Investigative project in Pennsylvania offers new model for shrinking statehouse bureaus

Oct 7, 2019 in Investigative Journalism
Spotlight PA

Statehouse bureaus around the U.S. are shrinking, and Pennsylvania is no different. When reporter Angela Couloumbis started covering state government for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2005, there were three people. By 2015, she was the only one. 

“That’s sort of indicative of what’s been happening to statehouse bureaus. Not just here, but all across the country,” said Couloumbis.

When these bureaus shrink, remaining reporters prioritize covering the daily news around the capitol. They rarely have time for any in-depth coverage, or the resources to dedicate to reporting on individual departments or state agencies.

A new investigative project in Pennsylvania is trying to change that. Following in the footsteps of nonprofit newsrooms around the country like The Texas Tribune and Mississippi Today, Spotlight PA has a unique model, in a unique state, that they hope will set them apart. 

Spotlight was established under the wing of The Philadelphia Inquirer’s nonprofit owner, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. This allows Spotlight to accept donations, fundraise, interface with foundations and track their funds in an established system — rather than starting from scratch. 

The Inquirer also took on some initial duties like managing payroll and human resources.

“We're able to get all the benefits of the nonprofit positioning through Lenfest, and then take care of a lot of the burdensome startup costs for a pure nonprofit, by this partnership with The Inquirer,” said Christopher Baxter, Spotlight PA’s editor-in-chief.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive have also joined the effort, each contributing startup funds and one of their own reporters.

The collaboration didn’t just help offset startup costs. It also ensured that Spotlight PA would have an audience from the outset, as the founding partners will all republish Spotlight stories.

Baxter said this helped him attract talent when building the team: “I'm not hiring people and saying, ‘Well, you know, we're going to start with the 20 people that come to this [site] every day, and grow from there.’ At launch, our stories will reach 15 million plus unique [readers] a month because of this collaborative partnership.” 

Now 10 people strong, staff have come from all over the country to join the investigative project. Baxter said he was interested in hiring reporters and other team members who are flexible, willing to interface with the public, excited about the mission and ready to work in a startup environment. 

At launch, the project has enough funding to operate for three years. The goal is to make Spotlight self-sustaining during this time, no longer needing to pull resources from the founding partners. To work towards that goal, one of the first hires was a development director to help cultivate funding. Baxter envisions a diversified revenue model down the road that includes foundational support, individual donations and membership. 

Collaboration is at the center of the project. Joining the founding partners, PA Post, a project of WITF Public Media, and LNP Media Group, are on board as strategic and distribution partners. These newsrooms will also republish Spotlight stories on their own websites, challenging long-held beliefs that newsrooms need to compete. 

Pennsylvania’s unique geography makes it the ideal location for a collaborative newsroom like Spotlight PA, according to Baxter. Starting a project like Spotlight in a different state, such as New Jersey, where he worked prior, would be difficult because it has a much more concentrated and competitive news landscape, he said. 

“There's been more of a spirit of collaboration going back in time here in Pennsylvania, just because of the media landscape. Pennsylvania has these distinctly unique population centers that don't really overlap, so they don't really compete head-to-head on a regular basis,” Baxter explained.

“It just makes sense to work together on some of these things,” he added. 

Spotlight PA team
The Spotlight PA team. Image courtesy of Spotlight PA.


Since their first story went live on Sept. 11, Spotlight PA has published three more. They’ve already influenced change. 

Couloumbis, now an investigative reporter on the Spotlight team, worked with her Spotlight colleague, Daniel Simons Richie, an investigative data reporter, to publish an article on the Pennsylvania State Police’s 2012 decision to stop collecting data on the race of drivers pulled over in traffic stops. 

“In the past, that would be something that you would write very quickly — just say they stopped doing it,” said Couloumbis, “This time around, we took a step back and the two of us actually surveyed every single state police or state highway patrol agency in the country.” 

The data showed that by not collecting racial data, Pennsylvania was in the minority of state police around the country. Since the story was published on Sept. 13, PA State Police have already announced they will reverse the policy, and will once again collect racial data — a major impact for such a new team. 

The downside of the newly formed newsroom’s decision not to cover day-to-day statehouse operations, is that there are certain stories, such as new legislation, that they can’t always report on. As a result, Lenfest just announced that they are hiring a fellow to join the Spotlight team who will focus on covering daily statehouse developments. 

As statehouse bureaus continue to shrink, Spotlight PA’s model offers an alternative, reestablishing reporters on beats that have long gone uncovered, such as health and human services, criminal justice, liquor control and more.

“They're still pretty big beats — I mean, having four departments on a beat is a big beat. But it's a lot more definition and a lot more dedicated coverage than has existed, which has been basically none,” said Baxter. “It is really a sea change for Pennsylvania.”

Main image courtesy of Spotlight PA.