The Arkansas Times was founded on $200 and a conviction that investigative reporting had the power to transform Arkansas for the better. We’ve stayed true to that mission for more than four decades, while also expanding our place in the community — as a source for breaking news and analysis online, a cultural compendium, a general interest guide to Arkansas life and a political refuge for progressives in an ever-reddening state.
But the internet has upended traditional publishing models, which has affected not just the Arkansas Times, but news media everywhere. In the last 20 years, as revenues have declined, the newspaper workforce has shrunk by about 20,000 positions, or by 40 percent. The leadership at the Times has proven time and time again to be adaptable, and we remain confident in our long-term future. But, with the exception of major outlets like the New York Times and NPR, most newsrooms, including the Times, cannot devote sufficient resources to do sustained reporting on complicated issues.
That’s why, as a side project to my work as editor of the Times, I’ve founded the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network. ANNN is an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. With funding from grants and donations, it will hire writers, editors, fact-checkers, photographers, videographers and audio producers on a contract basis to cover a story or topic. Their reporting will then be distributed for free among statewide partners — likely including radio, TV, newspapers and websites — which will publish all, or localized parts, of it.
Impact will be ANNN’s chief measure of success. We will only pursue stories that have the potential to bring about change. Since it will exist outside the bounds of a news product that has to maintain a regular publication cycle, ANNN contract employees will be able to proceed methodically, affording each project a rare depth of reporting and rigor in editing and fact-checking.
The Times has employed a similar model in recent years, often with the help of a nonprofit partner. After the 2013 Mayflower oil spill, we joined with the environmental nonprofit InsideClimate News to raise almost $36,000 through crowdfunding and a grant. The team of reporters hired with that money, including Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth McGowan, filed more than a dozen major stories that ran in the Times and on InsideClimate News’ website. One focused on residents who lived near the spill and had complained to authorities for months of adverse health effects related to fumes to no avail. Within weeks of the article being published, the governor announced free health screenings for the affected residents.
In 2015, the Times reported on the “rehoming” of two young girls adopted by state Rep. Justin Harris with another family, where one of the children was abused. In the wake of that story, the Times raised about $23,000 through crowdfunding and a grant to further investigate the state’s child welfare system. That money allowed us to hire Kathryn Joyce, an award-winning reporter based in New York City, who has twice traveled to Arkansas for extended periods. So far, she’s written five in-depth articles for the Times in a special series titled “Children in Crisis.”
In November, the state Department of Human Services released a report outlining ways to stabilize the child welfare system, including ambitious goals to hire more caseworkers, increase placement of children with relatives, streamline the foster parent application process and eliminate reliance on behavioral health institutions for foster children. All were topics on which Joyce has extensively reported for the Times.
ANNN also will function as an incubator for emerging writers, editors and producers, particularly for journalists of color. Editorially, it also will prioritize reporting that affects groups that are often ignored in Arkansas media, including rural, immigrant, LGBTQ, Latino and African-American communities.
Transparency will be a core value for ANNN. Donors will have no say in editorial direction and other operations. ANNN will disclose on its website all contributors who give $500 or more, and will disclose any instance in which donors’ work or business figures into ANNN reporting. All ANNN work will be tagged with our mission statement and any relevant disclosures.
ANNN will launch with coverage of the 91st Arkansas General Assembly, with a special focus on education and tax issues. Legislation has already been filed, or is promised, that would greatly expand school vouchers, make it easier to fire teachers and administrators and allow private management corporations to take over certain school districts, including the Little Rock School District. The legislature will consider whether K-12 education, the largest share of the state’s budget, is adequately funded as required by the state Constitution. Increased funding for pre-K and moving higher education funding from enrollment-based to performance-driven also will be debated. All of these discussions will be steered by, and sometimes inform, the debate over how large a tax cut the state budget can afford (a cut of some size is seen as given).
Ibby Caputo, of Newton County, will provide ANNN’s coverage from the state Capitol. A 2014-2015 MIT-Knight Science Journalism Fellow, Caputo covered health care, transportation and breaking news as a reporter for WGBH’s Boston Public Radio and WGBH-TV. Her work has aired on “The World,” “NPR News,” “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Weekend Edition,” “Marketplace Morning Report” and “Marketplace Tech.” Her journalism, essays and photography have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Cape Cod Times, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, theAtlantic.com and elsewhere.
ANNN is a registered nonprofit in the state of Arkansas that, in its startup year, will operate under the fiscal sponsorship of the Fred Darragh Foundation. Local editors and I will volunteer our time to manage ANNN until funds become available to support a full-time editor-in-chief. Aside from minimal travel, housing and web-hosting expenses, ANNN will have no overhead; 95 percent of money raised will directly underwrite meaningful journalism.
To make a tax deductible donation to ANNN, visit arknews.org or make out a check to the Fred Darragh Foundation and mail it to the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, P.O. Box 250746, LR, 72225-0746.