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Feb. 9, 2010, 9 a.m.

The other nonprofit journalism: Free-market groups hire reporters to uncover “wasteful spending”

It’s been speculated that as newspapers’ decline leaves a void in watchdog journalism, nonprofit groups would come along to fill it at least part of it in. But not all those groups are going to share a newspaper’s approach to journalism.

Last fall, the conservative Goldwater Institute hired a former newspaper reporter to “expose government corruption and abuse.” Now, at least two other conservative organizations — Americans for Prosperity, the libertarian organization backing the Tea Party movement, and the Yankee Institute, a free market think tank in Connecticut — are both advertising jobs for investigative reporters who can find examples of, as the Yankee Institute calls it, “questionable government spending” or, as Americans for Prosperity puts it, “wasteful government spending.

The language in both ads has a lot in common with the words newspapers use in their (increasingly infrequent) hiring ads:

Yankee Institute: “Strong written and verbal communication skills are musts. An ideal candidate will have skills in new media, including knowing how to maintain a website and enough basic technical ability to produce an original content video and post it to YouTube and Facebook. The position also requires old fashioned, pre-internet research skills that involve archives, stacks, reference librarians, and the touching of real paper, as well as the art of finding and persuading the right person to talk.”

Americans for Prosperity: “The successful candidate will have an investigative news background, be knowledgeable about public records laws…We’re looking for a talented, experienced journalist with a minimum of 5 years experience in an investigative role. Knowledge of New Jersey’s open records laws would be a plus. We’re also seeking someone who is Web-savvy and who can use new media tools to get their findings out to the public. Knowledge of video would be a plus.”

But the Yankee Institute ad adds that “[s]haring our free-market and limited government outlook and philosophy is important to being a good cultural fit for our organization.” And both groups told me they expected the hires to help advance their libertarian ideals.

“Our ultimate goal is to get stuff out and limit the growth of taxes,” Steve Lonegan told me Friday. He’s the state director for the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, where the reporter will be based. “However we do that is fine. We’re not a newspaper. We’re not selling newspapers here.”

He said he doesn’t see this job, which will involve looking into stimulus and other government spending, as so different from other reporting jobs: It’s about uncovering facts and getting them out to the community. However, the project itself is part of an organizational strategy to activate voters for the purpose of limiting the size and scope of government.

Fergus Cullen, executive director of the Yankee Institute, made similar comments. “As the job description indicates, we’re primarily interested in wasteful government spending or questionable government spending. We believe that bringing transparency, disclosure and this kind of thing, puts downward pressure on [government] spending.”

Both organizations are interested in seeing the broader mainstream media pick up on their reporting. “We acknowledge we have a right-of center-perspective on things,” Cullen said. “We’re not trying to hide that, but we expect that our facts will be bulletproof and stand up to scrutiny.” Lonegan agreed, saying they’d “have to be a reliable, credible source of research,” if they want broader pickup.

The idea of politically minded groups using journalism to affect the broader media cycle isn’t new, of course. Think Progress, a political blog run by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, boasts a reputation for shaping content, particularly on MSNBC’s evening talk shows. Whether the Yankee Institute and Americans for Prosperity will have the same success will be worth watching.

These new jobs, and the future jobs predicted on the horizon, pose a challenge to the other kind of nonprofit doing journalism these days — the ones like ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, or the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, who are unaffiliated with a specific cause or political viewpoint. Broadly speaking, they share the same values as print newspapers, and they spend spend time and energy making that clear to sources, funders, and the public. That message could get more muddled if the number of nonprofits with different motivations keeps growing.

POSTED     Feb. 9, 2010, 9 a.m.
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