When the Center for Public Integrity and Public Radio International sought to create a wide ranging investigation into transparency and corruption at the state level, they knew they were at a disadvantage.
The project, which also brought in the expertise of Global Integrity and funding from the Omidyar Network, among others, was centralized in its inception and direction — but needed to be decentralized in order to work. If you’re running a project meant to look at the risk of government corruption across 50 states you need to be in…50 states.
The State Integrity Investigation officially launched to the public today and offers a kind of corruption risk index for government in each state, complete with a report card grading for areas like legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure, and public access to information. (Surprisingly enough, according to the project, the most transparent and accountable state is…New Jersey. Check how your state fares.) The information underlying these reports all came from journalists, and interestingly, some of it from nonprofit journalism organizations. As a result, the State Integrity project was a kind of network test of the expanding collection of nonprofit journalism sites sprouting around the country.
If you take a look at the list of journalists who collected data for the project you’ll find an impressive roster of experienced reporters, many operating out of organizations like the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, IowaWatch, and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, among others. This probably shouldn’t be all too surprising, since CPI and PRI touted their mini-hiring spree when the project was announced last year. Nonprofit investigative startups have had a way of attracting veteran newspaper reporters, who already know their way around the state house.
“Most state publications don’t have the budgets to do this deep reporting in their own state, they don’t have the manpower,” said Randy Barrett, communications director for the Center for Public Integrity. When they set out to staff up for the project they wanted to cast as wide a net as possible to get the best talent for the job. Barrett said it just made sense to tap into the Investigative News Network’s pipeline to find people in particular states. The goals for many of those organizations aligned well with the State Integrity investigation’s; as Barrett told me, “We’re trying to help fill that vacuum in state house reporting and focus a lens on transparency.”
In that way, State Integrity is also helping many of these nonprofit news sites generate additional stories that could draw in readers. While the State Integrity content is not exclusive to the journalists and organizations that participated, it could represent a wealth of new story possibilities for nonprofit sites, which often operate with small staffs. Michael Skoler, vice president of interactive media for PRI, said they worked with the partner journalists and more than a dozen public media stations on how the data from the project could be used in reporting going forward. In the case of the public media stations, each agreed to do at least six stories based off the report, Skoler told me.
“We want to make sure this isn’t just one-shot coverage, that a lot of media organizations are invested in covering the honesty and effectiveness in state government,” Skoler said.