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July 18 2011

13:00

Pew: Nonprofit journalism doesn’t mean ideology-free

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with a new study this morning that looks at the new universe of nonprofit journalism — and tries to get beyond the ProPublicas of the world to see who else is producing journalism under the legal structure of a 501(c)3 exemption. After all, remember, “nonprofit” signals a tax status, not a belief system or a commitment to any particular ideals, journalistic or otherwise.

The study found more than a little ideology lurking under that IRS umbrella. Of the 46 sites examined — 39 nonprofit and 7 commercial as a control — around half “produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature,” the researchers report.

Pew had the expected nice things to say about the usual nonprofit rock stars, like ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and California Watch. They’re transparent about their funding sources, which are numerous; their doesn’t skew too far in one political direction; they produce a lot of journalism, compared to their nonprofit peers. But the major national networks of state politics sites — the conservative Watchdog.org sites and the liberal American Independent News Network — don’t reveal much about who’s paying their bills, and their work skews clearly in one direction, both in the topics they cover and the content of individual stories.

(Because it attempted to cover an entire universe of nonprofit outlets, researchers had to limit their targets to a reasonable number. As a result, older news orgs like the Center for Public Integrity and metro-scale outlets like Voice of San Diego were both excluded.)

PEJ does a great job, with this and other studies, of moving past barroom debates and gathering real-world data on the new worlds of journalism. And while this research doesn’t draw explicit moral conclusions, it won’t be hard for others to: These nonprofits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They’re not objective; they’re hidden tools of politicos; they’re no replacement for newspapers. Beyond the flagships like ProPublica and Texas Tribune, it’s a mucky world.

And there’s some truth in that! But two points: First, few of even the most ambitious nonprofit outlets consider themselves true replacements for newspapers. The scale just isn’t there; as Pew’s study notes, the median editorial-staff size at the nonprofits they studied was three. (Although those three people are usually more topic-focused than their print peers — a nonprofit site covering a statehouse might be the biggest player in town with three reporters.) Replacement is a straw man; the vast majority of nonprofits, ideological or not, view themselves more as supplements.

Second, a little ideology isn’t such a bad thing. Take the right-of-center Watchdog.org sites, which we wrote about last year. They say their mission is to “promote social welfare and civil betterment by undertaking programs that promote journalism and the education of the public about corruption, incompetence, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government.” They investigate Democrats a lot more than Republicans, and they’re no great fans of what they see as wasteful big government.

The left-of-center American Independent News Network sites works the other side, saying its reporting “emphasizes the positive role of democratically elected government in securing the common good and social welfare, and the continuing benefits of our founding culture of egalitarian government by the people, for the people.” They take on the GOP more than Democrats, and they write a lot about the environment and labor issues.

Viewed as replacements, they fall short of what we’d expect from a good newspaper. But as supplements, I’m happy that both exist — that in a state with both a Watchdog site and an Independent site, both sides of the aisle will be poked and prodded, and that stories will surface that otherwise wouldn’t. I’d draw a distinction between ideological outlets as drivers of political culture — Fox News being a prime example — and as drivers of new information. The biggest risk posed by the loss of reporting manpower in places like our nation’s statehouses is that real stories will go unreported. Adding ideological outlets to the mix reduces that chance; at least someone will be paying attention to environmental issues or fraud at the DMV. And, unlike with Fox News, the readers of many of these sites tend to be high-information consumers of political news; a statehouse-news-only site isn’t ever going to reach the broader general audience of a newspaper or TV station.

Anyway, that’s just one take on what is a data-rich analysis, a snapshot of an important group of new players in the news world. Go read the full paper.

November 19 2010

16:00

The Washington Independent is folding, the CEO goes over the books and outlines the lessons he’s learned

On Wednesday, the nonprofit news and politics site The Washington Independent announced that, after just under three years of publishing, it’s closing shop. Its state-based sister site The New Mexico Independent said it would reduce its staff to just one part-time blogger.

News organizations open and close all the time, but this one hit home for me. I joined The Washington Independent in late 2007 as its managing editor and went on to be its top editor before joining the Lab. Several of my former colleagues have already lamented the loss of a valuable news organization; I could do the same, but in the spirit of the Lab, I’d like instead to look at what went wrong financially and what lessons could be learned by other nonprofit publishers from its experiences.

