About a year ago, a new type of journalism splashed down in Harrisburg.
The Pennsylvania Capital-Star was one of three nonprofit newsrooms that launched within months of each other, all dedicated to covering state news.
Recently, we sat down with the Capital-Star’s four journalists—Editor-in-Chief John Micek, Associate Editor Cassie Miller and reporters Stephen Caruso and Elizabeth Hardison—to find out how the first year has gone. In the process, we also touched on such topics as nonprofit news and the often-dysfunctional relationship between Harrisburg the city and Harrisburg the capital.
Excerpts from our interview follow, edited for clarity and length.
TheBurg: How did the Pennsylvania Capital-Star get its start?
Micek: I was at PennLive in 2018. I was approached by an organization called the States Newsroom Project, which said they were opening up this new outlet in Pennsylvania, and would I be interested? After a couple of conversations back and forth, I decided that, yes, this was worthwhile.
TheBurg. What attracted you to it?
Micek: First and foremost was the idea of building something new from the ground up. At that point, PA Post was here; Spotlight PA had not yet launched. And I put in 20 years of my working life to covering Pennsylvania state government. It was the idea of creating a new voice within that, to help add to coverage because, at that point, the Capitol pressroom was fairly depleted. It’s wonderful to see so many new faces up there now working away and to have so many eyes on state government. But, at that point, it wasn’t really like that.
The really great thing about the States Newsroom Project was the idea that we could give voice to under-heard voices in the public dialogue, those who don’t always make it into the committee hearings, those who don’t make it into the hallways of power. So, now you see a lot of focus—through Lizzy’s work on criminal justice reform, for instance—on people who often have the whole system weighted against them. Stephen does outstanding work on climate. So, we tried to find the places that we thought weren’t receiving as much coverage or weren’t being paid attention to in the way that they probably should have been and trying to really build the coverage there, trying to elevate those voices.
TheBurg: Tell me about the foundation that supports you.
Micek: We are organized as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. The nearest analog I can draw is that we are funded in much the same way that NPR is funded, a mix of individual and foundation donors. The States Newsroom Project is based in Raleigh, and we’re right now in 15 states, with the goal of having 20 by year’s end. It’s a very aggressive model.
TheBurg. Tell me about your reporting beats.
Caruso: I cover the PA House. I cover environmental issues, specifically focused on climate, and I cover labor. Those are the three areas. The House brags about being the “people’s house,” so it’s important that the people have free and fair access to information about it. That’s what I try to do in my beat.
I would say, for how I do my job, it’s a pretty long leash. On a session day, I’m up in the Capitol, and I just run around until I find people who I know will talk to me, and I do the best I can to get the information we need. I think that ideally is what statehouse reporting should be doing, and that’s what I strive for, to be focused on what is happening and what needs to be explained to people, because a lot of this is not readily evident. We need to try to explain why Harrisburg matters and explain what’s happening.
Hardison: I cover criminal justice and education. There’s a lot of interesting bipartisan convergence in Harrisburg right now about what people call criminal justice reform. It’s not all as sweeping and consequential as people want it to be, and there are so many giant, unaddressed, unchallenged practices in our criminal justice system that need reform that politically have been non-starters for people, like sentencing reform. I also cover the state Senate. So, that’s kind of where I started day one—I was assigned to the state Senate, and then we really just defined beats over time based on what we were interested in. Stephen and I had very different interests, so we were able to just define what we wanted without stepping on each other’s toes.
Miller: I’ve only been here since November. So, I have not really established beats the way that Stephen and Lizzy have. I’ve been more filling in as needed, bouncing around in a broad range of things. So, I’ve done things like census stuff, trying to explain the census and how it works and the potential impact. Right now, I’m working more on an understanding of the budget. So, I can fill in when these two are busy with the Senate and the House, and I can jump around where needed. I also do a lot of multimedia stuff, a lot of photo stories and videos. I’m also John’s right-hand. So, whenever anything in the office needs to be addressed, or any administrative stuff, I can pitch in there.
TheBurg. What is one of the more surprising things you’ve found about how the state works?
Hardison: One of things that surprised me is how non-essential the city of Harrisburg is to the state. When I was covering the city (at TheBurg), I remember that Act 47 reform was passing, and that was hugely consequential for the city. It was a pocketbook issue because there was the specter of really big tax increases for the city residents if the state didn’t move on some kind of Act 47 reform. It was like all anyone in Harrisburg could think about for a month. Then we go into the Capitol to cover it, and the scale of perceived importance was a lot different. It was just kind of another item. It passed in the Senate, which was its last stop, without any debate or anything. It was just one of many votes they took that day. It was sobering or surprising to me that something could seem so important in a community, but then the scale just changes on the state level. I thought there would be more interplay, but [Harrisburg] really is just a sound stage for the state government.
