DES MOINES, IOWA — [UPDATE:The Iowa Independent was closed by its parent, the American Independent News Network, in November 2011. Lynda Waddington, the site’s last employee, wrote a moving note to readers about the closure, which can be found here. CJR’s detailed profile of AINN’s refocusing on a national audience after shutting down all but one of its state sites can be found here.]
When Jason Hancock joined the Iowa Independent in the summer of 2008, he was part of a transition for the publication that had been established less than a year before. Originally part of an American Independent News Network (AINN) program that offered short-term funding and training for progressive blogs, the Iowa Independent and sister publications in Colorado and Minnesota were shifting focus by 2008, establishing themselves as more professional outfits with more professional staffs. “It has evolved over three years to the point that all the people involved now are traditional journalists covering state and national politics,” explains Hancock, who had been covering politics for the Des Moines alt-weekly, Cityview, and was hired by the Independent to cover the Iowa statehouse.
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The transformation has seen the Independent emerge as an atypically robust little political startup, reporting intensively and aggressively on the Iowa capital. Funded by the D.C.-based AINN (originally called The Center for Independent Media), which operates a network of ten “Independent” websites across the country, including one looking at national politics in Washington, the Iowa Independent now has a full-time senior writer in Lynda Waddington, as well as a rotating intern–sometimes paid with credit, sometimes with a stipend–and Hancock, who became editor in January 2009. At any given time, the site carries five freelancers. There is no business staff at the local site: fundraising for the nonprofit is handled at AINN’s development office in D.C., where a small number of ad sales are also handled. (AINN and its Independents are trying to diversify the revenue stream in case a grant or two dries up.) Hancock runs his site mostly autonomously, though there is a D.C.-based editorial director for all of AINN’s sites, as well as an IT worker who updated the Independent network’s customized WordPress sites late last year.
“State capitols are pretty under-covered,” says Hancock. “In Iowa we’re lucky that we still have quite a few reporters from newspapers, wire services, and television stations across the capital. But even then, that number has dwindled over the years. It’s a service that we can provide–being an extra set of eyes and also trying to go a little bit deeper, taking a longer look at state government, while the paper of record is chasing the day-to-day stuff.”
One of the longer looks that Hancock is particularly proud of is a series of stories he wrote on dangerous coal ash disposal practices. The series drew attention to issues surrounding the disposal of the toxic byproduct of coal burning that was not being picked up by the local papers. Eventually, the state’s three big public universities–Iowa State, the University of Iowa, and Northern Iowa–which each had been disposing ash in an unlined and unmonitored old quarry, agreed to begin testing the site. The story made a list of “Iowa’s Most Overlooked Stories,” compiled by Hancock at the end of 2009.
Iowa Independent also digs into the state’s more prominent political stories, such as the judicial retention election in 2010 that saw three state Supreme Court judges lose office in alleged retaliation for having legalized same-sex marriage. Hancock says the site focused keenly on the campaigns surrounding the vote–“Where was the money coming from and how was it being spent?” Notably, the Independent won an Association of State Capitol Reporters and Editors Award in 2009 for its reporting on the original same-sex marriage verdict.
The quality of reporting has earned Hancock and his team a following among Iowa’s “influentials”: the state’s politicians, staffers, activists, and nonprofit workers. “We don’t have the casual reader of a big daily general audience. We have people who are very interested in politics, the media and people like that.” And they must be reading–Hancock sees Independent scoops pop up all the time in Iowa’s daily newspapers, sometimes with a credit, sometimes without. “It’s just like with anything,” he says. “You work for a small weekly paper, you end up being a tip sheet for the big daily paper.”
Hancock expects the “will she or won’t she?” questions that dominate Iowan political coverage in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses will be distracting as he tries to stay focused on more local issues. But he also sees the caucus foot traffic as an opportunity. “Where else could a reporter for a website get sit-down interviews with people who may be president one day?” he asks. “We’ve sat down with Tim Pawlenty, we’ve sat down with quite a few of these candidates, and we’ve gotten access, we can ask questions and push them for answers. It really is a double-edged sword.” The idea that as long as candidates are stopping by, they may as well get the Independent treatment. “We had a reporter at a Michele Bachmann event, and he said he was the only one who asked a non-2012-related question.”
“I don’t think we’re providing something that Iowa didn’t already have before–I think we’re accentuating something that Iowa already had,” Hancock says. “When you work at a daily paper, your goal is to put out the daily paper. A lot of times you just can’t dedicate the resources to giving it a more thorough look. That’s what we hope to do. We do live in the moment, we do live in the news cycle, and we do want to feel immediate. But we also want to take a deeper look. It’s kind of like alt-weeklies used to say: ‘We will go where the big daily won’t–or can’t–go.'”
The Iowa Independent Data
Name: The Iowa Indendent