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Making the Case for Statehouse Accountability Journalism for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania



The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the fifth most populous state and the fifth largest in electoral votes, has been a swing state in presidential elections since the 1950s. Unlike others with a strong, shared identity like Texans and Wisconsinites, Pennsylvanians identify more with their towns and neighborhoods than they do with their state. They lack a sense of shared ownership--of solutions as well as of problems--which makes politics in the state regionally fragmented as well as conventionally partisan.

For many Pennsylvanians, what happens in Harrisburg is less available and seems less relevant to them than the highly polarized news coming out of Washington. Yet state governments are the institution with the most significant impact on citizens' lives, as the primary guarantors of everything from public and higher education to infrastructure to the safety of food, air and water. As the still-forming group of non-profits called the Statehouse Accountability Consortium puts it in its initial description:

While Congress has been mired in stalemate, states have proven their ability to act on a whole host of pressing policy issues. With close to 40,000 new bills and resolutions enacted each term by state legislatures, states have a long track record of policy innovation, experimentation and exportation.

Influencing these 40,000 new laws are nearly 45,000 registered lobbyists who last year contributed more than $3 billion to state legislators. The Center for Public Integrity notes there are 44,900 registered lobbyists in state capitals, outnumbering the 7,383 state legislators nearly 6 to 1. However, the public at large finds themselves [largely] shut out of the process.

The influence of state legislatures - and the lack of [reporting] infrastructure to monitor and hold them to account - is more significant than ever. Between 1998 and 2009, the American Journalism Review conducted five tallies of newspaper reporters assigned to the statehouse full time. Each tally since 1998 showed a decline. Those papers lost a total of 164 full-time statehouse reporters - a decline of 35% - between 2003 and 2014. With statehouse reporting at an all-time low, the [watchdog] function of the press has been crippled.

In Pennsylvania, It's Time for PA Post

The Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association has 34 members (four of them are WITF Public Media staffers). Only half of PLCA members work in the capitol, yet they collectively must keep track of a $32 billion annual state budget--monitoring an impossible $941 million in spending per correspondent.

WITF Public Media has been covering legislative and statewide issues since its founding in 1964, on television at first, and then on radio, in print, in community meetings and online. WITF has built both a public and commercial radio network for state government news and is leading or participating in statewide media partnerships on key topics: the state's energy economy, municipal issues and health care.

Now is the time for WITF Public Media to take the next, needed step:
to build on this foundation to create PA Post--a digital-first, statehouse accountability organization for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Philosophically, PA Post is an effort to connect Pennsylvanians to their state, and to each other--to knit us together with trusted information and conversation that will establish more shared ownership of both our problems and our solutions.

Journalistically, PA Post's digital-first news means fact-based and contextual journalism produced for delivery first on the digital devices that users increasingly prefer: smartphones, tablets and computers, and using all of digital media's formats: audio, text, video, maps, animation and interactives.



Crucial Differences

But there are at least 3 crucial differences in our approach in PA Post.

  1. PA Post will present stories through other news organizations as well, as both distributors of, and contributors to, PA Post.
  2. PA Post will connect with citizens in person as well as on-line. We plan community and panel discussions at partner locations and colleges around the state, as part of our effort to rebuild trust in news and in citizens' ability to affect their own government's policies.
  3. PA Post will build both media literacy and civic education seamlessly into our work. It's not the fault of Pennsylvanians that they don't know how their state government works. That kind of civic education hasn't been a priority for years. We will be a news organization that engages citizens on how our reporting is done, and by what standards.

Citizens of Pennsylvania, no matter where they live or how they get their news, need access to relevant reporting on the issues that affect them most personally. These include public and higher education, health and human services, immigration, energy, transportation, criminal justice, the environment and the operation of the state legislature and state agencies themselves.

Recording of legislative sessions and committee hearings occurs in some form in all 50 states, controlled by the legislators themselves. These recordings are valuable, but they are neither reporting nor analysis. As a result, it is getting difficult for even the most discerning consumer to ensure that information about their state is coming from an ethical and impartial news source.



A New Breed of Non-Partisan, Non-Profit News Organizations

Nationally, the vacuum left behind by the decline in commercial news organizations has spurred a new breed of purpose-built, non-partisan and independent nonprofit news organizations such as the Texas Tribune, Nevada Independent and VT Digger. PA Post will join the ranks of these organizations.

According to Pew, "In seven states--Connecticut, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont--the outlet with the largest number of full-time statehouse reporters is one of these upstarts." Since the Pew report came out, CALmatters and the Nevada Independent, two state-based non-profit newsrooms, have joined this list.

Accountability journalism starts by providing information that citizens do not have, and goes beyond that to change policies and laws. Reporting from nonprofit newsrooms has had significant impacts, according to the April 2017 Nonprofit Journalism Engagement Case Studies report by the Institute of Nonprofit News.

  • MinnPost followed a series of negotiations between the owners of a new Major League Soccer franchise and the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, shining a spotlight over how much local governments should offer sports teams in pursuit of economic development.
  • CALmatters -- in partnership with the Los Angeles Times and Capital Public Radio -- found that state payments to reduce a $241 billion unfunded pension liability will double during Gov. Jerry Brown's tenure, despite Brown's claim that he passed the "biggest rollback to public pension benefits in the history of California." The day the story was published, the governor said, "we're not finished with pension reform. We still got to do much more there."

