News sites funded by think tanks take root
BOISE, Idaho -- A growing number of conservative groups are bankrolling startup news organizations around the country, aggressively covering government and politics at a time when newspapers are cutting back their statehouse bureaus.
The phenomenon troubles some longtime journalists and media watchdogs, who worry about political biases and hidden agendas.
The news outlets have sprouted in larger numbers in recent months to fill a void created by the downsizing of traditional statehouse coverage and to win over readers, including those from the tea party movement who don't trust the local paper or the TV news.
"Our state Capitol used to be bustling with the media," said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Harrisburg, Pa.-based Commonwealth Foundation, whose news outlet, the Pennsylvania Independent, went live in January. "Now, you can swing a dead cat and not hit anybody in the state Capitol newsroom."
The news outlets usually receive their money from right-leaning, free-market organizations. Idahoreporter. com, for example, is funded by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a think tank that has barraged local governments with public records requests since last year in an effort to expose waste.
Similar news operations are now in place in Washington state, Michigan, South Carolina, Montana, Wyoming, Florida, West Virginia, Arizona, Missouri, Maryland, Nebraska, Illinois, Texas, Tennessee, Ohio and elsewhere.
The outlets publish almost exclusively on the Internet and usually look like traditional news sites. For example, the front page of Idahoreporter.com recently featured stories about proposed tax increases, higher park fees, a labor report, and the funding of a college scholarship program. The lead stories all had accompanying graphics and photos; some stories have video.
Journalism watchdogs say they have not noticed any obvious slant in the coverage. But some of these news organizations have been barred from capitol press corps because of rules that forbid lobbyists from membership.
And there are fears that the organizations are trying to advance a certain agenda by the stories they decide to cover -- even if the articles themselves are unbiased.
"They are still very new. But in any content, there are a couple of different kinds of bias to look for: the angles taken by a reporter, the tone of writing. But there is also a bias that can exist in terms of choices of stories to cover," said Amy Mitchell, deputy director for Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, challenges people to find bias in the stories and stresses that he doesn't dictate what his staff should cover. But he does emphasize that the stories should be presented from the viewpoint of taxpayers.
"I want them to ask the question 'Who is going to be impacted when government creates a new program?' It still needs to be funded. When there is a new regulation, who will it impact and how? We ask them to close that loop, to present all the details, not just the ones politicians want you to know about," Hoffman said.
The trend comes at a time when technological advances and the growth of citizen journalism have blurred the lines between traditional and nontraditional reporting and created all sorts of new ways to cover the news.
"If you have a laptop, a wireless card and a flip cam, you're as powerful as The New York Times," said Jason Stverak, a former North Dakota Republican Party director who runs the year-old Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity in Bismarck and advises news outlets like those in Harrisburg and Boise.
Stverak also said the movement has caught on because people are skeptical of the mainstream media. "You can draw a parallel between the explosion in the tea party and the rapid increase in the amount of new news organizations," he said.
It does not appear that left-leaning organizations are funding their own news outlets to the same degree.
Hoffman said Idahoreporter.com has been a success on many levels. A few of the site's stories were mentioned in mainstream media or referred to in newspaper blogs. He also said it became a place statehouse reporters and lawmakers turned to for developments. Page views have increased fivefold since the launch in January to about 1,000 per day.
Ethical questions persist, however.
Hoffman recently stood at a lectern at the Idaho Capitol and demanded that state lawmakers require greater transparency for education spending. A reporter from Idahoreporter.com took notes on his laptop for a story about the event.
To deal with the potential conflict of interest, Idahoreporter.com stories that quote Hoffman end with a disclaimer about his relationship to the news service.
Some of the jobs pay better than newspaper reporting gigs. The Alaska Policy Forum recently put up a help-wanted Internet ad offering to pay an investigative reporter up to $75,000 to cover government in Juneau.
Organizations that issue press credentials for statehouse reporters in such places as Ohio, Illinois and Idaho have denied membership to some of the new outlets, citing their links to advocacy groups. That means Idaho Freedom Foundation's reporters were excluded from the capitol press room.
"The vote of the membership was unanimous," said Betsy Russell, president of the Idaho Capitol Correspondents Association and a reporter with the Spokesman-Review newspaper. "They simply didn't meet the bylaws."
Critics have also raised concerns about the identities of the news organizations' financial backers. Stverak will not say where he is getting the money to pay his 12-person staff. Neither will Hoffman or Brouillette.
Phill Brooks, director of the University of Missouri's State Government Reporting Program, said such reluctance is a "red flag." A similar startup news service in his state, Missouri News Horizon, refused recently to say who was paying the bills.
"I can't recall in 40 years that there's been an organization that has come here and asked for recognition as a news organization that hid its financial background," he said.
Hoffman said his donors expect privacy when they pitch in to cover his $78,000 annual salary, paychecks for his journalists, or his foundation's work to organize a tea party rally and to bring libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul to Boise.
"Supporters to organizations such as mine have been harassed, they have been criticized, they've been vilified," he said. "We choose not to subject our donors to that, unless they choose to be subjected to that."