To get a sense of what happened, I spoke with my old boss, David Bennahum, the CEO of the American Independent News Network, which publishes the Washington and New Mexico sites plus a network of six other sites. Back in January, Bennahum told me that in the first five years the organization existed, he’d raised $11.5 million. With that kind of impressive fundraising, what went wrong? And what kind of outlook do other nonprofit news sites have? Here are three contributing factors to the closing:

The economic crisis

Nonprofit organizations are no less susceptible to the pain of an economic downturn. In the past two years, foundations and other donors regularly cited shirnking endowments as a reason for not renewing gifts or initiating new giving. That forced the network to spend less and still dip into reserves to cover costs. “It’s actually quite difficult to get these [nonprofit news sites] funded and get them to run,” he said, no matter the editorial success of the site. “It just never gets easier.”

In an email Bennahum sent to his staff, which he forwarded to me and is published in full at the end of this post, he broke down the numbers like this:

  • In 2006, 2007, and 2008 we raised $8.3 million and spent $6.5 million.
  • We ended 2008 with a surplus of $1.6 million.
  • In 2009 we raised $2.7 million and spent $3.1 million, eating into our reserves by $400,000.
  • In 2010 we will raise $1.9 million and spend $2.7 million; we expect this to leave us around $400,000 in reserves.

Going forward, each site in the network will need to generate enough fundraising to support its operations — successful fundraising for one site will no longer support other nodes in the network. The Washington and New Mexico sites were the two not pulling in enough to cover their costs independently. They also both launched in 2008 with a similar structural problem. In Washington’s case, a single $600,000 donation largely got the project off the ground. New Mexico launched with the backing of a small pool of donors. Those early donors didn’t renew another year.

Not enough multi-year commitments

Bennahum says in hindsight, he should not have launched without multi-year commitments from big donors, even if it meant starting off smaller. For example, had he negotiated the $600,000 donation as three $200,000 grants over three years, The Washington Independent would have been smaller, but more stable. “We would have been half the size — which means today, instead of this position, I might have had several hundred thousand more dollars left,” he said. “We probably wouldn’t be closing The Washington Independent.”

The Washington Independent launched with two full-time editors, about ten reporters (a mix of full and part time) and a substantial freelance budget. By the closing announcement, the staff was down to one editor and four reporters. “You have to have your own diet. If someone puts out a big buffet in front of you, you have to think twice,” he said. “That’s a lesson I’ve learned that we’ll just never repeat again.”

Not growing gradually

Bennahum says the next year will focus on what he described as “a more diversified mix of journalism projects that work in recessionary times.” Earlier this year he launched a site called The American Independent that aggregates stories from around the network and runs original content from states without standalone sites. The idea is to produce new content without the commitment of launching a new state-based site. Currently, reporters file stories from North Carolina and Texas. The funding for those reporters ends in January 2011, which they understood when hired on contract. The site, though, will continue to operate.

“The incremental cost to adding reporters [to The American Independent] is potentially a much lower price than you could operate a newsroom,” he said. “It creates a much more organic and gentle growth path.”

The network will continue operating sites with small staffs of one to three reporters in Iowa, Colorado, Michigan and Minnesota. The Florida Independent received a grant from the Knight Foundation this year for $175,000 (the network’s largest donation) and will continue to operate with a staff of five.

Bennahum says he wants to experiment more with syndicating content across his sites to see if even a site with one reporter can serve a community. “It’s just a great thought experiment,” he said.

So what does The Washington Independent’s demise say about the growing nonprofit sector of journalism? Bennahum said that, for now at least, journalism still isn’t in the same category as the sort of nonprofit entities that get long-term foundation support, like hospitals or schools. Philanthropists are still watching where the news industry is headed.

“‘Let the market sort it out,’ is a lucid response, and not necessarily wrong,” he said. “For the foreseeable future, success [in nonprofit journalism] is going to be the exception to the rule.”

David Bennahum’s staff email:

Dear Team Members:

In four years, we have built an extraordinary news organization. We can proudly track 600,000 monthly readers, and cite dozens of stories that have had a demonstrable impact in the communities we serve. Along the way, we’ve also received over 40 awards for excellence in journalism. We have pioneered a model that melds the benefits of the Internet (speed, voice, dialogue) with the discipline of serious investigative journalism.

I am proud of all we have accomplished together.

It is all the more remarkable for how we’ve done this in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression.

