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How A Koch-Affiliated Group Is Infiltrating State News Coverage in Mainstream Papers

Local papers can't afford to cover the state legislature, so a Koch-linked venture is happy to help.

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The organization is not legally required to identify their donors, but disclosure forms from other large conservative grant-making organizations offer a glimpse at the Franklin Center's subsequent funding sources. The Lynne and Harry Bradley Foundation, one of the largest and most influential conservative foundations, awarded the Franklin Center two grants in 2010 worth $190,500, both earmarked for "state-based reporting efforts in Wisconsin," according to  disclosure forms. In June 2010, Dunn's Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking (named for Florida commodities trader William A. Dunn, who also sits on the boards of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute)  granted the Franklin Center $50,000.

This large and growing funding stream has allowed the organization to steadily expand. After launching with 22 new state sites and three sites that existed previously and joined the Franklin sphere of influence, the group added 15 sites in 2010, 10 in 2011 and, so far, four in 2012.

The organization also highlights its ability to influence the debate outside the narrow confines of those sites, bragging in a May 30 fundraising email, "When you give to the Franklin Center, you have an immediate impact on the power of our reporting. Legacy news outlets regularly pick up our stories, driving them far beyond the typical audience for online news."

Indeed, the Franklin Center's focus on state legislative news allows it to take advantage of a long-running downturn in staffing and resources at mainstream news outlets' statehouse coverage dating back nearly a decade, providing content local newspapers are otherwise unable to afford.

A 2009  American Journalism Review study found that 355 newspaper reporters and editors were covering state capitols full time, a 30 percent decrease at the time from 524 in 2003.

"The evidence suggests that, clearly, there has been a significant diminution of bodies from the legacy media outlets covering statehouses and state politics around the country," said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, which tracks such trends. "Even in a city like Boston, you saw the TV bodies in the statehouse diminish quite dramatically.

"In the newspaper environment, there are just fewer bodies to go around anywhere and that has meant cutting back fairly dramatically on statehouse coverage."

The Franklin Center claims this downturn in mainstream state reporting as one of the reasons for its existence, noting on its  Web site: "Cash-strapped and under-staffed, local and regional newspapers often can't provide the real information that voters need to make good decisions."

Several newspapers acknowledged using Franklin Center reporting to fill a void caused by cutbacks and layoffs, albeit with a great deal of unease at using a source with such a clear ideological perspective.

Roger Ruthhart, managing editor of the  Moline Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, said he uses the Franklin-linked Illinois Statehouse News partially because of cutbacks in resources, but admits to giving each story extra scrutiny.

"It was partially due to cutbacks, but it's also one aspect of what we do in terms of state news coverage, we sort of pick and choose from what they offer," he said. "We're aware of the [Franklin Center] connection and when we edit stories we are always looking for balance and fairness, it is something we watch. You have to apply your general judgment when you edit the stories."

Cort Kirkwood, managing editor of the  Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va., said he uses the Franklin-affiliated Virginia Statehouse News because it is in the state capital and he cannot staff the legislative beat completely.

For "a lot of these small papers around Virginia, it is very, very difficult to station someone down in Richmond for the entire session, it does require a substantial financial commitment," Kirkwood said.

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