AUSTIN, TEXAS — In January of 2011, Ken Martin, the founder, editor, and publisher of The Austin Bulldog, an independent nonprofit investigative news website, got a tip from a prospective Austin city council candidate that council members were holding private meetings. The Texas Open Meetings Act prohibits private meetings for the purpose of deliberating on public business. And yet, on four of the council members’ online calendars, Martin saw that such private meetings were regularly scheduled before every city council meeting.
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With the online calendars as evidence, Martin then interviewed each of the council members. On January 25, he broke the story on the Bulldog, prompting the council attorney to immediately issue a press release stating that the matter was under investigation. The Austin American-Statesman, the local daily paper, followed up on Martin’s story, crediting the Bulldog for the work. The council started having open work sessions instead of private meetings the very next week.
Martin’s scoop led to several follow-up stories; one of them found that staff members who worked for the mayor and council members were not properly trained in managing local government records for several years. For another story, Martin had requested copies of e-mails for the preceding calendar year through an open record request. When he was denied access to e-mails about city business exchanged on the council members’s private e-mail accounts, he decided to sue the city.
“The city government likes to think of itself as open and transparent—and will tell you that in the publicity it puts out,” Martin says. “But if you have to sue somebody to get them to give you what the law says they should give you, then there’s something wrong with that operation.”
The city council stories are typical of the kind of hard-hitting, persistent reporting found on Martin’s website. And although he has hired four or five freelancers since the launch of the Bulldog, he still writes the majority of the content himself.
Investigative journalism is by nature time consuming, and Martin does not aim to post a certain number of stories per day or week. Instead, he posts stories whenever they are ready. “You go out and drill holes, and you hope that there’s some oil there, but you don’t always hit a gusher when you go out and drill a hole,” he says, using a decidedly Texas metaphor. The work speaks for itself, but the necessarily slow publication speed for what is essentially a single journalist doing labor intensive stories results in low traffic. Martin says his site’s monthly unique visitors have ranged from about 2,000 to about 3,000 in 2011.
Over the course of his thirty years as a journalist, Martin has held editor positions at various small Texas news outlets, including the Dripping Springs Dispatch and the Williamson County Sun. He was also an investigative reporter for the Austin Business Journal before serving as editor there, and started the In Fact weekly newsletter, which covered Austin City Hall and local politics. After four years, he made the newsletter a daily website, publishing five times a week. Martin also co-founded The Good Life magazine with his wife, which he edited for more than eleven years. In both 1989 and 1991, Martin won first-place awards from the National Newspaper Association for two projects, both of which resulted in criminal convictions for the targets of his investigations.
After ceasing publication of The Good Life in January 2009 due to the faltering economy, Martin wondered how to get back into journalism. A friend turned him on to the idea of a nonprofit journalism website and he began a search for funding that eventually led him to the J-Lab New Voices program, which is funded by the Knight Foundation. To Martin’s surprise, he received a $25,000 grant and launched the Bulldog on April 1, 2010.
The Bulldog is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and grants and individual donations represent its only sources of revenue. Martin does not accept advertisements, the site’s relatively low traffic making these more trouble than their worth, he says. Recently, Martin was awarded a $25,000 challenge grant by a local philanthropist in Austin, who set up the Kirk Mitchell Public Interest Investigative Reporting Fund exclusively for the Bulldog. The grant will match whatever amount Martin is able to raise through private donations, up to a $25,000 total. As of this writing, Martin has raised $16,000 of that amount. Individual donors—large and small—are disclosed and thanked on the site’s “Contribute” page.
Martin works full-time for the Bulldog, draws a small stipend, and spends some of his time raising funds while putting most of his energy into investigative reporting. In the future, he would like to grow the organization, which has been a member of the Investigative News Network since before its launch date, to involve more journalists. On the reporting end, he hopes to perform more background investigations on public officials, already a recurring feature on the site. “We scour every public record that we can find and then publish the information,” he says. “This is very similar to what well-funded political candidates do with their opponents, and then try to peddle to the press to weaken their rivals. My approach is that a journalist ought to be doing that.”
The Austin Bulldog Data
Name: The Austin Bulldog
Principal Staff: Ken Martin, founder, editor, and publisher.
Affiliations: Kirk Mitchell Public Interest Investigative Reporting Fund; Member of Investigative News Network.