Nonprofit Connecticut Mirror Targets Gaps in Political Coverage and Data

Just in time for a meaty year in Connecticut politics and government, a nonprofit news site launches Monday with an online resource its editor touts as “the most comprehensive guide to the state’s elected officials anywhere.”

Michael Regan, editor of The Connecticut Mirror, said the site’s “Guide to Politics and Government” includes disclosure forms that state legislators are required to complete but that the state has failed to make available online.

“This is astounding to me,” Regan told me in an e-mail interview. “We’ve got them all up on our Guide… That’s a central part of our mission — in addition to covering the news, we want to give people access to stuff that’s hard or impossible to find on the Web.”

The Mirror hopes to fill some of the gaps left by a diminished state house press corps that Regan says has shrunk from about 24 reporters in 1989 to about a third of that today.

Regan, who supervised various public affairs beats at the Hartford Courant for more than 20 years, leads a team of three reporters at the Mirror, two who left the Courant and one who worked at a group of Maryland weeklies owned by The Washington Post.

Connecticut Mirror bills itself as “an independent, non-partisan, nonprofit news organization created to reinvigorate coverage of Connecticut’s state government, public policy and politics.”

With a governor’s race that includes no incumbent, a scramble to replace the retiring Democratic U.S. Senator Chris Dodd and a $500 million state budget deficit, the startup faces a broad array of coverage choices.

Jim Cutie, a former New York Times Co. executive and media entrepreneur who serves as the Mirror’s chief operating officer, says the operation has raised $1.8 million with support from seven foundations — enough to operate for three years.

Funding includes a $300,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge, as well as matching grants from The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.

Cutie said the site plans to share its coverage with other media — including the Associated Press — without charge “for the foreseeable future.” He said he’s confident the Mirror will develop a sustainable business model — including donations and corporate sponsorships but without traditional advertising or paid content — “long before” its foundation money runs out.

“With our goal of getting content to everybody, we’ll never have a pay wall,” Cutie told me in a telephone interview.

“We’re very efficient in how we spend our money,” he added. “Virtually all of it goes against reporting and coverage resources like freelancers and interns.”

Cutie said 20 to 25 news organizations from around the state have expressed interest in using Mirror articles that he said would “supplement rather than supplant” existing coverage.

“Within hours of our announcement,” he added, “we started getting unsolicited e-mail from journalists and other people asking, ‘Where do I sign up?’ “

Below is an edited transcript of my e-mail interview with Regan.

Bill Mitchell: You promise to “break new ground with significant original reporting on the big issues and ideas of the day.” What’s on your list?

Michael Regan: The first big issue in front of everyone is the state budget. The legislature convenes next month facing a $500 million deficit in the budget year that ends June 30, just five months from now. Farther out, deficits are projected into the billions. And because so much state spending goes to healthcare and human services, the people most vulnerable to budget cuts are those who have been hit the hardest by the recession. I don’t think that story has gotten enough attention.

The budget also plays into a very important election year in Connecticut. For the first time in 16 years, there is no incumbent running for governor. It’s going to be our job to press the candidates for their plans to resolve the budget problem, and then analyze those plans very carefully. Voters have one chance to pick the person who will lead the state through this mess, and they need solid information to help them decide.

Beyond that, we’re starting the election year with a public financing program that has been upended by a federal judge; we have our own state healthcare reform effort under way, with all the uncertainties that go with it; we’re in the midst of a court-ordered school desegregation effort that depends on large infusions of ever-scarcer tax money. The list goes on. I can’t remember a time in my 35 years as a journalist in Connecticut when there have been so many big stories demanding our attention.

As you prepared your first stories for this week’s launch, how did you approach the reporting, writing and presentation differently than you might have if the work would be appearing first in a newspaper?

Regan: We consciously strove for a newspaperly approach to reporting and writing — or at least what you hope for in newspapers, in terms of in-depth research and engaging story-telling. Presentation is different: You quickly learn that Web design does not suit the anecdotal lede. But we’re trying to stay away from a common tendency of news Web sites to cram a dozen or more entry points onto the screen in hopes that one will somehow grab a particular viewer. We’re focused on presenting the best coverage of our specialty clearly and accessibly.

Give us a sense of your plans for reporting and advancing stories with social networking tools.

Regan: I’m new to social networking, but I’m quickly becoming an enthusiast. We launched a Facebook page just a few weeks ago and already have more than 600 fans. We also have a fast-growing community of followers on Twitter. Right now we’re using Facebook and Twitter primarily to build awareness as we get ready to kick off our coverage. We want that to evolve into more of a two-way street, with our news going out and readers’ comments, tips and suggestions for improvement coming in. We also want to use social media along with other channels, such as online chats, to bring readers and writers together to talk about high-interest stories.

Your FAQ says you plan to “encourage communication between Connecticut’s residents and their public officials?” How is that happening now, and how will you improve on it?

Regan: That’s a next step for us, once the news operation is established. We want to explore a variety of means to facilitate engagement, including virtual public hearings, online chats with officials and partnerships with organizations interested in particular issues. We’re also talking with one of our news partners about possibly using the Internet to broaden participation in candidate debates.

What have you learned about the news landscape in Hartford — or Connecticut generally — since you began working on this project?

Regan: One thing that has really impressed me is the desire for the kind of news and information we’re planning to provide. At a big newspaper, you get into the routine of putting stuff on the page and sending it out to the readers and never hearing much back. Since word of this project began circulating, we’ve gotten hundreds of communications from people saying “I’m so glad you’re doing this, we really need it.” Lots of these people also want to know what they can do to help.

Suggestions for others considering similar projects in other states?

Regan: Funding obviously is the big issue, and I don’t know of any particular model that works everywhere. We were blessed early on by the involvement of committed people who have been incredibly generous with their time or money or both, and who understand the world of nonprofits. Without them, this wouldn’t have happened.

Beyond that, I would say seek the advice of others who have done what you want to do, and borrow their best ideas. Everyone I’ve talked to in the online news world has been welcoming and eager to help; take advantage of that.

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