So I want to be transparent with you in regards to our financial position, as it will have consequences for 2011. Here’s the arithmetic:

  • In 2006, 2007, and 2008 we raised $8.3 million and spent $6.5 million.
  • We ended 2008 with a surplus of $1.6 million.
  • In 2009 we raised $2.7 million and spent $3.1 million, eating into our reserves by $400,000.
  • In 2010 we will raise $1.9 million and spend $2.7 million; we expect this to leave us around $400,000 in reserves.

Thus we have, for two years, been self-financing from reserves accrued during better economic times. I am grateful for these reserves, and that we could use them judiciously over 24 months. However, it is no longer possible to self-finance the gap between income and expenditures, for the simple reason that our cash reserves are too limited to do so.

Much of the shortfall in our income has to do with the larger economic climate. But not all. Here are some other factors that I, frankly, underestimated: We agreed, in the past, to open programs without multi-year commitments from supporters. In some cases, these supporters have not renewed their commitments, yet we have kept operating the programs at close to scale. In particular, this is the case both for The New Mexico Independent and The Washington Independent.

We are approaching our fifth year of operations; some of our founding supporters have, understandably, felt that the time has arrived to shift their support elsewhere. This is a relatively predictable pattern in philanthropy: 3-5 years of support from any given source is a safe assumption. Replacing this support with new support requires a 9-18 month development cycle. In this economic climate, it is closer to 18 months. The net result is that we see, in addition to a shortfall, our most conservative estimates actually coming true. For instance, in the summer of 2009 we did a worst case scenario for 2010, with regards to income, and projected $1.9 million in revenues. This is precisely what happened.

So going forward, we must adopt a new set of rules, to ensure our overall viability through an economic crisis that persists, and may persist for several more years:

Institute “pay go” budgets: programs must be supported. When they are not, they have to be either closed or operated at the level being supported. In the case of new programs, require multi-year commitments as a precondition for operations. This is what we have successfully done in Florida, where the program has two year commitments.

Be more innovative in terms of leveraging the “network effect” to help smaller programs operate with limited budgets. We pioneered this in Minnesota, where we’ve learned to operate a robust site with one full time reporter. The site is successful thanks, in part, to the way we can syndicate content throughout the network from our sister sites.

Using this framework, there are two programs that, unfortunately, are no longer sustainable at their current levels: The New Mexico Independent and The Washington Independent.

In the case of New Mexico, we are going to institute the Minnesota model, with the aim of working to rebuild support over time. In the case of The Washington Independent, we are going to merge the site with The American Independent, and now have one national place (instead of two) for all our reporting. Over time, we aim to build up our reporting capacity in Washington as support develops.

And going forward, we will be looking to a different architecture with regards to how we create new sites: more of our programs will live as “state pages” on AmericanIndependent.com rather than as stand alone websites. This will provide us with more flexibility and leave us less vulnerable to sudden changes in support levels.

More details in terms of how these changes will affect you will be forthcoming shortly from the editorial team.

I know that this news is hard, and the decisions that led to this did not come easily. We have learned to work with less, and done so admirably, but I am taking the prudent course that will ensure our network and its mission can thrive. And if things improve faster than anticipated, I look forward to having that good problem on our hands.

Please know that you can come to me with any questions about this situation.

Thank you.

Best,
David

May 05 2010

12:00

Media Consortium offers members cash for collaboration

The Media Consortium, a network of about 45 progressive-leaning independent media organizations wants to get its members to do some real-world testing of the future-of-news ideas we all talk about. The best way to get their members on board: Pony up some cash.

The consortium is taking applications to sign on to three separate collaborative projects that cover exploring new revenue streams (members are both non- and for-profit), moving into mobile, and community engagement. Outlets will work in cross-organizational teams to come up with testable projects, which the consortium will then support with at least $5,000-$12,000 in seed money to get projects off the ground. The consortium will also provide some administrative and logistical support as needed. When all is said and done, the wrapup findings will be made public.

I asked Tracy Van Slyke, the project director at the consortium, which outlets are on board so far. She laughed and said the deadline to apply is May 12, and she is expecting the bulk of applications to land that day. The consortium has been in one-on-one talks with members, who Van Slyke said seem interested — which is not surprising as the the three research areas came out of discussions at their annual meeting, and a consortium report, The Big Thaw, which looked at trends in independent media, including its member organizations. Van Slyke also noted that they’re only inviting member organizations to apply, but perhaps they’d be open to the right partner signing on. (That is: If you’re interested, it can’t hurt to contact her).

