Nontraditional journalism fills gaps in declining statehouse reporting

A number of journalism and technology projects are hoping to fill the gaps caused by a dramatic decline nationwide in statehouse reporting.

Interviews with news nonprofits, technologists, funders and experts on the issue confirm there is no scarcity of ideas or projects to address the decline of journalists at each of the 50 statehouses.

INN compiled the interviews for a follow-up report on a summit it held last October, called the “Statehouse Reporting Workshop.” Prompting the summit was a 2014 Pew Research Report titled “America’s Shifting Statehouse Press,” which found that fewer than a third of newspapers assign any kind of reporter to the statehouse.

INN wanted to see how nonprofits were dealing with the issue. Leading the meet—which comprised 24 funders, practitioners, technology companies and legislative experts—in Chicago, was Kevin Davis, CEO & Executive Director of INN, who emphasized the increasing need for insightful and persistent unbiased news and information.

“We see nonprofit newsrooms as being a key part of the solution moving forward, tackling this need by increasing engagement and participation of the people in the communities, counties and states served,” Davis said.

The follow-up report, which combined summit discussions with months-later interviews with the attendees, reveals that projects to fill the gap in statehouse reporting mostly split into two categories. One calls for more reporters on the ground at each statehouse; the other believes technology can help equip those reporters with information vital to their jobs.

At the summit, two concepts stuck out. One involves a surge of resources, including more reporters, in the statehouses themselves; the other is an open-state database of legislative activity across all states.

No projects specific to those two models came out of the summit, but a number of nonprofits already have been pursuing projects that emulate those two ideas.

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One comes from POPVOX, an online startup that, according to its site, “meshes real-time legislative data with users’ personal stories and sentiment, delivering public input to government in a format tailored to actionable policy decisions.”

POPVOX, based in Washington, D.C., is working on making its current database of legislative activity available to application developers, who then can use it as a basis for action. Currently POPVOX combines every bill that is introduced in Congress and “select regulations that are open for official public comment” with personal stories into one database.

Marci Harris

Marci Harris

Expansion of that database is dependent on funding for POPVOX. “Really, the only thing that determines how quickly we do that or how big we go—whether it’s one state at a time or a larger project, a 10-state pilot moving out to the 50—is that we’re resource-constrained,” said CEO Marci Harris.

The problem: Legislative data software these days is that it is often produced by for-profit companies that offer at a price tag too expensive for journalists or the public to access, she said. “Neutral information is expensive,” she said.

POPVOX is not alone; other similar projects are moving forward—for example, askthem.io, an “open-source platform for questions-and-answers with public figures,” and ​Councilmatic, which dispenses and contextualizes legislative information and allows people to debate its pros and cons. Both work similarly in concept but more at the local level.

Then there’s the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Cox Media Group newspaper. It recently launched its own database, the Legislative Navigator, which tracks Georgia state bills and legislators’ activity. The Navigator utilizes technology and data from other organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation, MinnPost, the Georgia General Assembly and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Such projects exhibit promise and indicate that there is an emerging market in civic engagement—and there is a race on to be the first to strike gold.

Then there’s the other model, with a more human face, as espoused in INN member nonprofit news organizations like the VTDigger, the Texas Tribune and the ​Pulitzer Prize​­winning Center for Public Integrity. They are taking to the task of keeping statehouse reporting alive by increasing the body count.

The latter, for example, announced in September an initiative to hire 50 freelancers nationwide to cover corruption in state government. And in late January, it produced a major report​ on state­-level elections and money in politics.

The report essentially identifies individuals, unions and trade groups who gave the most money to politicians in each of the states for the 2014 elections. The CPI has produced a slew of stories focused on these findings as well.

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar

Veteran journalist John Dunbar, deputy executive editor and managing editor covering politics and finance at the CPI, says the nonprofit also is working closely with the Associated Press, which in December began ​“doubling down”​ on state-government coverage by hiring more statehouse reporters.

In its announcement, the AP said it has hired 13 statehouse reporters over the past year and that an additional 40 contract reporters will be added this year. Further details of the hires or its collaboration with the Center remain to be seen, and both efforts will be followed up upon as new information emerges.

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 10.52.41 AMIn January, the Texas Tribune launched something of a hybrid product that combines data and old-school reporting. Its Texas Legislative Guide of the “​84th Lege”​ is a special page on the paper’s site that allows people to follow the actions of Texas lawmakers, including the bills they introduce and the ones they vote for.