WITF's accountability journalism is already at work:

  • Eleven projects to build or expand pipelines in the shale-gas states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia could move 14 billion cubic feet of gas to market per day. WITF Public Media's project, StateImpact Pennsylvania, partnered with the Center for Public Integrity to track these pipelines and how they are regulated--or not.
  • Pennsylvania is home to the some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country. Recent court challenges - including two from Pennsylvania (one on the state level and one on the federal level) - hoped to change the system.  With the issue at center stage in the Commonwealth, WITF teamed with Keystone Crossroads, and PennLive on a collaborative effort to take a closer look at several congressional districts that have drawn scrutiny, as part of the series Over the Line?. WITF's State House Sound Bites (podcast and public affairs show) and our daily interview program Smart Talk provided analysis on the two lawsuits as well as the state Supreme Court ruling that deemed Pennsylvania's congressional districts unconstitutional.  Home page of all of our coverage: https://overthelinepa.org/

We believe WITF Public Media is the right organization to launch and sustain this ambitious effort. And we seek Pennsylvania funders willing to invest in the statehouse accountability journalism PA Post will offer Commonwealth citizens.

Assets and Platforms

WITF has five key assets that position it to incubate, launch and maximize the impact of PA Post:

  1. Existing Collaborations. WITF is a significant content contributor on state issues on multiple platforms, and is the editorial lead on several multi-year collaborations on statewide issues.
  2. Relevant Resources. Based in Harrisburg, WITF has the staff, production capability and convening space for a statehouse/statewide initiative.
  3. Distribution Networks. WITF operates two radio networks, for commercial and public media; is part of a statewide public television network, and has existing regional print relationships upon which to build.
  4. Commitment to Engagement. We use tools such as the Public Insight Network and Hearken, but we emphasize face-to-face engagement with audiences via panel discussion, town halls and informal "news and brews" events for our journalists to get to know our citizens.
  5. Culture of Innovation. In its more than 50 years of mission-based operation, WITF has developed and managed diverse ancillary businesses--both for-profit and nonprofit--as a way to meet its mission and revenue objectives.

PA Post's Platforms:

  1. Digital-first News - Delivered to mobile and computers via email newsletters, social media channels and web.
  2. Broadcast - Features, two-ways and interviews on WITF's existing commercial and public radio networks, and on public and commercial television.
  3. Feedback - Using apps, surveys and focus groups, we will involve PA Post users before the stories, during the reporting and after the posts.
  4. Events - In Harrisburg and hosted around the state on campuses and at public media stations, panel discussions and town meetings to involve and engage communities in region-specific topics.
  5. Podcasts - Audio stories and compilations with a "voice" and tone to take advantage of this new form for delivery of content and analysis.
  6. Print and Print Partner Websites - Stories, animations and maps, infographics and more on Pennsylvania's pressing issues.


Voters' Views on Pennsylvania State News

The survey of registered voters conducted by Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Opinion Research in May 2017 revealed some interesting results about citizens' consumption of, and trust in, news about Pennsylvania policy, politics and issues. According to researcher Berwood Yost, "More than half (58%) of the state's registered voters believe state government plays a very important role in their lives, but only one in six (17%) very closely follows news about the state. The proportion of respondents very closely following news about the state is smaller than the one in four (26%) who say they have a great deal of interest in news about PA government, policy and politics."

This gap may be a result of not knowing where to find state news, or not being satisfied with the quality of what news is available; few (14%) people, for example, think local news media do a good job of keeping them informed about state news.

This suggests at least two opportunities for PA Post:
(1) to deliver a higher level of quality and relevance to those citizens who think state government plays an important role in their lives and
(2) to find ways to communicate the availability of PA Post content to those citizens.

The survey also confirmed that citizens are using a wide variety of sources (cable TV, broadcast TV, internet and print); this may also confirm the assumption that their current sources of state government information aren't satisfactory to them.



What's the Business Model, and How You Can Help

Even with these assets, WITF will need significant investment and collaborative partnerships to launch a project as large and ambitious as PA Post. Building a coalition of funders takes time, but WITF has begun to identify who will invest in this project, and seeks support from individuals and foundation funders with both capacity and an interest in Pennsylvania's civic life. These will include topic-focused organizations and individuals committed to state politics and policy, health care, energy, the environment and education.

The implementation strategy--whereby we model PA Post on best-practices by sustainable best-in-class nonprofit newsrooms--is likely to shorten our ramp-up time and allow us to develop multiple viable revenue streams as quickly as possible. We estimate that PA Post will require 2 years of start-up funding (a total of $1.5-$2 million for the 2-year period). We have commitments of $500,000 for start-up so far, with a goal to begin PA Post content flowing in May 2018.

Further shortening the project timeline is the fact that WITF is already producing content that fits within the mission of PA Post. While most nonprofits spend their initial resources on an inaugural editorial project to demonstrate viability, WITF is already proven in this arena and already focused on the 2018 stories of greatest Pennsylvania interest, from gerrymandering to the mid-term elections.

Yet PA Post is unique. It is unlike other statehouse reporting projects because it is being launched by a long-established, multi-platform public media organization, not a news start-up. This will increase the likelihood of project success, reduce risk and alleviate funder concerns.

PA Post is a worthy investment in the civic life of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

For more information or to support or connect with PA Post, contact Kathleen Pavelko, President & CEO of WITF Public Media, at kathleen_pavelko@witf.org or at 717-910-2801.

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