NORTH CAROLINA — In August 2010, Sarah Ovaska took a big chance.
Ovaska, a city hall reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, had always planned for a career in newspapers. But the economic reality surrounding her pointed to a dim future; the rounds of layoffs in the industry felt as if they were coming every quarter. Ovaska had been thinking about how she could keep doing journalism and still feed herself.
Then N.C. Policy Watch, a public policy nonprofit, hired her as its first investigative reporter. Nearly two years later, she’s glad she made the leap.
Her organization, part of the N.C. Justice Center, gives her the time to dig in to state political reporting and watchdog work, like her series of articles about N.C. Rep. Steven LaRoque, a Republican from Kinston who ran two economic development organizations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating LaRoque’s groups after Ovaska’s work showed that he made loans to legislators, paid himself up to $195,000 a year, and made a $200,000 loan to his own for-profit company. His nonprofits have taken in $8 million in federal funding since 1997.
“There’s such an overwhelming public need for journalism to help people put the events and the agencies that affect them into context,” Ovaska said. “I suspect that we’re going to see more of it.”
As traditional news institutions have shrunk in North Carolina, the ranks of nonprofit groups producing journalism about politics and policy have grown—creating a rich, if untraditional, environment for political coverage, issue-oriented journalism, and even investigative work on topics affecting the 2012 election.
Some sources are relatively new, part of a crop of independent, nonprofit news outlets sprouting in many states. Others are long established, serving policy-oriented parent organizations that have a clear political ideology, even if they are technically nonpartisan.
Whatever their pedigree, the nonprofits are sometimes hard to find for readers outside of political wonk circles. But as a group, they’re providing more information about politics and the money behind it, particularly for state elections and issues—an area where the number of newspaper reporters has sharply declined both in North Carolina and across the country. And Ovaska says her stories seem to have a longer shelf life, often resurfacing six months after publication.
Given the role these nonprofit sites are coming to play in my home state, I thought it might be helpful to highlight some of them here. Deciding whom to include in a list of this sort isn’t easy. Researcher Fiona Morgan spent months documenting the information ecosystem in just one part of the state in 2010 and 2011. Some interesting new sites, like the Raleigh Public Record, focus primarily on local civic news, while other news organizations are shifting to focus more on politics in preparation for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte and the 2012 election. Parts of North Carolina also have a rich political blogging history, from Pam’s House Blend on the left to Pundit House on the right.
But for now, I’ll start with a list of nonprofit organizations that consistently write about policy and politics with articles that could be called journalism. They’re filling information gaps, even when they come from particular political points of view. Navigating multiple sites isn’t as easy for consumers as picking up a traditional newspaper in the days of healthy, large newsrooms. But maybe this list will help.
(Decisions about classification—left, right, and nonpartisan—are based on my read of the sites’ tone and content, not their status with the IRS. And it’s possible I’ve left out some key voices. If so, let me know in the comments.)
From the left
Facing South: This site is the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies, founded in 1970 by veterans of the civil rights movement. The site, which began as a digital newsletter, launched as a blog in 2005. It’s left-leaning, frequently focuses on money in politics, and this year, often aims its barbs at organizations connected with Art Pope, a North Carolina entrepreneur who has funded Republican causes.
But during the 2008 election cycle, the site was best known for exposing robocalls and confusing voter registration tactics from Women’s Voices Women Vote, a group with ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. In March 2011, the magazine partnered with The Independent Weekly, a print publication in the Triangle area of North Carolina, to produce an in-depth report on Pope, more than six months before Pope came to national attention with a profile in The New Yorker.
The site often pursues national stories that have implications across the South, like the one by editorial director Sue Sturgis that examined the group attacking an award-winning climate scientist at the University of Virginia. Funding comes from individuals and a long list of foundations.