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A few Friday thoughts on what the Arizona Mirror is (and isn’t)

By: - May 22, 2020 6:17 pm

Public domain image via Pixabay

In the 19 or so months since Arizona Mirror launched, we’ve gotten accustomed to disingenuous complaints – almost exclusively from conservative politicians, activists, political consultants and corporate lobbyists – that we exist to ensure Democrats are elected and are part of a “dark money” propaganda plot.

We’re not. What we are is a team of professional and veteran reporters who have a depth of experience covering Arizona’s citizens and the governments they form. We have complete editorial independence: The stories we write are the stories we think are important. Our work stands on its own. 

To the extent that our work angered people in the halls of power, well, reporting on things that the powerful don’t want you to know is the entire purpose of journalism.

And we haven’t ever taken a single thin dime from a 501(c)(4) corporation, the entities typically referred to as “dark money” outfits because they can spend unlimited sums on American politics without disclosing where the money comes from.

The argument has been that we’re a “dark money” operation has its roots in how our publishing organization began. States Newsroom, the 501(c)(3) public charity that publishes us and our 11 sister publications, did what many nascent charities do when they launch: It found a fiscal sponsor so it could begin its work while it applied to the IRS for certification as a 501(c)(3). That fiscal sponsor was Hopewell Fund, a charity with ties to the progressive world. 

Fiscal sponsorship allows a new nonprofit to raise their own money tax-free by using the sponsor’s 501(c)(3) certification until the IRS approves its application. For States Newsroom, that happened in summer 2019. By the fall, the complicated process of separating from that fiscal sponsorship was complete, and all ties with Hopewell were severed.

Today, Open Secrets, the news site operated by the Center for Responsive politics (itself a public charity) that is dedicated to uncovering hidden money in politics, wrote about the network of money funding “pseudo-news outlets” to advance progressive causes. 

Deep into the piece, after detailing a variety of “astroturfed” news operations online and on Facebook – many of which were shut down after the election they sought to influence was over – Open Secrets turned its attention to Hopewell, which “shares resources” with two other nonprofits that directly funded some of the other pseudo-local outlets.

The story notes that Hopewell had ties to States Newsroom, and that our parent organization plans to bring in more than $27 million by the end of next year – something that isn’t all that surprising, considering that there are plans for us to expand significantly.

What wasn’t mentioned by Open Secrets is that Hopewell doesn’t, and hasn’t ever, given money to States Newsroom.

As our publisher, Chris Fitzsimon, told Axios in January, the organization “doesn’t accept corporate donations or underwriting, just philanthropic donations.” What does that mean? Well, for starters, not a single cent that pays for this operation comes from a “dark money” outfit, despite how much our bad-faith critics yell that we do.

Open Secrets would have known as much had it bothered to contact Fitzsimon before publishing; several hours after the story went live, it was updated to include exactly that information.

I have deep moral and professional problems with people who seek to exploit the decline in local news to advance a political agenda. The model is gross: Masquerade as a local outlet, leverage content on social media, gather tons of data on the people that interact with the content, then feed those people political ads from the affiliated political groups. Their local presence is minimal, at best, and is primarily composed of people without serious journalism backgrounds.

Many of those groups and sites and Facebook pages no longer exist, and I’m betting that many of those that do in 2020 won’t in 2022. 

How are we different? We’re part of a public charity that exists to launch legitimate news sites to cover statehouses in states where failing corporate media has left an absence of coverage. We’re staffed by veteran journalists who have experience covering their communities and capitals. We have a physical presence at the Capitol, and attend meetings and press conferences and political events right alongside the other members of the Capitol press corps.

We’re also raising money from our community – not for political campaigns, but to support the news we already cover and build on what we do. The Mirror’s local fundraising efforts have allowed us to increase pay, bring on interns and hire more freelancers.

We don’t have associated 501(c)(4) outfits or super PACs. We don’t gather data from our subscribers or followers so we can later microtarget them with political ads aimed at supporting particular candidates or issues. 

We don’t get told what to write or what to cover or how to do our jobs. The truth is that I’ve never had more journalistic freedom at any point in my career. 

That allows us to write original news, to break stories, to cover under-served communities, to provide information for people to engage with their government. 

I know that my professional reputation is on the line. I came into this with my eyes open. And I did it because the cause is just: A community can’t effectively govern itself if it isn’t informed. That’s the mission that drives me.

The very first thing we published was an introductory post I wrote back in September 2018. The words I opened that piece with are more true today, as we face a continually shrinking corporate media:

At no point in our nation’s history has an independent and free press been unimportant, but the necessity of the Fourth Estate has perhaps never been more starkly apparent at any point in the post-Nixon world. In this critical time brimming with fake news and alternative facts, where the truth is seemingly up for debate and in which the most powerful man in the world attacks the free press as “the enemy of the people,”  journalistic pursuits are essential.

I can’t promise we’ll be perfect or that we’ll always get everything right, but we’ll own our mistakes and not make them a second time. And I will go to the mat to defend our integrity, because if we don’t have that, we have nothing.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.