Think Tank Journalism: The Future of Investigative Reporting
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Published: 27-Apr-2011

The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity provides journalists the opportunity to investigate and report on the stories that matter. We provide a place for the growing network of reporters to get training, editorial assistance, communications help and a virtual newsroom where reporters join together to discuss their stories and ask questions of each other. The network of journalists includes investigative and statehouse news reporters based at SPN think tanks, local nonprofits and independent reporters across the country.

The Franklin Center’s growth in only two years is a testament to terrific news content, and the desperate need for this type of journalism. In the first year, the network grew to include reporters in 30 states. By the end of 2010, 41 states had reporters and 2011 promises more expansion and successes.

Consider this success story. In September 2009, Kathy Hoekstra found herself using assets from the Mackinac Center and the Franklin Center to investigate a union daycare scandal that was shocking the daycare industry. The story originated from a lawsuit filed by the newly-formed Mackinac Center Legal Foundation on behalf of two home-daycare owners in Michigan. About a year before, the women received notification in the mail that they were now members of a union, and that dues would be taken out of the subsidy checks they received on behalf of low-income parents, who qualify for aid through the Michigan Department of Human Services.

While the Legal Foundation went to work in court, Hoekstra set out to learn just how this so-called union came into existence, and why these home-daycare owners were suddenly, without notice, members of a labor union. Weeks of investigating, working with her think-tank team and picking the brains of the Franklin Center’s network of reporters paid off: Hoekstra’s article was welcomed in all the major Michigan news outlets, exposing the story to millions of readers. The result: This March, Michigan announced that it would stop collecting union dues from 16,500 private daycare providers, and will no longer fund the agency in charge of the union.

The growing, alternative news media source being delivered from free-market think tanks is becoming more frequent with encouragement from the think tank leadership and the networking opportunities and editorial support of the Franklin Center. But that wasn’t always the case. It was only two years ago that there were fewer than 10 reporters housed at state think tanks. That was before the Franklin Center, working closely with SPN, began networking these reporters together and providing training and services to help them be more effective.

South Carolina Policy Council is a think tank that blends its work with its journalistic operation, The Nerve. Kevin Dietrich, Rick Brundrett and Eric Ward produce at least one in-depth news story every day. They are able to use the Policy Council’s research team to spot questionable legislation that makes great stories, and they work with the external affairs staff to be kept abreast of developments in the State House.

“Franklin’s offsite training has opened my eyes to a wide array of different information sources that have enabled The Nerve to broaden its depth of reporting,” Dietrich said. Additionally, he notes, the Franklin Center’s virtual newsroom helps by providing several potential story ideas on a weekly basis.

The Franklin Center‘s virtual newsroom has revolutionized the way the network of reporters communicate and work together. By posting stories, sources and leads in this online forum, reporters from Hawaii to New Hampshire are able to see what stories are emerging from each state, which has provided a national story on more than one occasion.

Take the phantom congressional districts story, previously chronicled in the 2010 January/February SPN News. The story arose when the investigative reporter at the Rio Grande Institute in New Mexico posted his discovery of an error in the federal government’s reporting of stimulus money – indicating funding had been provided to projects in nonexistent congressional districts – to the Franklin Center’s virtual newsroom. Through the virtual newsroom, the Franklin Center’s network of journalists began digging into their own state’s congressional district information and found that New Mexico was not the only state with phantom congressional districts receiving taxpayer-funded stimulus money.

But online networking is not the only way the Franklin Center’s network pulls together to make state and national news. During the 2010 election to replace the late-U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, the Franklin Center joined other organizations to help a group of 10 independent journalists in cities around Massachusetts report on the election between Scott Brown and Martha Coakley. The journalists’ role was not to merely report on the voting and the numbers, but to dig behind the scenes using the investigative techniques they recently reviewed at a Franklin Center training to monitor both the Republicans and Democrats. If any stories were to be found that were not being told by the mainstream media, this group could do it. Their job was to serve as a window into the election process and report on voter turnout, candidate platforms and transparency and accountability.

Their impact was immediately felt. Landing on a Sunday, these talented journalists hit the ground running and within hours were writing stories that the traditional media had missed. On that Monday morning, New Hampshire Watchdog reporter Grant Bosse, from the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, decided to visit the phone banks at the two candidates’ headquarters. He then visited a Coakley phone bank being run by the Massachusetts Teacher’s Union. He opened the door and found no one there. With camera in hand, he videotaped an empty room of phones and chairs. The story of an empty phone bank was then covered by ABC News, Fox News and many others. The video quickly went viral on YouTube.

In the Massachusetts election coverage, the network of journalists proved it could mobilize on short notice and instantly become an effective force in getting information to the people and other media.

This was also the case when the Tea Party Rallies exploded last fall across the country. Reporters took to the streets and conducted interviews, delving into the motivations behind the increasingly popular political movement. Stories from Hawaii to Maine, Washington to Alabama were posted on the Franklin Center’s national news sites, Watchdog.org and StatehouseNewsOnline.com.

The network of reporters isn’t just getting the attention of the media and news consumers. Their peers also are paying attention. In 2010, state think tank reporters brought home several journalism awards. The Society of Professional Journalists honored MarylandReporter.com at its Dateline Awards banquet. Capitolbeat, the National Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, awarded former Illinois Statehouse News reporter Kevin Lee with the Online In-Depth Reporting Award. Lee now is bureau chief at WisconsinReporter.com, which launched in January.

The Nerve and Goldwater Institute’s investigative journalist Mark Flatten, among others, have won recognition and awards as well.

The work that think tanks and independent nonprofit journalists produce has never been more needed and valued than it is right now.
 
Reporters are exposing corruption, scandals and injustices that plague our society. They are the answer to the diminishing resources of the journalism industry, and the Franklin Center is proud to have helped these journalists change the political and media landscape.

 
Jason Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, with which CapitolBeatOK is affiliated.  

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