Most consortium members are relatively small operations. For example, my last two employers, the nonprofit Washington Independent, with a staff of about ten people, and Talking Points Memo, now up to 20 or so, both belong. All news organizations are struggling to innovate, but smaller shops face an even higher hurdle. When a swamped staff is busy with day-to-day operations, and the technical development team is one person — or nonexistent — collaboration offers huge potential.

“The point is that usually, these organizations wouldn’t necessarily have the money or the staff time, or the resources in terms of brainstorming to do it on their own,” Van Slyke told me. “So we want to do it collectively and be able to put the money in to actually experiment. It’s not enough to talk about it. You have to actually experiment.”

The mission of the consortium is wrapped up in the project. Van Slyke wants to see organizations thinking strategically about revenue, mobile, and audience engagement to amplify their work as media organizations. “How is it going to help them, a, build their audiences, b, identify new revenue generating opportunities, and, c, ultimately build out their impact.”

March 22 2010

17:49

Lauren Victoria Burke’s WDCPIX: A photojournalist builds business by aiming at sites that can’t afford wires

Lauren Victoria Burke’s strategy for success in the world of political photography is simple: undercut the Associated Press.

Burke runs a one-woman photography wire service in Washington, D.C. called WDCPIX that allows monthly subscribers to download as many of the hundreds of political photos available as they want. Her shots rival those of staff photographers working on the Hill; she typically covers congressional hearings and major public events in the city. She doesn’t guarantee specific event coverage, but does take requests and tries to accommodate her customers.

As a solo roving photographer in one of the world’s most photographed cities, she’s been able to build a business by targeting clients with budgets that won’t allow big costs for photography. About 25 to 30 of her clients are regulars; most pay a flat $260 monthly fee, although some have special arrangements. Subscribers include sites like Talking Points Memo and The Washington Independent; I became familiar with WDCPIX when I worked at both.

“Basically what you want to do is…create a business model that can undercut the bigger sites,” Burke told me. “There are a lot of news entities out there that can’t afford Associated Press or Getty or any of those guys. So you’re trying to create an environment where the smaller news entities out there, particularly with all these blogs around, they can subscribe to WDCPIX and make it very straightforward.”

For anyone familiar with the story of iStockphoto, the possibility of disruption in the photo business is nothing new. And while WDCPIX isn’t a breakout smash at iStockphoto’s scale, it shares a shift in the basic economics of the industry.

When Burke started out as an independent — she spent time at USA Today and the AP, among others — her focus was on bigger clients like C-SPAN and ABC News. She still does regular work for larger outlets, along with occasional clients in the nonprofit and advocacy sectors, like Defenders of Wildlife, and a few corporate clients like FedEx and Starbucks. (“A lot of times people are doing an annual report or they’re doing a brochure or they’re doing a website and they want to brighten it up with some photos,” she said.)

The business side

Burke runs every aspect of her business, including marketing. One tactic she says worked well in attracting new business is requiring online publications to credit WDCPIX.

“That particularly helped with TPMMuckraker because I got involved with them when they were pretty new. So when other people saw that, the other sites that hoped to become like TPM, would see that and call,” she explained. “It’s sort of a small ad. It works really well.”

She also works the typical marketing strategies like sending out mailers to potential clients, blasting email messages, and word-of-mouth. When she first launched the site, she says connections in her previous jobs at USA Today and The Hill were valuable in reaching clients.

When I asked Burke if she got investment money to start the site, she laughed — heartily. Burke said she kept her startup costs incredibly low and she covered them herself. The site runs on out-of-the-box software from Image Folio. She designed the site herself. She pays about $120 a month for a web server. The site’s billing, which she handles herself, is done almost completely online. She has no physical office; most days, she’ll do the journalism side of things from the press gallery in the Senate. Sometimes she does her business work from her home office or a coffee shop.

Burke decided to leave her job as a photo editor at USA Today and go solo was more the result of her independent streak than her interest in the future of media. “You end up working for a bunch of people and at some point, you want to be in more control of what you’re doing and what you’re covering,” she explained. “So owning a website like that and running your own photo service allows you to do that. It’s truly liberating.”

I asked her if she would have done as well if she’s gone a slightly more traditional route, setting up a portfolio website and working as a freelancer rather than setting up a subscription service.

“No. No way. So many people see it that would not normally have seen my stuff if I just had a typical portfolio website up, that we’ve all seen. Nothing wrong a photo website — but when you have this kind of subscription website, you have the payment tied into the site in a way you would not normally have if you just had a portfolio. The person has to go the extra step to expedite payment, expedite the business end. A lot of people are looking for, “Okay, I paid the money, now I want to download as many pictures as I want,” or whatever. I don’t think my photography would be as successful if I had a non-subscription, non-cash site.”

