In South Carolina, a watchdog reporter sets out on his own

The midlands region of South Carolina, anchored by the state capital of Columbia, is as good a place as any for a muckraker. The region has produced a rogue’s gallery of unseemly public officials and has a long history of bad behavior and corruption.

So it makes sense that when Ron Aiken, a well-traveled reporter, decided to set up a one-man investigative journalism enterprise, he chose to stay in the area. Aiken hopes his new site, Quorum, will meet local demand for accountability coverage—and while any small startup faces an uphill battle to sustainability, he should at least find material to work with.

Aiken’s venture is a small-scale example of the ways in which aggressive local reporters around the country continue to search for ways to do watchdog work. But his journey to this point has not exactly been simple.

In the late 1990s, Aiken worked for The State, the McClatchy-owned daily in Columbia. From there he followed a string of jobs to Wyoming and Colorado and then back again to South Carolina, with stints at traditional dailies, business magazines, an alt-weekly, a TV station, and even a short-lived venture as a high school sports news entrepreneur. (For a time he worked at the Columbia alt-weekly Free Times, where I’ve also worked, though we didn’t overlap.) Then, last fall, he started at The Nerve, an investigative news site published by the Columbia-based South Carolina Policy Council, a libertarian think tank.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

Think-tank journalism is inevitably surrounded by questions of editorial independence and balance, and the Policy Council, which doesn’t disclose its donors, is an active player in South Carolina’s political universe. But under Aiken’s predecessor, Rick Brundrett, The Nerve had built a reputation for muckraking about state government that was hard-edged but journalistic in its approach.

In his own time at the site, Aiken aimed to continue that tradition, but with a more local bent and a focus on sometimes obscure government entities. He sunk his teeth into controversies involving the administration of a one-cent county sales tax, intended to support infrastructure projects, that was approved by local voters in a troubled 2012 election. He reported on allegations of double dipping, tax money going to contractors’ coffee, cars, and cleaning, and more.

Beyond the penny tax, Aiken also dug into spending by a special-purpose airport district board, uncovered allegations of kickbacks and corruption on a recreation commission, and highlighted apparent mismanagement at a sprawling university technology program.

John Monk, an investigative reporter for The State, said Aiken’s work on the penny tax issue was particularly memorable. And on other issues, Aiken provided scrutiny of the sort of little-known agencies that can be easily overlooked today.

“We all are kind of hampered by a lack of staff these days,” Monk said. “It used to be with a story like the airport board or USC’s technology [program] another media [outlet] would stick its finger in the pie and have a go at it. But now everybody’s so strapped. Unless it’s a major story you might be out there on your own.” 

As a close watcher of The Nerve since its inception in 2010, I had assumed Aiken, a fast-talking, 46-year-old with a gravelly voice, had been hired specifically to bird-dog the administration of the local tax hike. Not so. In fact, Aiken said, he had to fight “tooth and nail” to cover the story, because it wasn’t consistent with the Policy Council’s mission.

“Time and again I would get reined back in to a solely legislative focus that while sometimes important, didn’t always have the impact that I thought Columbia journalism needed,” Aiken said. “That difference in editorial direction was what led me to realize that I needed to do something different if I wanted to not have to bury stories that I thought were critically important to this community.” 

His former boss, Ashley Landess, said in an interview that the stories Aiken wanted to pursue are “simply not The Nerve’s brand.” She added, “We have to pay attention to the statewide perspective.” They both said he left on good terms.

And so last week Aiken struck out on his own. He’s raising money from friends, family, and crowdfunders, has started a website, and is formulating a business plan, which will rely on ads rather than subscribers. He considered but dismissed the idea of incorporating a nonprofit, as other journalists launching solo investigative projects have done, before deciding that a for-profit structure would mean less paperwork and more freedom.

It’s no small thing to set out on your own, and it’s an understatement to say that the current business environment for in-the-weeds watchdog coverage in a midsize market is challenging. But Aiken is excited to try. The stories should be there, after all.

“If I fail, my product, my writing and investigative work, wasn’t good enough,” Aiken told me about the prospect. “I won’t fail because a board wants to go in a different direction or because the company that owns my newspaper is crippled with debt and can’t afford to keep me or other veteran reporters around.” 

Not that he expects the kind of scalability other for-profit local news startups envision.

“I’m doing it because the work needs to be done and I love doing it,” he told me. “That’s what gets me more excited than anything, I get to do it without any handcuffs or without any hands tied behind my back. I can just go at it, and I think that excites people that care.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.