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States flunk on transparency

Seldom has the Center had a story of such scale and immediate reach as the release of the year-long investigation into State Integrity. An exhaustive reporting and data project with more than 50 reporters, a huge data analysis with our partners at Global Integrity, the project was truly national in scale but focused on state politics.

What matters though is the huge reach of the story and its pick up across the country in hundreds, even thousands, of newspapers, TV stations and radio reports. That is where the real impact of the story has been seen on our partner properties and in record-breaking traffic on our own site to stories, graphics and services like “email your politician”.

Many of the anecdotes in the stories written and project managed by Nicholas Kusnetz sound like the plots of Coen Brothers movies: lobbyists feeding the Arkansas legislature, the California senator arrested for gunrunning, bribery and racketeering the week after winning a clean politics award, Idaho lawmakers feted at golf tournaments by lobbyists.

The trouble is they’re horribly real and the State Integrity Investigation shows a woeful performance in statehouse efforts to get more transparent, combat corruption and open themselves up to scrutiny. Only three states scored higher than a “D+” and 11 flunked entirely. This time Alaska was rated cleanest and Michigan the worst.

State politics has become a huge area for the Center both with this project and the parallel work of the State Politics team which runs the “Who’s Calling the Shots in State Politics” section. The State Integrity project could not have been done without the backing of the Omidyar Network and the Rita Allen Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Fondation.. Our regular state coverage is backed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. With deadlock in Washington, focus is shifting to states and it’s not pretty.

Interest in the State Integrity project has been enormous by our standards. A partnership with USA Today and the wider Gannett group performed particularly well. A sample of the state reaction is in these editorialx from The Seattle Times, The Detroit News, The Toledo Blade and The Des Moines Register. There are far too many to count. At the national level the Washington Post editorial board opined amusingly about “witless dolts…and dullards”. The Wall Street Journal risk and compliance team wrote about it as did Vice. Local TV and radio piled in as well. In this vital area of dissemination — when our work becomes truly meaningful and unavoidable — I want to call out the efforts of our communications and marketing lead, William Gray. It doesn’t happen by accident.

On our own site, the package had more than 700,000 page views by early today — much of it distributed right across the individual state reports and the beautiful interactive tools. Those interactives were also used on Gannett papers and generated 135,000 views off our site. We invite readers to send report cards by email to their local politicians and as of now more than 6,000 have been sent with a remarkable 30 per cent open rate.

Yue Qiu created the interactive concepts and in my opinion her work on the main rankings pages was world class. Her use of “segmented wheels” to allow the discovery of quarter of a million data points on states was inspired and is worth playing with to consider how complex it is behind the visual simplicity. I predict a big award just for this. She worked on this as did the entire digital team who all did sterling work and put in huge hours: data journalist Chris Zubak-Skees, editor Jared Bennett, developer Erik Lincoln and our chief development officer Kimberley Porteous.

An example of how much went into this was Nicholas Kusnetz and Chris Zubak-Skees filling in a gap of more than 2,000 legislators in the Sunlight Foundation database we started with.

Our Executive Editor Gordon Witkin has led the project, including much of the work with the Development team to win financial backing for it, and has spent most of the past year driving it forward truly tirelessly. Each story and data point needed writing, checking, editing and verification. Alan Hudson and his team at Global Integrity — once part of the Center but now focused on transparency analysis — made the data credible building on the similar 2012 project.

Like the 2012 project which is still used as a reference point, the 2015 project will run and run.

Bad men doing illegal things in ignored places

That’s how our National Security managing editor Jeff Smith described this scary and powerful story of nuclear menace which we ran with Vice News this week. It’s a saga of missing nuclear material in the former Soviet Union and the stuff of nightmares and Bond movies. Working with Vice on it was a great breakthrough to their millennial audience. It’s a strong part of the work on proliferation by Doug Birch and Jeff.


It’s lovely sometimes to see certain words dusted off and find the perfect place to make you smile and click on the headline. I was struck by the rare appearance of “scofflaw” in the headline of a piece by our Soles fellow Cady Zuvich. It may have gone in there after an edit by Dave Levinthal. Slipping in words like that can make an editor’s day/week.

Thank you for your support on our Beacon campaign

A huge thanks to the many people — some Board members, staff and backers among them — for helping us make a $10,000 target for an interesting crowdfunding project with Beacon to raise money from the public to support the Workers’ Rights team expose the scandal of work place toxins.

It was a great idea deftly deployed by our Chief Development Officer Deborah Dubois. Expect more like it and thank you very much for your support.

I welcome any feedback on this note.

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Peter Bale was the Center for Public Integrity's CEO from 2015 to 2016.