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From AJR,   February/March 2009  issue

A New Watchdog for Texas   


By Lindsay Gsell
Lindsay Gsell is an AJR editorial assistant.     

In Texas, newspapers have reduced their statehouse staffs 40 percent since 2003, which is higher than the national average. Six of the eight newspapers have cut back, bringing the number of full-time reporters from 28 to 18. Two companies, Scripps Howard and Valley Freedom Newspapers, shuttered their bureaus.

Texas Watchdog (texaswatchdog.org), a new online-only site, aims to help fill the gap.

It posts blog updates regularly and original reporting about once every two weeks. Recent reports have been about topics such as state employee salaries and public contracts.

The staffers don't have particular beats. "A lot of it is just us being curious," says Texas Watchdog reporter Jennifer Peebles. "We have a lot of freedom with picking topics."

Reporter Lee Ann O'Neal, a former government editor at Asheville, North Carolina's Citizen-Times, feeds the blog often with tidbits on investigative issues and updates on the site's reporting.

The site was founded by Trent Seibert, who knew O'Neal and Peebles from when all three covered state government for Nashville's Tennessean. He saw Texas as a good starting ground for a watchdog site: Its sheer size presented a larger base audience, a broader array of issues and more fundraising opportunities.

The site debuted in August 2008 after Seibert secured a grant from the Sam Adams Alliance, a Chicago-based group that supports government transparency sites such as ballotpedia.org and sunshinereview.org. Seibert hopes to attain nonprofit status and launch advertising on the site by the end of the year, when the grant runs out.

In the meantime, Texas Watchdog also relies on income from its public training program, which teaches people journalistic skills--such as accessing public records--they can use to monitor their state and local governments.

"We're trying to arm organizations and individuals to become their own watchdogs," Seibert says. "There can't be enough eyes on government out there."

With newsrooms and circulation declining, Peebles fears that without assistance, classic watchdog journalism may soon disappear from small towns and suburban areas.

"The only thing you can do is journalistic guerrilla warfare," Peebles says. "We teach the public how to do the things we do in the press."

Christy Hoppe, Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, says the site falls short as a complete news operation.

"They might do some interesting database stuff...but they don't report," Hoppe wrote in an e-mail. "They never seem to call anyone to ask, 'What's this about?'... In my day, we called it, 'Never letting facts get in the way of a good story.' "

But Peebles believes that the online medium allows for more flexibility in reporting, and says the site has been doing "fairly nuts-and- bolts, bread-and-butter reporting" since it started in August.

Seibert wants the site to expand its range, and he has hired some new staff and freelancers. "I'd like to see us grow," he says. "Right now, we're a good supplement to the good investigative reporting in Texas."

Barbara Rosewicz, managing editor of Stateline.org, which monitors state policy and political trends, says the site seems to be "pursuing new forms of journalism."

"I expect we'll see more experimentation along those lines," Rosewicz says.

She says she hopes Texas Watchdog can survive and maintain its investigative presence. "We clearly need it. People will miss it if it's gone."