News Startups Guide

Nebraska Watchdog

Think tank-funded investigations for the Cornhusker State

March 24, 2011

Nebraska.Watchdog.pngLAVISTA, NEBRASKA — Nebraska Watchdog, which launched in September 2009 with longtime newsman Joe Jordan as its sole employee, is a one-man shop focusing on investigative and statehouse news in the Cornhusker State. The site is part of a network of sites around the country that share the Watchdog name.

Jordan spent twenty-nine years as a political and investigative reporter for KMTV CBS in Omaha, winning a Walter Cronkite Award in 2003 for uncovering misleading television ads from a pharmaceutical company–supposedly public service spots about low cost drugs, they prominently featured local congressmen campaigning for reelections–and a duPont award in 1983 for covering patient abuse at an Omaha home for the physically and mentally handicapped. In 2009, he left the station to start the Nebraska Watchdog, after being approached by the Franklin Center. “I wanted to be moving toward the future rather than waiting for it to come to me,” Jordan says.

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    • Though running a daily website is a switch from what Jordan was used to, he says it was a fairly easy transition. Unlike other startup news sites, Jordan says he doesn’t have trouble convincing people to take him seriously, as he’s already known by most of the political actors in the state, including the governor, whom he’s covered for twenty-five years. “I really don’t have a problem with people coming to me or talking to me and going on the record,” Jordan says. He does a lot of his work in public spaces at Omaha’s city hall and in the state capitol. The biggest story he’s covered recently has been an unsuccessful attempt to recall Omaha’s mayor. Most of Jordan’s coverage on that story is collected here.

      The Watchdog sites are funded by the Franklin Center For Government and Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization founded by a former North Dakota Republican political operative, Jason Stverak, with seed money from the Sam Adams Alliance, a conservative nonprofit organization. Stverak says the Franklin Center helps establish Watchdog sites to cover and investigate state and local government. The center funds and launches the sites, and provides their reporters with training, weekly conference calls, and legal and technical advice.

      Jordan says the Center provides a yearly training session with seminars on the 1st Amendment, video editing, covering hearings and similar topics and that the conference calls happen every other week or once a month or so. “There’s no morning staff calls or anything like that,” he explains.

      Unlike Jordan, most of the local reporters staffing the Watchdog sites weren’t recruited, but rather approached the Franklin Center looking for funding. Stverak says the salaries are comparable to professional journalism. “The reporters and editors don’t do any of the fundraising, that’s all handled by what they call the Franklin Center’s management,” Jordan says. Stverak declines to name any donors, citing a strict anonymity policy.

      While the Watchdog site might be tied to a think tank, Jordan says there is no political bias in his coverage. “You pick the stories, you do the stories,” Jordan says. “If there is an ideological bent, it’s toward government transparency…. [But] if you go to the website and read the stories, it’s pretty obvious there’s no ideological bent.”

      Jordon is especially pleased with a piece he wrote about an aide to the governor using her state e-mail account and title to pressure Omaha city officials to intervene on her behalf in a dispute with the builder of her town home. He says he’s also proud of a story about abuses of a state program to allow people registered as boat dealers to avoid paying taxes when they buy a boat. He found that registered boat dealers included a plumbing company, two commercial painters, and at least one ex-con.

      Though Jordan’s medium has changed, his approach to the job hasn’t. “It’s like any day walking into the newsroom when I was at KMTV,” Jordan says. “You get up in the morning knowing that there are three or four things you’re probably going to pursue, whether it’s a budget hearing at city hall, a public hearing at the state capitol or somebody is having a protest–all of those things are on your daybook. But like any news operation, you might get a tip and pursue that instead.”

Nebraska Watchdog Data

Name: Nebraska Watchdog


City: LaVista

Brendan Buhler is a contributor to CJR.