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.
N.C. Policy Watch: The site where Ovaska works is billed as a progressive, nonpartisan organization “with a simple mission: to change the way elected officials debate important issues and, ultimately, to improve the quality of life for all North Carolinians.” It has a blog, The Progressive Pulse, with short hits from the political news of the day within and beyond North Carolina, and the main site, with reported articles from Ovaska, commentary from Chris Fitzsimon, videos, and resources such as links to state government websites and state media. Funding for N.C. Policy Watch comes from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, the H.J. Wyss Foundation and contributions of individual supporters.
Democracy North Carolina: This watchdog group says it uses research, organizing, and advocacy to increase voter participation and reduce the influence of big money in politics. It issues research papers in PDF form, such as a report in late February showing that the N.C. House Speaker received more than $20,000 from the consumer finance industry (read: the payday lender folks) before pushing through legislation supporting the industry. It also hands out “Sunshine Awards” that recognize state legislators who provide quality campaign finance reports; the last list included nine Democrats and 13 Republicans.
The group’s emphasis appears to be on influencing other media coverage through its research, and the reliance on PDFs can make its material somewhat difficult to navigate. But the research is solid, and it’s accompanied by helpful information for consumers and citizens, like this “How to vote” explainer. The organization has received funding from the Triangle Community Foundation and the Park Foundation, and it partners with many other organizations.
From the right
Carolina Journal: This online site also includes a print newspaper, a radio show, and five affiliated blogs across the state. The site features news stories from contributors, its editors aggregate politics and public policy news from around the state, and its columnists provide conservative thoughts for newspaper op-ed pages in North Carolina. The site’s original news stories vary in tone, with some presented as straightforward news reporting and others using value-laden words like “scheme” and “claim” rather than a simple “said.” One recent article, “Commerce official tries to divert money to his nonprofit,” echoes Ovaska’s focus on the use of federal funds.
The publications are the work of the John Locke Foundation, which calls itself an independent, nonpartisan think tank that believes in free markets, limited constitutional government, and personal responsibility. Pope, the conservative business executive and Republican supporter, helped found the think tank and serves on its board of directors. His family foundation has donated more than $17 million to the organization over the years, according to the Institute for Southern Studies. (The foundation itself takes pains to say it is not Republican, or even conservative, except in the “classically liberal” sense.)
One of the five affiliated blogs brought some embarrassment to the Carolina Journal and Locke Foundation recently, when Charlotte blogger Tara Servatius of The Meck Deck posted a photo illustration of President Barack Obama in high heels and chains, with a bucket of fried chicken. The image remained on the site for 48 hours before being taken down after complaints surfaced on blogs and in social media. Servatius resigned, and John Hood, president and chairman of the Locke Foundation, apologized. “The political discourse in our state and nation has grown increasingly coarse, unnecessarily personal, and destructively vitriolic,” he wrote. “This is the kind of episode that can only make the situation worse. We should be able to disagree about controversial issues without it coming to this.”
The incident spurred the organization to evaluate its methods of oversight of contributors. In a recent email exchange, Hood said, “We have initially decided to ensure more timely and intensive oversight of blog posts and may well institute prior editing of posts for freelancers with access to the system.”
Civitas Institute: Another organization funded by Pope, this site provides research, information, and training to “facilitate the implementation of conservative policy solutions to improve the lives of all North Carolinians.” It produces a weekly newsletter, plus Civitas Review magazine, a blog, and election analysis. Civitas also conducts polls and offers low-priced training in free-enterprise principles and policy manuals for legislators and citizens. An affiliated website, Carolina Transparency, produces some gorgeous data visualizations about voter registration and other political information. The site has received $8 million from Pope during the last decade, according to the Institute for Southern Studies.
Carolina Public Press: A relative newcomer, this online-only site serves 17 counties in western North Carolina, along the spine of the Appalachians in some of the more sparsely populated parts of the state. CPP’s mission includes sharing information about open records laws with its community, and it recently held two seminars on federal Freedom of Information Act procedures and state open records laws. It is “dedicated to in-depth, investigative and independent reporting,” but as a young site, it seems focused on raising the funds to carry out its mission more fully in the future. Special reports have focused on subjects like food policy, autism, and the environment. It often publishes press releases as is, but labels them as such, and CPP’s curation of news from other sources—along with those press releases—provide it with a stream of updates despite a small staff.
CPP is studiously nonpartisan and publishes clear editorial policies. It’s a sponsored project of the Institute for Southern Studies and has received funding from the McCormick Foundation’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs program through J-Lab at American University.
North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation: This group employs a research director, Jonathan Kappler, who keeps track of candidates filing for state elections, collects candidate questionnaires, aggregates news about state candidates from other sources, and provides brief updates on political advertising campaigns. Kappler’s work reads like straight, objective reporting, though the organization represents North Carolina businesses including Pope’s Variety Wholesalers, Inc., and the staff provides in-person political briefings for a nominal fee across the state.
PlanCharlotte: This site is a project of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, an applied research and community outreach organization. (Full disclosure: I’m doing some contract work for the site.) It’s brand new, in beta, and focuses on regional growth and planning issues around the Charlotte area. The site goes in-depth on issues such as the changing demographics of Charlotte and how those changes affect the national politics of 2012 and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. With its connections to the Urban Institute, it has a wealth of data about Charlotte communities from which to draw. It also has a fledgling opinion page, where it encourages civil discourse. The director is Mary Newsom, former editorial board member at The Charlotte Observer. Funding comes from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
More groups likely will emerge. One, thePPL, is forming to provide space and community support for non-traditional media during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in September. That group has plans for streaming video and special forums and interviews during the convention, aiming to build an environment like The Big Tent from The Daily Kos. Independent journalists can pay $45 to get access to working space in uptown Charlotte during the convention.
For the contributors and staff at these sites, the challenges are new and ever changing. Ovaska said she feels lucky and more secure at N.C. Policy Watch than she did in a traditional news organization, though she sometimes misses the camaraderie of a newsroom.
“I certainly don’t have a road map in front of me of how to do this,” she says. Just like the readers who seek out political and civic information in a new world, she’s still feeling her way.
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