COLUMBIA — A decline in statehouse reporters during the past several years coincides with the emergence of a network of nonprofit news operations across the U.S., including one based in the Missouri Capitol, that are raising questions about financing and accountability.
Missouri News Horizon, which has two full-time employees, is among Web-based media startups in at least 12 states sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.
According to an American Journalism Review survey, there were 355 newspaper staff reporters covering state capitals full time in 2009, a decrease of more than 30 percent from the 524 counted in 2003.
News Horizon Editor Rebecca Townsend, a Missouri School of Journalism graduate, said her media operation was created to bring a fresh eye to state-level news.
“There was a need for another stream for reporting from state government," she said.
Missouri News Horizon and other nonprofits sponsored by the Franklin Center have come under scrutiny, however, because the source of the center's funding remains secret. The funding issue has also proven contentious as Missouri News Horizon seeks membership in the Capitol press corps.
Franklin Center spokeswoman Meghan Tisinger said her organization gave Missouri News Horizon a "sponsorship grant" to get up and running. The center will be providing News Horizon with training and support, she said, "that will allow them to produce great original content.”
The Franklin Center won't disclose the source of its funding for Missouri News Horizon and other similar operations, which goes against the grain of other emerging news outlets set up as nonprofits.
Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the law doesn't require news nonprofits to reveal their donors, though the general practice at nonprofit news organizations is to disclose as much information as possible.
He said most nonprofits disclose where their major donations come from, and trying to find nonprofit news organizations that don't is like "finding a needle in a hay stack."
Other nonprofit news startups such as ProPublica and California Watch list donors on their websites. For many nonprofits, funding comes from a variety of places, especially foundations. According to a running tally kept by the J-Lab at American University, about $143 million of foundation money has flowed into news media enterprises between 2005 and April 2010.
Amy Mitchell, deputy director for Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the question of where news organizations get their money is a part of knowing who that organization is.
"Consumers must be able to learn who the people or organizations are and then ask is there a connection between who they are and the product they produce," she said. "The more transparent one is, the more ability there is to explain to an audience that the reporting is journalistically sound."
Disclosing the Franklin Center's role in financing sounds like a first step, Mitchell said.
"But, it doesn't come close to total transparency because the Franklin Center doesn't disclose where their money comes from," Mitchell said.
Bob Steele, an ethicist with the Poynter Institute, a school and resource center for journalists, said he advises news organizations to be transparent about funding sources, though transparency doesn't guarantee independence.
The public should at least know if an organization’s funding raises questions about partisanship or other competing loyalties, Steele said.
“Shining the light of scrutiny on funding sources heightens accountability,” Steele said.
Don Hicks, president of the Missouri Broadcasters Association and co-founder of Missouri News Horizon, said the organization seeks to do independent reporting, despite any assumptions based on its funding.
“The truth is we’re totally nonpartisan," Hicks said. "We’re here to provide service to media of the state and citizens. No political agenda here whatsoever — clear and pristine of that.”
Franklin Center president Jason Stverak spent six years as the executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party, according to the center’s website. He also served as North Dakota executive director for the Rudy Guiliani Presidential Committee.
Stverak also served as a regional field director for the Sam Adams Alliance, a free-market group that also keeps its financing secret and provided startup funds for the Franklin Center.
Missouri News Horizon’s nonprofit papers filed with the Secretary of State lists three incorporators: Hicks, Sarah McIntosh and Jason Hannasch.
McIntosh teaches political science at Wichita State University. She is also the former vice president of the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy, now known as the Kansas Policy Institute, which has reporters in the Kansas Capitol.
The Kansas Policy Institute cites a focus on state and local economic issues, with an emphasis on education, fiscal policy and health care. The institute's website says it has reporters in the Kansas capital and seeks to empower people "to promote a low-tax, pro-growth environment."
McIntosh contributes articles to the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago that features a "Tea Party tool box" on its home page. McIntosh, a Libertarian candidate for the Kansas House of Representatives in 2000, did not respond to multiple phone calls and messages.
Hannasch is the former vice president of the Show-Me Institute based in St. Louis. Its website features articles with headlines such as "Health care reform another step in decline of our economic freedom" and "Taxes and government spending undermine economic growth."
Dalton Wright, publisher of the Lebanon Daily Record and one of six board members for Missouri News Horizon, said his newspaper has used stories from the startup, but not on a daily basis.
As major news organizations cut back on content and staff, Wright said, operations such as Missouri News Horizon become beneficial for media outlets, especially local and community newspapers that are fighting to survive.
"In this model, the end result is sustainability," he said. "I look at this as a secondary source for dailies and a primary for weeklies not served by another news outlet."
Wright, former president of the Missouri Press Association, said he wasn't aware of Missouri News Horizon's ties to the Franklin Center. Wright also serves on the board of the Missourian Publishing Association, which advises the Columbia Missourian.
"I asked Jason if (Missouri News Horizon) was going to be politically driven, and he said no," Wright said. "It's not a major concern of mine because the board will have operational oversight."
Townsend acknowledged talk circulating about how her news operation might be rooted in a political agenda.
"I would like people to wait until we launch our website and see our stories before passing judgment," she said. "There's a nationwide movement of nonprofit journalism and all kinds of different models. Some are tied to think tanks, some are independent. People are lumping everything together and making judgments."
Missouri News Horizon, which started in January, hasn’t launched its own website yet, but publishes stories on a Wordpress website. The news outlet offers its content free of charge.
“Most of our test users are just getting used to our stuff as we build our credibility and learn how to accommodate their production schedules,” she said.
Three MU journalism students in professor Mike McKean’s convergence capstone class worked for Missouri News Horizon this semester. McKean said Townsend, a former student of his, asked him if any students would be interested in helping start the operation.
McKean said the issue of funding from the Franklin Center doesn’t bother him because his students haven’t been asked to put any political slant on their stories.
“I don’t care who their funders are as long as they’re not criminals,” he said. “I care about the content they’re producing.”
Press corps response
Missouri News Horizon applied to become a member of the Capitol Press Corps, which provides resources to news media reporting on government. Organizations are motivated to sign up to obtain some of the limited space in press galleries, among other privileges.
There was mixed reaction after Townsend's presentation to the association on April 19, Tony Messenger, a statehouse reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said.
"Some people clearly opposed allowing membership, but others wanted to respond to their work and then make a judgment," he said.
Ultimately, the press corps voted to deny News Horizon membership to the association because it doesn't have the required six-month body of work in the Capitol.
Members of the Capitol Press Corps must also remain independent, practice journalism and provide news coverage to a significant audience.
News Horizon is using space in the Missouri Broadcasters Association’s office in Jefferson City. Following the April 19 meeting, the press corps voted to allow any visiting media groups to utilize an empty office space on the first floor of the Capitol building.
“We see the News Horizon as ultimately filling a need that is worthwhile to our members,” Hicks said. “We had extra office space, so we donated it.”
News Horizon has had access to the House press gallery all year until it was denied in mid-April by House Speaker Ron Richard. The press corps reinstated News Horizon’s access to the gallery after its meeting.
Messenger noted uneasiness in having the members of the media determine who should be considered a legitimate journalism venture.
"I'm a little uncomfortable in the changing media world trying to police who gets access," he said. "If we say yes or no to this organization, how does that affect the next one who comes along?"