More Watchdog Reporting for Pittsburgh  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2011

More Watchdog Reporting for Pittsburgh   

PublicSource will launch this fall as a nonprofit regional news Web site. Wed. July 20, 2011

By Michaelle Bond
Michaelle Bond (mbond@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


Like many others, Grant Oliphant is worried about the state of journalism in this country, particularly when it comes to aggressive coverage of local news. And being president of a foundation, he's in a position to do something about it.

The result of Oliphant's apprehension is PublicSource.org, a regional nonprofit news Web site based in Pittsburgh that is slated to launch this fall, when it will become the latest in a series of similar ventures throughout the nation.

"I see PublicSource as one piece of a grand experiment across the country to see how we can contribute to sustaining community journalism," says Oliphant, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation.

As a community organization, the Pittsburgh Foundation has a responsibility to help meet the needs of the region, Oliphant says. And having an engaged, informed public is as much a critical community need as almost anything else imaginable, he adds.

"All our work is in peril if we don't have good watchdogs in place," Oliphant says.

The editor of PublicSource is Sharon Walsh, a veteran reporter and editor who most recently was enterprise editor at Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader.

Walsh, 61, experienced firsthand the importance of in-depth civic reporting while growing up reading her hometown paper, Louisville's Courier-Journal, back when it was owned by the Bingham family. She says she always admired the paper's coverage of important community issues, including education, coal mine safety and economic development. She left her job in Lexington a month ago to help PublicSource cover stories of similar importance to the Pittsburgh area.

"I hope we will provide people with a depository for very complete coverage of specific topics," she says. Those topics have yet to be finalized.

But Oliphant and Walsh are thinking big. Their goal, they say, is for PublicSource to be a regional version of ProPublica, the highly regarded investigative reporting nonprofit whose ambitions are national in scope. "That really raises expectations," Walsh says.

She points out that many of the nonprofit news sites popping up around the country are, like ProPublica, led by "old-media people" who are using the skills they've gained through years of experience at traditional news outlets to launch their own ventures.

"I wanted to do something in the brave new world of journalism," she says. Walsh worked as an investigative and enterprise reporter and editor for more than 30 years at various publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

PublicSource hired Walsh after a competitive national search, says Charlie Humphrey, executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers. The media arts center, which will manage and house PublicSource, had narrowed its editor hunt to five candidates it brought in for interviews.

"Each candidate was better than the last," Humphrey says. "Sharon was the last person we interviewed, and she just blew me away."

Walsh had done her research and quickly understood PublicSource's purpose, Humprey says. She also has a natural curiosity that fits with his vision of PublicSource, he says. Her experience as an investigative reporter and editor didn't hurt either.

While at the Lexington Herald-Leader, Walsh was the editor in charge of an investigation into several "quasi-governmental" boards, including those at the Kentucky League of Cities and Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, that were misusing taxpayer money. The paper's reports led to indictments and resignations.

Based on the type of work she did at the Herald-Leader, PublicSource is a good fit for Walsh, says Peter Baniak, the paper's editor and vice president. "She's keenly interested in good, solidly reported accountability journalism," he says. She is results oriented and has a good sense of where to find stories, Baniak adds.

Walsh says she's not very familiar with the Pittsburgh region, but she's been following the news there and plans to learn as she goes. "There's always a lot of catching up to do whenever you go to a new city," she says.

But it helps that Western Pennsylvania and Kentucky are dealing with some of the same issues, such as health care and environmental concerns, Walsh says.

PublicSource also has been discussing the best ways to engage the community, so people come to the news site with tips, stories and documents. "As a longtime investigative reporter, I can tell you some of the best stories come from the public," Walsh says.

She hopes to not only get stories, but also funding from the community to help PublicSource sustain itself. "I think the public, if they like our work, will support us," she says. PublicSource has no plans to charge for content, Walsh says, and it hasn't decided whether to seek paid advertising.

The site's funding is guaranteed for two years, thanks to a $253,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as well as $325,000 from the Pittsburgh Foundation.

"This is actually a venture we want to sustain well beyond that," Oliphant of the Pittsburgh Foundation says. And other area foundations have also expressed interest in helping to fund PublicSource, he says.

The site will partner with area news organizations, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the New Pittsburgh Courier, providing them with additional support on the investigative front, Oliphant says.

It's important for PublicSource to be independent in both reality and appearance, so the Pittsburgh Foundation is cautious about naming specific issues the site must investigate, Oliphant says.

But the foundation did give PublicSource examples of community issues it could look into, including health care, natural gas drilling and the community's approach to race and poverty. PublicSource's main goal is to provide in-depth coverage of community issues, Oliphant says, adding, "It's going to be up to Sharon to decide what these things are."

Although the site's founders want to emulate ProPublica, they'll have to do so with far less firepower. While ProPublica has a news staff of 34, including 20 reporters, the Pittsburgh nonprofit will have no full-time reporters, relying instead on a core of freelance journalists. It also plans to enlist college students from area journalism programs.

Richard Tofel, general manager of ProPublica, says that over the past few years he has had one or two conversations per week with people who want advice on running nonprofit reporting operations. "There are terrific opportunities for starting things like that," he says.

The initiatives that fare best, Tofel says, "always start with a content visionary." This person, usually an editor, has clear goals for the future of the organization and the types of stories it will cover.

But national news nonprofits aren't the only ones that startups are asking for advice.

Some also turn to the Bay Citizen, a San Francisco Bay Area news organization launched last May, says Lisa Frazier, the nonprofit's president and CEO. Frazier often shares such information as details about her organization's newsroom operations and business model with both nascent and established nonprofits across the country, she says.

Says Frazier: "It's an exciting time for journalism."

Note: An earlier version of this story stated PublicSource would launch August 1. This was the original start date, but the launch has since been pushed back to this fall.

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