers have complained that these new rules would make observation impossible.

Meanwhile, other journalists at Watchdog.org’s Wisconsin Reporter have had their own difficulties covering the tight gubernatorial race between Governor Scott Walker and his Democrat opponent, Mary Burke. Earlier this month, the Burke campaign barred reporter Adam Tobias from attending a campaign event that featured first lady Michelle Obama. Once again, Drudge Report picked up the story, and free press advocates across the country cried foul.

Union influence

On the money-in-politics front, Watchdog reporter and union-money whiz Jason Hart has found that labor unions have poured tens of millions of dollars into political and lobbying expenditures. The Labor union coalition AFL-CIO, for instance, spent more than $30 million on politics during the past year, all by shoveling money taken from workers to big-government groups across the country. And that figure does not even include the $4.8 million in AFL-CIO payments to political nonprofits that were reported as “Contributions, Gifts and Grants” or “Representational Activities.”

In another story, Hart found that the American Federation of Teachers alone reported $24.9 million in political and lobbying expenditures during its most recent fiscal year. Like AFL-CIO, that figure almost certainly understates the true extent of AFT’s influence.

“Considering that most of AFT’s members are public-sector workers,” Hart noted, “essentially all AFT activities are political.”

Hart’s stories line up with Watchdog.org reporter Eric Boehm’s story from last February about how the biggest benefactors from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling were labor unions – not conservative mega-donors as many people assume. Many liberals decried the court’s ruling loosening federal rules for political spending, but it appears to have benefited Democrats more than Republicans.

Boehm’s story is a prime example of what Watchdog.org strives to do: Counter the unquestioned narrative of establishment media with local, fact-based stories that otherwise would go untold. We believe that voters need and deserve the stories that expose questionable voting practices, shine the light of transparency on money in politics, and call out candidates when they show press favoritism or misconstrue the facts.

Covering tech policy: From D.C. to your Wi-Fi router

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Josh Peterson cover image

Josh Peterson cut his teeth on technology the good old fashioned way – through hands-on experience building websites and doing social media for small businesses and music groups he played in. When he moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue journalism, he made it clear to many of his first contacts that he wanted to pursue tech and national security issues, and he subsequently began building policy expertise and a contact list of sources.

That path took him through writing tenures at Broadband Breakfast, the Heritage Foundation, the Daily Caller, and – as of the beginning of this year – Watchdog.org, where he is part of Watchdog.org’s early forays into specialized beat reporting.

The technology beat he covers while based in Washington, D.C. hardly seems the natural domain of someone who majored in religion and philosophy in college and plays local music gigs on the side, but Peterson says this background helps him see the forces of human nature at play amid all the technical jargon.

“Studying religion and philosophy taught me to critically examine the ideologies that motivate people, organizations, and businesses,” he said. “When I report on tech issues, I look for the political drama of ideological and business conflicts.”

Indeed, if there’s one thing Peterson consistently stresses in his reporting, it’s depth. One of his favorite things about reporting for Watchdog.org is that its focus on state and local governments gives him the ability to explore the deeper implications of federal level regulatory and legislative battles. This allows his reporting to go beyond the surface level he-said/she-said coverage that so many journalists are forced to resort to these days.

“Tech policy is highly political and ideological,” he said, “but it is driven by the competitive and innovative needs and goals of the companies involved in the tech and telecom sectors.”

The result is a fascinating mishmash of companies focused on meeting growing business and consumer demands and politicians and bureaucrats working to accomplish their political goals while serving their constituents. Often the two clash bitterly.

“That being said,” Peterson (pictured right) noted, “the parties involved do find ways to work together and find common ground between them.”

Photo courtesy of Josh PetersonIn a busy and complex world, the value of this kind of in-depth reporting that makes the issues digestible to everyday Americans is huge.

“Most consumers don’t care about the nuts and bolts of tech policy, and understandably so, because they’re busy with their own lives,” Peterson said. “What they do want is to get what they paid for regarding their devices and services.”

On one hand, the proliferation of social media and advancements in communications technology enable American consumers to more easily and effectively voice their concerns to their elected officials, but the PR campaigns that various organizations and companies run through the media often harness this same power and use it to distort the conversation with misinformation or a lopsided set of facts. This makes it harder for taxpayers to make sure that they get what they want from the companies they like and their government officials.

Like many issues, technological advances are a mixed bag in terms of how they improve the quality of government. The internet and Big Data, for example, have at times created opportunities for government waste and abuse.

“One of the original complaints of the pre-Snowden NSA whistleblowers was that the agency favored a bloated and expensive system for finding terrorists over a more efficient cost-effective system,” Peterson said. “Another example is the Healthcare.gov debacle – not only did a politically favored company build the system, but bureaucrats complicated the implementation process, enabling security problems to fester.”

On the flipside, however, Peterson noted that websites like data.gov and usaspending.gov give taxpayers more insight into the activities of their government, which in turn create opportunities for greater accountability, reform, and transparency.

When asked what is the most important story he has covered since coming on board at Watchdog.org, Peterson has a quick answer: the threat of EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attacks.