Micek: Honestly, one of the reasons I looked to Lizzy as a potential staff member when we started was because she had that knowledge, so she could serve as that bridge between city issues and state issues. The city matters to me. We put the office in downtown for that very reason. We have a really wonderful columnist named Anwar Curtis who tells the stories of the people of the city. That was a very conscious decision to make sure that the people on the Hill knew that their actions did not exist in a vacuum, that the state Capitol was not some island floating on a hill, but, in fact, they had this entire city all around it.
TheBurg: This happens not only on a legislative level but on a departmental level. It seems to me that the state hardly recognizes the city of Harrisburg at all, except as a place to transit through to get to and from work.
Hardison: The city is kind of a case study: How do you fund and keep these small cities in Pennsylvania financially solvent? No one has a good answer. We are in one right now, a third-class city that struggles for various reasons—a big swath of non-taxable property, depopulation, people fleeing for the suburbs. It’s just really hard to fund services. You could cut lawmakers the benefit of the doubt and say, well, if you’re from rural Pennsylvania or the suburbs of Philadelphia, you’re not really familiar with the problems of third-class cities. But you come in and work here every single day. There’s a reason that the roads you take in to get to your place of work are filled with potholes. It’s because of decisions that people make.
We had a school district that was failing by every single measure in the city. There were reasons for that to do with leadership. But it’s also a funding problem, the way our schools are funded. You can see the inequities in schools, between here and Camp Hill. So, it kind of heightens the irony, the fact that Harrisburg can languish because of choices that people make. It need not be this way.
Micek: As someone who’s watched state government for a long time, one of the things that I find encouraging is the infusion of younger lawmakers, newer members who are coming into the House and the Senate who look at this and are not content to let things roll along the way they are. A lot of people come in, and they’re full of wide-eyed idealism, and they’re sucked into the vortex, and they become this sort of stereotypical state lawmaker. My hope is that there are enough people who exist outside of that. You know, it’s going to take forever, but at least there may be some incremental progress.
TheBurg: After a year, what have you learned, what changes do you feel you need to make?
Micek: The one thing that has been most gratifying is that people have been telling me that we’re everywhere, which is fantastic. They quite literally see Stephen running up the stairs to get to somebody or that Lizzy has turned around a really quality story on schools or criminal justice. Out of the gate, the goal was to establish us as a legitimate and respected news organization, and the only way to do that was to flood the zone with coverage. People say that they come to us now for their state government news. That’s been the most gratifying thing by far.
We moved into larger public service projects. We have the #PennForward project that we launched in September, which looks for evidence-based solutions to big public policy problems confronting the commonwealth. We spent four months doing nothing but looking at the issue of gun violence from every angle and trying to find solutions, hopefully passing those along so that they could become part of the dialogue. We’re now moving on to climate and fossil fuels.
We just launched the Purple State Project, which is a four-state project across the States Newsroom network. We’ll be sharing stories across the four properties throughout 2020, hopefully, calling attention to issues that are relevant to voters in all four of those states, making a difference in the dialogue there.
TheBurg: How are you preparing for the election?
Micek: Frantically. It’s beyond a cliché. Pennsylvania will be hugely important in 2020, and we want to play a role in vigorously covering that campaign, recognizing that Lizzy and Stephen, their first priority is covering the General Assembly. We will need to have bodies on the ground across the state to help us with our coverage. The goal of the Purple State Project is the same thing—it’s the economy of scale across the four properties. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the fact that we have the largest Washington bureau of any Pennsylvania news organization. We have three people in D.C. who work across the sites, who work across the network.
TheBurg: Do you believe that the nonprofit model is viable across other types of journalism?
Micek: Being a journalist is all I ever wanted to do, and I hope it’s all I hope to do until I can’t do it anymore. And that means finding a way to keep doing it, because, obviously, the old model doesn’t work anymore. If that means finding large donors who believe in the importance of journalism as a civic mission, I’m OK with that. It’s a way to hold power accountable. It’s a way to tell the stories of the people who need to have their stories told.
The best thing about it is that nobody tells us what to do. All of our calls are made in house. There are no ads, there’s no paywall. We don’t share people’s personal information. So, to me, there’s more of a purity about the model in a lot of ways.
You hear these stories across the country about these local papers shutting down, creating these news deserts in these small towns. I think that’s where the nonprofit model could do the most good. Some of those billionaires should take their money into Youngstown, Ohio, and find a way to revive the Vindicator as a nonprofit. Put their billions there. When you take journalists away at the local level and elected officials feel that nobody is watching them, the accountability and that watchdog function goes out the window. I’m glad we’re here, but it’s even more critical in these tiny towns across the country.
You can find the Pennsylvania Capital-Star at www.penncapital-star.com.
Disclosure: Elizabeth Hardison is a former reporter for TheBurg.