DETROIT, MI — In a time of upheaval for both politics and media, state-level think tanks sit at a peculiar nexus of influence: they both shape the news and report it.
And few are more influential on either score than the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a “free market” think tank based in Midland, MI, that is one of the largest of its kind in the nation. Along with an affiliated legal arm, the Mackinac (pronounced MAK-in-aw) Center uses its considerable resources to wage an aggressive and often successful campaign on behalf of smaller government and against measures that it sees as limiting personal freedoms or private markets. Often, that means targeting teachers’ unions and other labor groups, who engage in their own counter-attacks against the center.
Since its founding in 1987, Mackinac has also become a major player in the state’s media ecosystem. Mackinac has a two-part media strategy. The first, more traditional flank involves putting out a steady stream of reports designed to move the state’s news agenda, and making its analysts readily available to journalists. For example, the center’s recent release of “report cards” on Michigan elementary and middle schools drew wide coverage, some of which made little mention of the center’s philosophical outlook. Bill Shea, a reporter and editor with Crain’s Detroit Business (and past CJR contributor), described Mackinac as a professional and responsive organization, and “a serious player in the state conversation. It’s hard not to use them” as a source, he said.
And Mackinac is generally well-regarded at what are still the state’s most prominent outlets for analysis and opinion—the editorial sections of the Detroit newspapers. Ingrid Jacques, deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News, told me that “personally, I have used Mackinac Center experts—especially on education and labor policy—quite a bit in my reporting for editorials. I find them to be extremely well-informed and helpful.” Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, said his own views on the center were “mixed”—he is most critical of Mackinac’s agenda on the “right-to-work” debate and charter schools. But “they seem to want to raise the intellectual stakes in every discussion,” Henderson said, adding, “generally, they’re a plus on the policy debate landscape.”
The second, more novel part of Mackinac’s strategy is to make its own media. The center publishes the polished Michigan Capitol Confidential news site—CapCon for short. (This should not be confused with Mackinac’s blog, which offers updates on its policy priorities, or IMPACT Magazine, a colorful bimonthly delivered in print to members, with features like “Michigan’s Craziest Laws.”)
The three-year-old CapCon is the most journalistically ambitious of Mackinac’s media operations; its four-member staff includes three former reporters for traditional outlets. On its “About” page, the site pledges to “fill [the] void” of dwindling state coverage with “balanced, substantive reporting, aided by insightful analysis, hard data and legal expertise.” But the same page makes clear that CapCon shares a perspective with the think tank:
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source for Michigan residents who want an alternative to “bigger government” remedies in policy debates. CapCon reports on the public officials who seek to limit government, those who do not, and those whose votes are at odds with what they say.
For CapCon editor Manny Lopez, who did turns as both the auto and opinion page editor at The Detroit News, part of the appeal of working for the site is that it is “not trying to be everything to everyone.” CapCon was developed, Lopez said, because Mackinac’s white papers were “hard to digest,” and the think tank “saw the need to create a news outlet.”
Lopez says plainly that he is “conservative,” and has found CapCon a good fit. But the site is not partisan, he said. Among its stories are “hundreds of pieces on Republicans who are doing bad things for good government”—meaning, Republicans who support policies that, from a free-market point-of-view, are problematic. For example, a recent CapCon series profiled the 28 Republicans in the Michigan House who voted for “Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.”
In speaking of CapCon’s audience, Lopez said, “the stories we write are widely read by Republican legislators for sure, and a lot of Democratic legislators too, whether or not they admit it.” Beyond the state capitol in Lansing, “we want to be a statewide, widely-read news source,” he said.