When it's not devising new ways to insult gay people and Muslims, the Tennessee legislature actually does meaningful work, from crafting the state's $30 billion budget to making major changes to public education. Still, over the last five to 10 years, papers across Tennessee including Nashville's own morning daily have been slashing coverage of state politics in favor of — well, who knows what exactly? Just last week, the lead story on The Tennessean's website was a profile on low-calorie drinks.
"Is that a cocktail or a Big Mac you're drinking?" the story began.
It is against this backdrop of slimmed-down, lightweight news coverage that Tennessee Report (TNReport.com), a political website, hopes to thrive. Barely 18 months old and powered by two full-timers and one prolific freelancer, the site has been providing thorough and balanced coverage of state politics, along with surprisingly compelling footage of lawmakers in action.
With a narrow audience and financial backing from a conservative nonprofit based in, of all places, North Dakota, Tennessee Report may not mark the future of media. But it's definitely part of the present. During the recently concluded legislative session, the politics-only site seemed to come of age, earning a devoted following among the folks who obsess over state legislators the way Arnold Schwarzenegger scopes out nannies.
"I read the Tennessee Report as much, if not more, than any of the dailies," says Brandon Puttbrese, the communications director for the Tennessee Democratic Party. "For people who pay attention to state politics, they've become a must-read."
On this issue — and perhaps this issue alone — the GOP agrees.
"How well read they are on the Hill? Very," says Brent Leatherwood, the spokesman for the House GOP caucus. "Personally, I've added them to the other blogs and news sites I continually check throughout the day. I know others have done the same."
Part of what makes Tennessee Report work is that it knows it has an audience: folks who find state politics more interesting than sugar-free margaritas. In trying to appeal to that crowd, the site can misfire, running dense, earnest stories that don't end up saying anything. But the site's keen attention to political maneuvers can also lead to some memorable journalism.
Last week, freelancer and former Tennessean editorial writer Mike Morrow happened in on an informal, unpublicized meeting of Senate Democrats who were trying to figure out how to amend the Republican-authored state budget. Although the senators did not invite the press, they did not toss Morrow out or flee to an undisclosed location, which passes for a triumph at the General Assembly. So Morrow simply stuck around and reported on how the irritated Democrats considered walking out to protest the budget's more notable omissions.
Morrow's story, posted soon after on the website, wound up being a compelling read, providing a vivid look at how Senate Democrats are adjusting to being the minority party. It's exactly the sort of behind-the-scenes story that political junkies crave. Still, most newspaper reporters wouldn't even think of pitching anything like that to their editors.
"Here's how it would happen at a daily," says Morrow, who might know a thing or two about that, having spent 31 years at The Tennessean. "A reporter would call in and say, 'Here's what I got, this is what I just heard.' And even if you were quick enough to write the story, there would still have to be a meeting among a few midlevel editors. And they'd have to talk about it and they'd have to put their hands all over it and say that, 'We couldn't let this go like that, because we have to have another voice to balance it out.' By the time they got through talking about it, the story would be moot."
Following the Democrats' semi-secret meeting, the Senate unanimously approved the $30.8 billion budget, along with an extension of unemployment benefits. Both chambers also repealed collective bargaining for teachers. These were important, consequential developments, and Morrow and staff writer Andrea Zelinski combined to write nearly 3,000 words about both measures. The Tennessean, meanwhile, countered with a few short blurbs from the Associated Press.
In addition, the daily failed to update its political blog, In Session, on the budget and collective bargaining stories, even as it found room earlier in the week to write about Seal and Heidi Klum's visit to the Capitol.
Tennessee Report's use of video also sets it apart from newspaper websites (which seem to loathe footage) and local television stations (which seem to loathe meetings). Last November, Tennessee Report retrieved the General Assembly's live feed of Curry Todd, a Republican House member, comparing illegal immigrants to rats. Seriously, he said that. Tennessee Report uploaded the video to YouTube, and Todd's uncanny impersonation of a KKK Grand Wizard made news across the country.
Zelinski, the paper's sole full-time reporter, always carries a video camera with her as she roams the subterranean corridors of Legislative Plaza. This allows her to record probing interviews with lawmakers as well as contentious committee hearings. Her videos are arguably the most popular feature of the site.
"I walk around with a tripod camera all day along with my work bag," says the 28-year-old Zelinski. "It's not as difficult as some of the older reporters would have you think."
Interestingly, although the site's stories and footage make state government more transparent, the editor of Tennessee Report is surprisingly guarded about who backs the online venture.
"I became aware that there may be funding for a news organization in Tennessee, and I began to seek it, and that's basically how the whole thing started," says Mark Engler, who wrote about politics for papers in Nebraska, Arizona and New Mexico, among other places. "That's the only way I can really describe it that won't compromise my agreements with people."
Otherwise open and collegial, Engler refuses to divulge who actually pays the site's bills. After all, its content is free to all and features virtually no advertisements. Someone has to be funding all this.
"We don't discuss funding, and that's our policy," he says.
That policy is understandable, considering that — as the Scene learned — Tennessee Report is supported by the Franklin Center, a North Dakota nonprofit with deep Republican Party ties that backs similar political websites across the country. Jason Stverak, the center's president, spent six years as the executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party, while Gwen Beattie previously worked for Jim Gilmore, the former Virginia governor and onetime Republican National Committee chair. In addition, the center has a close relationship with the Sam Adams Alliance, a Chicago-based nonprofit that has avidly encouraged the spread of the Tea Party movement.
"The Franklin Center is proud to support TNReport's efforts to provide the people of Tennessee with more original content about what is going on in their government," emails center spokeswoman Meghan Tisinger, who once worked for former Republican congressman John Kuhl. "The TNReport relentlessly works to promote transparency and keep Tennessee's elected officials accountable through digging into the stories that the legacy media is no longer equipped to do."
Still, despite the leanings of its backers, Tennessee Report shows not the slightest trace of partisan or ideological bias. In fact, the site runs press releases from the ACLU or, for that matter, any other organization with access to a fax machine. Meanwhile, Engler himself says the site will accept donations from people and groups of all political persuasions, provided the funding does not come with strings attached. So far, this arrangement doesn't seem to trouble the Report's readers.
"I'm not to say the funding source isn't important, but at this point they've been completely objective," says the Democratic Party's Puttbrease. "I don't question their integrity."
(Full disclaimer: This reporter did a lot of freelance work for a website in Texas that was funded in part by the Sam Adams Alliance. During this time, I wrote several critical stories on conservative, Tea Party-ish lawmakers and never heard a discouraging word from my editors. So there's that.)
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