Advice

When I asked Burke what advice she would give to other photojournalists, she didn’t hesitate.

“I think one of the things is not to get too pigeonholed into one thing because we don’t live in the same universe we used to live in,” she said. “Not too long ago, in the ’80s and ’90s, you could sustain yourself on a staff job some place and do just fine. Now, the more things that you can do, the better. A lot of photographers, for some reason, don’t like writing. I really think the writing thing is huge. Even though people shy away from the idea of being a one-man band because it’s so much work, it does put you in the position where you could potentially be doing your own stuff, by yourself, without a lot of interference and middlemen involved, editors, et cetera. And it can be lucrative. It can be a living.”

All photos courtesy Lauren Victoria Burke.

March 11 2010

15:00

What makes a nonprofit news org legit? Three other questions to separate journalism from advocacy

Last week, Jim Barnett raised a question about nonprofit journalism: What makes it legit? How do we know if a nonprofit news outlet shares the ideals and culture of traditional journalism, and how can we make sure we don’t get fooled by advocacy groups disguised as objective journalists?

It’s a difficult question — the Internet makes publishing wide open to everyone — and at the end of his post, Barnett lays out a list of what he thinks we should use as a starting point when deciding what is and isn’t a legit nonprofit news outlet. He lists various IRS and accounting standards, a number of vague measures of professionalism, and what I’d consider an unfair standard, whether an organization is credentialed by federal or state government.

This is one place where Barnett and I disagree. Before coming to the Lab, I used to edit a nonprofit news site, The Washington Independent, where for two years I dealt with the reality of who gets considered “legit.” If you’re not, you lose out on the privileges given to traditional media outlets. Take Congressional press passes: The Washington Independent was denied admittance to both the daily and periodicals galleries because the site was not chiefly supported by subscriptions or advertising. (Our support came from donors and foundation grants.)

The Independent’s reporters are resourceful, but not having that credential sometimes put stories out of reach. When Republicans released their alternative budget in a credential-required portion of the Capitol, we didn’t get to attend. We were shut out of an event where we would have had access to ask lawmakers direct questions. Congressional credentials are the toughest to get in Washington (compared to White House credentials, or campaign plane credentials, for example) and as such are sometimes used by other groups as the standard for access. For example, when Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in 2008, our reporters were not allowed to attend because they didn’t have a Congressional credential.

Legitimacy is a tough word when it comes to journalism; here I’m using it just to refer to the limited set of privileges that come with an external journalistic seal-of-approval. (Legitimate reporting can come from outlets without that seal of approval, of course, and illegitimate work can come from the biggest names in the business.) But as far as organizational legitimacy goes, I’d argue that instead of looking at a nonprofit’s structure, or vague markers of professionalism, we should think about criteria that more directly capture what a nonprofit news outlet should be.

I thought about what I thought made the Independent trustworthy, and what distinguished us from other journalism-like nonprofits that were more like advocacy groups — the ones who might use their access to lawmakers for lobbying. I came up with three questions I think distinguish a nonprofit as a legit news organization:

1. Does the nonprofit create original news or commentary on a regular schedule?

2. Does it directly reach an audience (or does it fuel news outlets)?

3. Does it spend its money on and dedicate the bulk of its resources to journalism?

Producing news

Does your organization produce news and/or commentary daily, weekly, monthly, or in some other regular interval? It’s a simple criteria that weeds out nonprofits that sporadically put out reports. It also excludes transparency groups, many of which do excellent work, but are not in themselves journalists. (To help clarify this point, imagine that instead of transparency, these groups were focused on any other topic. A searchable database is useful and interesting, particularly to journalists. However, providing access to information is not the same as producing news and commentary. It’s a service or a tool provided to allow journalists to build narratives, which is part of a broader strategy of using the media to advance their cause.)

Directly reaching an audience

I struggled to think of how to sift out a phenomenon Mark Bowden took on in The Atlantic last fall: the rise of opposition research disguised as journalism. Oppo-research has been around forever; campaigns leak dirt on the other side to reporters hungry for a quick, easy scoop every cycle. But as Bowden points out in the instance of Sonia Sotomayor, within hours of the announcement of her nomination, videos of her “wise Latina” comment were all over TV news and the Internet. Opposition research wasn’t just behind the story: It was the story. However, the Judicial Confirmation Network doesn’t reach an audience on its own. They function to fuel news organizations and influence coverage; they aren’t a news organization themselves.

