Bemoaning the downfall of traditional newspapers (and the diminished dedication of their dwindling resources to local and investigative reporting) has become common, but new information delivery vehicles (besides the obvious bloggers) have arisen, as have innovative collaborations.
One example is an initiative among several state-level free-market/limited government think tanks, who associate with one another under the State Policy Network. A lot of these policy groups, known for their wonkiness (wonkishness? wonkability?) in the past, have initiated government transparency projects and also hired their own investigative reporters (until recently I was one for the John Locke Foundation’s Carolina Journal), often from the ranks of the recently unemployed traditional journalists.
This month’s issue of SPN News has a great article (click link to download PDF, it’s the cover story) by the Nevada Policy Research Institute‘s Andy Matthews, who explains how his organization started investigating the publicly-funded Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, for reasons he explains:
The LVCVA receives hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars annually to [promote Southern Nevada tourism] while receiving almost no genuine oversight….NPRI sent the Authority hundreds of public-records requests, gaining access to thousands of pages of LVCVA financial documents. The documents revealed a pattern of extravagant spending, lax accounting, shoddy oversight — and an alarmingly cozy relationship with the Authority’s largest subcontractor, R&R Partners, a private advertising and publicaffairs firm.
How cozy? The LVCVA provided the literal rubber stamp bearing its finance director’s signature to R&R so R&R could approve expenses above $500 without LVCVA review, in violation of the parties’ contract, not to mention common sense.
What’s great about this story is that NPRI did not seek all the glory for itself, but instead sought to get maximum exposure, so it worked with the Las Vegas Review-Journal to release the documents and findings. NPRI did reports on its analysis of the documents and LVRJ did interviews and wrote stories, which then led to attention from broadcast media also.
But that’s not the whole story, as many journalistic outlets decided that because of NPRI’s ideological worldview, that they needed to be scrutinized as much — if not more — than the LVCVA, as Matthews explains:
The chief reason for this is Las Vegas’ political culture. In many ways, Southern Nevada politicians and policymakers still operate within the paradigms that dominated during the mob-influence years beginning in the 1950s. The LVCVA’s managers, and R&R’s, were therefore beyond simply annoyed upon being exposed — they were downright offended that anyone had the chutzpah to scrutinize them in the first place. Used to politicians ignoring or even encouraging dubious behavior, the LVCVA’s managers considered it out of bounds for anyone to question them.
The deference many reporters still pay the Old Guard was reflected in their complacency about LVCVA and R&R efforts to make the story about NPRI. Their strategy: label NPRI as right-wing zealots with a sinister agenda, and pawns for the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which operates a private convention center that competes with the LVCVA’s public convention center. The Las Vegas Sands’ then-president sits on NPRI ’s board.
Matthews goes on to detail visits by private investigators “representing the other side” in attempts to intimidate; NPRI’s measures to improve security; pressuring of (and resignation by) NPRI board members; and ultimate reforms that LVCVA had to make thanks to NPRI’s and LVRJ‘s reporting.
Great stuff from the public policy world, where many want to make a difference in cleaning up government. I’ve seen it work well in North Carolina (where even some left-leaning individuals and organizations have joined in support of stopping corruption), and it’s good to see it start working well elsewhere. The transformation of the newspaper industry does not have to mean the end of government accountability to the public. It just will look different.