“Reporting on electric grid vulnerabilities and EMP attacks is critically important, because electricity is the backbone of the modern world and a severe attack would have catastrophic implications for our society,” he said, referring to a danger that sounds almost apocalyptic in scope but is in fact all too real.

From a tech industry standpoint, however, Peterson said the big story that has dominated the conversation this year is the continuing debate around net neutrality.

“The outcome of the net neutrality debate will have huge implications for the future of the tech industry from both a development and governance standpoint,” he said.

Interestingly, Peterson has found that the imminence of the Federal Communications Commission adopting net neutrality rules is simultaneously one of the most over-hyped and under-reported tech issues today. At stake are concerns that broadband providers will abuse their power to provide quality high-speed internet, as well as the opposite fear that the FCC will impose excessive regulations that rein in companies to such an extent that they stifle innovation and growth.

“Major coverage of the issue has generally been very one-sided,” Peterson said, “giving Americans only a part of the story of what amounts to a very nuanced conflict between incredibly innovative companies.”

Although the terms and details of the debate can be difficult to decipher at first, it is important for Americans to stay informed about tech issues and the government’s response to them simply because technology pervades nearly every bit of modern life. As such, governments in America and around the world are expressing increasing interest in technology’s implications for their citizens.

“The Founders believed that a well-informed citizenry was important to the success of the American experiment of self-government under the rule of law,” Peterson said, “and making the time to understand tech issues is important for the future of self-governance.”

Do Legacy Media Publications Still Carry the Same Weight They Used to?

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

“The New York Times is surprised to find itself a stepping-stone.”

With these dozen words, a writer at The Guardian newspaper nailed the latest crisis to hit traditional media: the growing disinterest of its best and brightest at working there.

But is it really surprising that the smartest people in a declining industry—and legacy media, given its plummeting advertising and audience numbers, can’t be defined as anything but—are looking for opportunities elsewhere?

Not really. Any sensible person would do the same. What makes the trend notable is its size and depth: What started as a trickle is now a flood. A lot of prized talent in recent years, and especially in the watershed year 2013, abandoned plum names in print and broadcast journalism to forge new paths in online-only news organizations and start-ups.

A Who’s Who of the Legacy Migration to Online-Only

A lot of unsung talent probably bailed, too, but the merely good go nameless. Many likely were too young to have fully made a mark.

Here, then, is a look at about a dozen of the notables who recently left journalism’s standard-bearers, and where in the brave new world of news-that-happens-only-online you now might find them:

  • Bill Keller, a Times columnist and former executive editor, is at The Marshall Project, a start-up
  • Rick Berke, a Times senior editor and political correspondent, is at Politico
  • Jim Roberts, a Times assistant managing editor, is at Mashable
  • Megan Liberman, a Times deputy news editor, is at Yahoo
  • Matt Bai, a Times political correspondent, is at Yahoo
  • David Pogue, a Times technology columnist, is at a Yahoo start-up
  • Ezra Klein, a Washington Post blogger (Wonkblog), is at Vox Media
  • Melissa Bell, a Post digital editor and columnist/blogger, is at Vox Media
  • Matthew Yglesias, Slate magazine’s Moneybox columnist, is at Vox Media
  • Dan Lyons, a former Forbes senior editor and Newsweek columnist, is at Hubspot
  • Andy Carvin, a senior strategist at NPR, is at First Look Media
  • Anthony De Rosa, a Reuters social media editor, is at Circa, a start-up news app
  • Mark Schoofs, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and ProPublica editor, is at Buzzfeed (ProPublica, in turn, was founded in 2008 by former Journal managing editor Paul Steiger and is the first online news venture to win the Pulitzer Prize—twice.)
  • Jessica Lessin, a Wall Street Journal technology reporter, is now at The Information, a business news start-up

Exactly what is happening?

A Big Name isn’t the Biggest Factor Any More

news website tabletJob security, or more accurately, job insecurity, is undoubtedly a factor. Major newspapers and broadcast stations began slashing staffs in the mid-2000s, and were hemorrhaging employees by the start of the 2010s. For newspapers, the cuts are a matter of survival: advertising revenues at the largest US papers have fallen by more than 50 percent since 2005, and readership by more than 48 percent between 1991 (56 percent) and 2012 (29 percent).

But job security is far from the full picture—especially for the people listed above, whose jobs were probably as secure as anything could be nowadays.

No, job satisfaction trumps as the single most important reason why mainstream media is failing to keep the talent it nurtured. The grind of feeling like you’re writing just to chase advertising dollars; the dismay of always being two steps behind in applying the newest and best technologies; the frustration of watching owners erect barriers (i.e., paywalls) to readership, while online competitors are courting and engaging readers with every means at their disposal.

“My theory,” Dan Lyons wrote in a Hubspot blog, “is that in the age of the internet, it’s what you write, not where you write it, that matters. If I can have a platform to write interesting things, if I can work for a company that’s growing and having fun … then I’m in a better place.”

Job satisfaction is what first drew talent to journalism, a profession never exactly prized for its lucrative pay or ideal working conditions.

As job satisfaction—the sense of doing something important, intriguing, and in the public interest—continues to shift to online media, so will journalists. Especially the good ones.