The news industry may be in decline, but a new reporting venture in downtown Harrisburg seeks to inject life into the coverage of state government and politics.
From a newsroom on Market Street, Spotlight PA has assembled a team of 10 investigative journalists to offer in-depth coverage of everything from environmental policy and labor regulations to campaign finance issues and lobbying activities.
This nonprofit was born out of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which then partnered with several of the commonwealth’s leading news organizations: the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, PennLive/The Patriot News, PA Post and LNP Media Group/The Caucus.
“It’s been a long time since a lot of state departments, agencies and commissions have had dedicated reporters watching out for what’s going on,” said Editor-in-Chief Chris Baxter. “That’s where the idea for Spotlight was born—to fill that void.”
With the decline of newspapers across the country, statehouse reporters often have been the first to get cut, frequently leaving state government officials unaccountable, Baxter said. To help fill the void, organizations like Spotlight are trying a new model—the nonprofit newsroom.
The concept is spreading. Just in Harrisburg, two other nonprofits have sprung up over the past year to offer state government/accountability journalism: PA Post and the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
Baxter explained Spotlight’s mission as twofold. They first seek to bring accountability back to the state through investigative reporting, while being a resource for and collaborator with other media across the commonwealth. All of their content is available to other state news organizations.
“Why is it beneficial to have reporters from five different outlets covering the exact same daily story and then not having the bandwidth to do the work that really can make a difference and make a change?” Baxter said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me to do that anymore.”
The team of 10 originates from Spotlight’s partner organizations as well as the New York Times, PBS, the Santa Fe New Mexican and other nonprofits. Each reporter is assigned a news beat—a grouping of state departments and agencies to focus on.
Baxter noted that Spotlight is paying special attention to the business of drug addiction treatment in the state, the state police and any story that involves taxpayer dollars. Since they’ve started publishing in September, the team has written about the lack of racial data in state police records, Harrisburg Area Community College cutting mental health counseling and dark spending by state lawmakers.
“It’s really nice to work at an organization that is dedicated to the journalism that has a specific focus,” said Investigative Data Reporter Daniel Simmons-Ritchie, who was nominated by PennLive to join the Spotlight team. “This whole experiment just gives me a lot of hope.”
As a nonprofit newsroom, Spotlight relies on a grant from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as funds from supporting organizations and individuals. To receive this support, the public must see journalism as critical to a functioning state and democracy, Baxter said.
He described Spotlight as a chance for “hand-to-hand combat”—journalism that is close to the people.
“That’s what I love, and that’s what I think journalism has to offer on the state level,” he said. “The fact that there’s such a massive void here, it just made me feel very eager and responsible to fill that space.”
Spotlight PA is located at 225 Market St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.spotlightpa.org.