The Tribune collaborated with the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation to use its ​Open States app, which allows voters to “track state bills, get campaign and contact information for legislators and follow all the action” across the country. The app feeds data about legislators to the 84th Lege to complement reporting done by Tribune reporters. It’s collaborations like these that could present a viable solution to fill the gap in statehouse reporting, says managing editor Ayan Mittra.

“Thanks to the Sunlight Foundation’s Open States product, we were able to keep our legislative-­bill search updated without having to do manual coding on our own. This is the type of common coding that more folks across the state need,” Mittra said. “Because of Open States, we were able to focus on other features for the page that will be a great service to our audience.”

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Anne Galloway

Anne Galloway, editor and founder at VTDigger, a statewide news website that publishes watchdog reports on state government, politics, consumer affairs, business and public policy, is another advocate for hiring more reporters. She said the VTDigger is probably the news organization with the strongest presence in the Vermont statehouse with five reporters on the beat.

She praises the work of the CPI and the ​Sunlight Foundation’s Open States app​ but says statehouse reporting is more than that.

“Projects like those are a tiny, tiny part of it,” she said. “It’s important, but I think people want to know what the impacts of changing state statutes and what’s going on inside state government.”

Like CPI, Galloway believes putting more reporters on the statehouse beat is the solution. But she also expressed skepticism about whether any real solutions came out of the October meeting. She wants to see whether the AP or the CPI will fulfill their goals of hiring more reporters.

“If no hiring is done, let’s reconvene and see what’s happening,” she said. “We need to hire reporters.”

So which approach is better—hire more reporters or expand the open state database?

Tom Glaisyer

Tom Glaisyer

“The range of views on problems and solutions shared in the meeting was very useful, and though there is a temptation to think the solution is either more reporters or more technology, the reality is that it will be both. The challenge will be knitting them together,” said Tom Glaisyer, Program Director for the Informed Participation Initiative at the Democracy Fund.

“In a news environment that will likely continue to have a large number of relatively small outlets all with small shares of a state’s audience the challenge is knitting together the sometimes idiosyncratic strengths of particular organizations to serve the specific environments and local communities.”

Of course, the question on both approaches ultimately circles back to funding, the other major topic at the summit. Not everyone is convinced foundations are fully committed to the cause.

Galloway, for example, said the funding situation is “totally discouraging.” She said she left the summit with a sense that there is zero philanthropic funding for statehouse reporting—but she put the onus on the practitioners attendees.

“I think [the funders] want us to tell them what we want and come up with a plan, and they didn’t get that,” she said. “There weren’t enough practitioners there—I don’t think we had enough critical mass to say, ‘Hey look, this is what people on the ground need.’ Technology is important, but it’s a tool and you still need people—you need people digging. Technology is a starting place, not an end goal.”

The CPI’s Dunbar agrees that funding has gravely wounded watchdog journalism in each state Capitol.

“The reality is that cash­strapped news organizations, with some notable exceptions, have abandoned the statehouses of the nation,” Dunbar said, adding: “Some philanthropic organizations, like the Arnold Foundation, are helping to fill the gap. Foundations are essential in helping create a robust new model of state government coverage, supported by multiple funding streams, now and in the foreseeable future.”

Failure to invest in statehouse reporting projects would be a missed opportunity, says Ayan Mittra, managing editor of the Texas Tribune. A lot of important stories can be missed, and lack of funding prevents news organizations from engaging in a broader conversation and share best practices, he adds.

In a ​blog post​, Kelly Born of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, wrote that “while the discussion of problems facing statehouse journalism was rich and the ideas generated interesting, none are silver bullets.”

“Addressing the issues plaguing statehouse reporting will require time and effort from many actors across the news media’” she said “The question remains which, if any, of these ideas could be implemented, iterated, and scaled—and which might make a demonstrable difference.”

Funders overwhelmingly agree that statehouse reporting is vital to maintaining an informed citizenry, as well as keeping government accountable and transparent. But they’re also waiting to hear some good, solid ideas.

“We believe the recent meeting with journalists and innovative thinkers sparked new ideas and productive conversations. Our hope is that those discussions will lead to scalable solutions focused on making government more open and accountable,” said Kelli Rhee, Vice President of Venture Development at the Arnold Foundation.

Next week, the Knight News Challenge opens for submissions—projects that “range from bringing more transparency to money and politics, to making voting easy, efficient and fair, to converting election participation into longer-term civic engagement—on the local, state or national level.”