As their financial outlooks have soured, many traditional news organizations have cut back sharply on their coverage of state government.
NPR has launched its effort to help reverse the trend.
Monday marked the debut of Web sites in three states that are the opening salvos of StateImpact, a venture that ultimately aims to add at least two reporters to investigate statehouse news in every state.
The initial sites are in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Additional sites in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Idaho and New Hampshire are expected to be up and running by September. Stations in the eight states are participating in a two-year pilot project that NPR plans to export to all 50 states.
"And at a time when so many news organizations are cutting back, that's not an insignificant commitment," says Joel Sucherman, a StateImpact advisor. Sucherman runs NPR's Argo Network, a collection of Web sites of NPR member stations that will serve as a platform and model for StateImpact.
"So few people actually know who their state representatives are," Sucherman says, "but decisions made at the local level are often more impactful than those made in Congress."
As the project's name suggests, StateImpact will focus not just on what government does but on what those actions mean for people's daily lives. "If we write a story about how the latest appropriation bill has gone through the legislature, we will have failed," Sucherman says.
Stations in the states participating in the pilot program have chosen specific topics to delve into, including education, energy policy and the economy. NPR will link the eight sites through a central project site.
A lead public radio station will partner with other stations in each state. The lead station is responsible for hiring a two-person reporting team and collaborating with StateImpact teams elsewhere. One reporter will focus on broadcast and the other will have a digital focus, Sucherman says.
The pilot stations were chosen on such factors as their history of collaborating with other stations, their experience with digital media and their editorial vision for the project. Stations in other states can apply to join StateImpact this fall.
NPR will use several benchmarks to evaluate the success of the pilot program, including the amount of original reporting, collaboration both in state and with counterparts in other states, and the ability to uncover stories hidden in state databases.
The annual budget for the eight states during the pilot phase is $3.7 million, with NPR picking up 70 percent of the tab and participating stations paying the rest during the first year. The following year, the stations will be responsible for 70 percent.
Some within and outside of NPR have criticized the venture because its initial $1.8 million in funding came from left-leaning billionaire philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Foundations. NPR has long had to fight off accusations that it has a liberal bent.
Sucherman is quick to say that StateImpact does not have a social agenda. "This is not a project about advocacy," he says. "If change is a consequence of the stories, then terrific. But we're not looking to be advocates of anything."
About 10 other foundations and individuals have also contributed to the project.
StateImpact is about "reporting on state government from the outside in," says Cathy Duchamp, deputy director of the program. She leads the eight-member "team of coaches" that will manage and assist member stations from NPR's Washington, D.C., headquarters.
StateImpact's goals include building the capacity of local stations and training reporters to innovate, Duchamp says. "I think this is an exciting time for journalism," she says. "We're excited to have a new generation of journalists come in and basically take the reins with this and run with it."
The opportunity to improve reporting capabilities throughout Indiana is one reason WFIU in Bloomington decided to join the pilot program, says Cary Boyce, station operations director. The station will focus its reporting for the project on education, especially funding, "a huge issue in Indiana" and across the nation, Boyce says.
Participating in StateImpact will let reporters rove the state, tracking the impact of legislation in a way that a general assignment reporter could never do, says John Bailey, the station's radio marketing director. "We'll have two people dedicated full time to really digging deep into this topic," Bailey says.
Stations in Ohio and Florida also chose to focus on education. States that share the same topics are expected to collaborate with each other.
Participating stations in Pennsylvania and Texas, both of which will focus on energy policy and the environment, are already discussing joint efforts, says Emily Donahue, news director at KUT in Austin. A big issue in both states is hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," a method for extracting natural gas that some worry leaks chemicals into the ground.
The consequences of energy production are "critical and underreported issues," Donahue says. KUT is independently funding a third StateImpact broadcast journalist to be stationed in Austin, which shows the station's commitment to and belief in the program, she says.
"I can't tell you how excited I am as news director to be participating," Donahue says. "I think this is a really exciting time to be working at a member station with NPR."