I’d distinguish nonprofits like ProPublica and Center for Public Integrity from nonprofits with no direct audience. Both of these groups have established partnerships with other media to reach an audience. A public content agreement is different than leaking a salacious tidbit. And of course having a website with a loyal readership counts, too.

Putting your money where the journalism is

I borrowed this third question from my old boss and publisher of the Independent, David Bennahum. Our efforts to get Senate press credentials were denied because of our funding model of foundation grants and individual donations. Bennahum came up with the interesting idea that perhaps the gallery could look at how an organization’s money is spent, rather than how it is raised. If you’re an advocacy group with a magazine, your tax records will demonstrate that the bulk of your money is going to things other than reporter salaries or other news costs. If you’re a nonprofit dedicated to news, your spending will reflect that.

There are plenty of other questions to ask in thinking about a nonprofits legitimacy, but I think these get the conversation started. What do you think?

Photo by John Abell used under Creative Commons license.

March 04 2010

19:11

A “reporting recipe” to dig up dirt like ProPublica

A core goal of nonprofit news organizations is to create impact. Foundations and donors expect evidence of journalism’s impact in a way that the local department store never did. Jack Shafer wrote a scathing critique of the nonprofit-as-impact driver not long ago, arguing that for-profit media is better insulated against donor whims because the audience is the client:

Nonprofit outlets almost always measure their success in terms of influence, not audience, because their customers are the donors who’ve donated cash to influence politics, promote justice, or otherwise build a better world.

(His view of the nonprofit drive to change the world is more jaded than mine. What for-profit newspaper writer got into the business not to change the world?)

Whatever your stance, the reality is here: Maximizing impact is a key part of nonprofits’ aims. Outlets like the Center for Public IntegrityThe American Independent News Network (where I edited The Washington Independent), ProPublica, and others measure the reach and impact of their work to drum up support. They do this a number of ways. Center for Public Integrity published its work under a Creative Commons license to try to get other publications to reprint it and amplify the message. (They also participate in a young, and struggling, AP-nonprofit distribution program.) The Washington Independent tracks both media pickup and how its work resulted in real change. ProPublica partners with newspapers around the country in printing its stories — all of which is aimed at maximizing their journalism’s impact.

Today ProPublica is unveiling a new approach in increasing impact: a step-by-step reporting guide that shows how its reporters executed a major investigation, with the hopes that state-based reporters and interested citizen journalists will continue their work.

Reporters Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber have created a guide that reverse-engineers how they reported a year-and-a-half-long investigation on how states handle disciplinary action against nurses. The results of their work were alarming, and its consequences were swift: One day after the Los Angeles Times ran a story on how it took years for the state nursing board to take disciplinary action, while allowing dangerous nurses to keep working, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger removed most members of the state nursing board. Newspapers in several other states have picked up on ProPublica’s work and run their own versions.

It took Ornstein and Weber over a year to research their series, but by making the state-based data available and building a guide on how to do the reporting, they say it should be much simpler and less time-consuming for another reporter to follow in their footsteps. The data alone should at least help “find the smoke” in federal reporting-requirement lapses quickly, so a reporter knows where to invest her time, Weber said. They’re both eager to talk to interested reporters, too. (You can contact them directly, or join in on a conference call that will be scheduled soon.)

“When you called all these different states, you realized you were talking to folks who had never talked to journalists before,” Weber told me. “It made me think it was so ripe for local reporters to take a look at this because, frankly, everyone is touched by a nurse.” The guide lays out seven broad steps for reporting out a regulatory board story, with details under each section, including relevant federal law. It also includes relevant links for certain states.

She added the guide’s methods could be applied to any regulatory board, not just those that govern nurses. “This gives them a map to say, ‘Okay, let’s go take a look at this’…They could maybe change the way these boards are overseen in their state if they find, for instance, they never disciplined anyone, which we found, and that just seems impossible.”

Ornstein told me he hopes this experiment, specifically pointing to the online database of disclosure data, creates real change — and impact. “If somebody has to pay $20 to get a copy of a disciplinary order against a nurse, if they’re looking for a home health nurse, is that something they’re really going to do? Is the state really helping them make a smart choice to protect them? I don’t think so. By pointing this out, we’re really doing a service.”

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