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Nonprofits could be future of journalism

November 11, 2014


Everything in Mark Flatten’s office says investigative reporter, from stacks of paper on the desk to sources’ contact information scribbled next to the phone to a hand-held tape recorder and headphones beside the computer.
Flatten pores over government records looking for spurious relationships and draws on his 28 years of reporting experience to get information from government officials, business owners and citizens.
“I’m an investigative reporter: a finder of fact,” Flatten said plainly, “fair, accurate, not skewing things, telling it like it is.”
This work is nothing new for Flatten, who spent much of his career at the East Valley Tribune, the last six years as an investigative journalist.
What’s new is the type of organization he reports for. In June, Flatten left the Tribune to become the sole investigative reporter for the Goldwater Institute, a nonprofit advocacy and government watchdog group that like its namesake promotes limited government and free-market values.
With mainstream journalism organizations scrambling to stay relevant and profitable, the Goldwater Institute is taking on a role traditionally held by newspapers and local broadcast outlets. It engages in high-profile battles for
government openness, looks critically at public officials and now, with Flatten on board, is getting ready to release investigative projects.
Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the Goldwater Institute and other nontraditional outlets offer a preview not only of the future journalism landscape but of journalism as a career.
“There are a lot of experienced journalists, both investigative and otherwise, who are out on the streets due to the cuts newspapers have made,” Edmonds said. “At the same time, a number of efforts are being made that combine nonprofit groups and philanthropists to fund them.”
Organizations like ProPublica, Voice of San Diego and MinnPost have gained national attention by leading the way for nonprofit journalism organizations. Meanwhile, some advocacy groups have started breaking news. The Tennessee Center for Policy Research, which has a philosophy similar to the Goldwater Institute’s, made headlines when it reported on the energy used by former Vice President Al Gore’s home.
His first report, which he said will be ready to publish in September, digs into how cities award private contracts.
“This work has traditionally been the realm of newspapers and television,” Flatten said. “But the media is not doing so well these days. The industry is searching for a way to make their business model work, and investigative reports are very expensive to produce.”
Flatten said he understands those who might question whether an organization with an agenda can produce credible reporting, but he noted that he made journalistic freedom a condition of joining the Goldwater Institute.
“Our gut instincts might tell us, ‘Yikes, this sounds like a conflict of interests!'” said Tim McGuire, Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
But McGuire, who teaches both the business and ethics of journalism, said he thinks nonprofit journalism will become more common and that an organization’s reputation will rely on accuracy above politics.
“The issue of credibility will not be decided by journalists or industry insiders,” he said. “It will be decided by readers.”
In recent years, the Goldwater Institute, which takes its name from conservative icon Barry Goldwater, has pursued public records and even sued municipalities when requests have been denied or delayed. The institute is currently embroiled in litigation over the city of Glendale’s refusal to release documents describing plans to subsidize the Phoenix Coyotes’ arena lease.
Clint Bolick, director of the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, said he anticipates some amount of criticism of Flatten’s reports because of his organization’s stance. But he said people will perceive the reports as credible as long as the journalism isn’t partisan.
“At least our agenda is apparent for all to see,” Bolick said. “One of the knocks on print journalism is that there’s always been an agenda, but it hasn’t been obvious.”
The institute’s near-constant litigation, including an ongoing case against the city of Phoenix over a subsidy for a commercial development, produces unique challenges for Flatten.
“The city of Phoenix has basically stopped talking to me,” Flatten said of his first investigation.
Mayor Phil Gordon’s spokesman, Scott Phelps, confirmed the stance on talking to Flatten but pointed to a long-standing policy not to have an open dialogue with an organization that’s suing the city. Even so, Phelps said he and the mayor hope to resolve the matter.
“It’s going to be a process figuring out how to deal with Mark, who everybody here respects,” Phelps said, “but he’s now part of an organization that has a horse in the race.”
McGuire said this sort of conflict is unavoidable as journalism shifts.
“The whole environment will have to change as nonprofits fill the gaps left by traditional media,” McGuire said.



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