NORMAN, OKLAHOMA — Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit investigative reporting website launched in December 2010 under editor Tom Lindley, a veteran of the state’s two major daily papers, the Oklahoman and the Tulsa World—credentials that Lindley says got him the job, as the two papers share resources with Oklahoma Watch and the editors of both papers sit on its executive board.
Lindley says Oklahoma Watch’s mission is to expose that which is broken in the public sphere and get the public talking about how to fix it—what Lindley calls the serious topics of the day that could bear more scrutiny. “I don’t call it advocacy, but when you’re a reporter, you look at things and say, ‘Well, how did this happen?’”
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Right now, Oklahoma Watch has three full-time editorial employees: Lindley, a reporter, and a broadcast reporter. Jaclyn Cosgrove, formerly of the Sands Spring Leader and a graduate of Oklahoma State University’s journalism program, is the site’s full-time reporter and social media specialist. Tammy Payne has worked for commercial television stations in Oklahoma, Lindley says, and will produce and investigate stories in coordination with Oklahoma Watch’s radio and television partners. The site also has a part time webmaster. Oklahoma Watch publishes stories when they’re ready, perhaps two or three in a given week. Lindley says it’s an enterprise-driven site, not a breaking news site: “We’re not going to cover statehouse or breaking news.”
The site’s biggest and only long-term project so far has been an examination of Oklahoma’s nation-leading rate of female incarceration, all of which can be found here.
“Oklahoma is very unique in how it deals with crime and punishment, even for the area of the country it’s in,” Lindley says, citing a confluence of harsh sentencing laws, for-profit prisons, and the governor’s involvement in every parole decision. Oklahoma women who have been in prison also commit new crimes at a lower rate than female ex-cons elsewhere, which Lindley says suggests that they didn’t need to be incarcerated in the first place.
The project has also uncovered high rates of poverty, abuse, teen pregnancy, and untreated mental illness among convicts. As the reporting has progressed, Lindley says they’ve received tips about rampant prison drug abuse, a robust drugs-for-sex trade, and guards overusing restraints as a means to punish inmates.
“We’re willing to devote more time to a few projects,” Lindley says. Ideally, he says Oklahoma Watch’s story budget would look like a batting lineup: one on plate, one on deck, and one in the hole. But, he added, the site is still evolving, and may end up publishing more short stories to fill the gaps between major investigations.
The site was founded on a $150,000 grant from the Knight Foundation last fall, a grant matched by the Tulsa Community Foundation. Lindley says the site also received some funding from the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation in Oklahoma City. The site has a two year business plan and grant funding from the Knight Foundation and the Kaiser Foundation. Lindley said he hopes to augment that funding, possibly adding individual donors and pledge drives, and would like to possibly hire a fundraiser and a database reporter.
Oklahoma Watch draws extra reporting muscle from the Tulsa World and the Oklahoman, which have contributed reporting and database analysis to Oklahoma Watch projects, and from students at Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma, and the University of Tulsa. It’s also set to expand into television and radio broadcasting by partnering with existing broadcast stations.
Unusually, some stories have been moved to rural papers even before they’ve been published in the major dailies. Says Lindley: “A lot of the competitive journalism walls have had to come down on this project.”
Oklahoma Watch Data
Name: Oklahoma Watch
Principal Staff: Tom Lindley, editor; Tammy Payne, broadcast editor; Jaclyn Cosgrove, reporter.
Affiliations: Content: Tulsa World; the Oklahoman; Oklahoma Press Association; Griffin Communications; OETA, the Oklahoma public television network; public radio stations KWGS in Tulsa and KGOU in Norman; and journalism programs at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University.