There’s nothing short of a crisis in our state capitals.
Statehouse reporting corps have decreased dramatically in the past decade, and, too often, the journalists who remain must answer the call for daily copy to churn a website and deliver on the scandal du jour. As a result, large swaths of state governments—the departments that execute the laws passed, spend billions in taxpayer money and run the programs that affect hundreds of millions of people’s lives—go unchecked by dedicated reporters, all but guaranteeing waste, fraud, and abuse.
We must rethink our approach in order to restore accountability. We must let go of the notion that we need to compete on every daily story, instead pooling resources and collaborating to reduce duplication and free up reporters to spend more time on enterprise and accountability work that ultimately adds more value for readers. We also must add resources by building new coalitions of support—from community nonprofits to small businesses to civic-minded individuals—who have a vested interest in being better connected with the centers of power.
A first-of-its-kind coalition in Pennsylvania is answering the call with the creation of Spotlight PA, a nonpartisan, independent newsroom launched by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg. The mission of Spotlight PA and its dozen-person team is to hold powerful private and public forces to account through urgent and compelling investigative journalism that drives change. The formation of Spotlight PA marks the single largest expansion of the statehouse reporting corps in Pennsylvania in recent history, and, at launch, will be the largest newsroom dedicated solely to reporting on the state government and urgent statewide issues.
Our unique startup model marries the best of nonprofit journalism with the established audience and credibility of long-standing and respected news organizations. Funding for the project comes from a first-ever coalition of community foundations as well as national funders and individual donors who recognize the dire need for greater scrutiny of the state government.
Fundraising and donations for Spotlight PA flow through the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the nonprofit owner of the Inquirer. In turn, the Inquirer provides structural support for payroll, technology, legal, human resources, and more. This creative positioning lowers the barrier of entry into the news ecosystem compared to a pure nonprofit startup.
The long-term success of Spotlight PA lies in its mission to serve not only its founding partners but all media in the state. We intend to sign on distribution partners in all corners and provide our high-quality content free of charge, allowing newsrooms to bolster their value proposition to potential subscribers. That growing distribution network will allow Spotlight PA to gain maximum exposure for investigative work and maximize the chances of effecting positive change, the primary measure by which the work will be judged. In addition, the network provides Spotlight PA access to a wider base of donor support than might be present in just one region.
At its best, Spotlight PA will be two things: A feared but fair producer of investigative journalism in Pennsylvania that drives change, and a resource and collaborator to all media in the state. Spotlight PA is not a competitor, but rather a partner in the pursuit of accountability reporting that only benefits from more resources, more talent, and more time.
We also believe our positioning as a true statewide news operation—as opposed to the regional centers of coverage that dominate the state—makes us a “one-stop shop” for donors to provide support that will benefit the entire statewide news ecosystem. For example, Spotlight PA was recently awarded a two-day data training from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and we’ll not only be training our staff and reporters from our partner organizations, but we’ll also be inviting staff members from other news organizations in all corners of the state to benefit.
Collaborations such as Spotlight PA are not easy. They require a shared commitment to a defined and executable mission, a clear base of support, and new, creative approaches to continuing to provide daily coverage while freeing up resources to bolster accountability work. Ultimately, it’s that work—unique, hard-hitting and high-quality—that best drives subscriptions, best serves our readership and best makes the case for why a free and fierce press is fundamental to strong communities and strong states.
At a time of unprecedented polarization and partisanship, Nieman Reports is publishing a series of articles exploring how the crisis in local journalism is impacting communities in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. Read all of the articles in the Election ’20: The Role of Local News series here.