The Nashville Scene has a long piece by Matt Pulle on TNReport, the political website, that is generally complimentary of its reporting while revealing the the previously-unrevealed source of its funding.
It is against this backdrop of slimmed-down, lightweight news coverage that Tennessee Report (TNReport.com), a political website, hopes to thrive. Barely 18 months old and powered by two full-timers and one prolific freelancer, the site has been providing thorough and balanced coverage of state politics, along with surprisingly compelling footage of lawmakers in action.
With a narrow audience and financial backing from a conservative nonprofit based in, of all places, North Dakota, Tennessee Report may not mark the future of media. But it’s definitely part of the present. During the recently concluded legislative session, the politics-only site seemed to come of age, earning a devoted following among the folks who obsess over state legislators the way Arnold Schwarzenegger scopes out nannies.
“I read the Tennessee Report as much, if not more, than any of the dailies,” says Brandon Puttbrese, the communications director for the Tennessee Democratic Party. “For people who pay attention to state politics, they’ve become a must-read.”
On this issue — and perhaps this issue alone — the GOP agrees.
“How well read they are on the Hill? Very,” says Brent Leatherwood, the spokesman for the House GOP caucus. “Personally, I’ve added them to the other blogs and news sites I continually check throughout the day. I know others have done the same.”
Part of what makes Tennessee Report work is that it knows it has an audience: folks who find state politics more interesting than sugar-free margaritas. In trying to appeal to that crowd, the site can misfire, running dense, earnest stories that don’t end up saying anything. But the site’s keen attention to political maneuvers can also lead to some memorable journalism.
….Otherwise open and collegial, Engler refuses to divulge who actually pays the site’s bills. After all, its content is free to all and features virtually no advertisements. Someone has to be funding all this.
“We don’t discuss funding, and that’s our policy,” he says.
That policy is understandable, considering that — as the Scene learned — Tennessee Report is supported by the Franklin Center, a North Dakota nonprofit with deep Republican Party ties that backs similar political websites across the country. Jason Stverak, the center’s president, spent six years as the executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party, while Gwen Beattie previously worked for Jim Gilmore, the former Virginia governor and onetime Republican National Committee chair. In addition, the center has a close relationship with the Sam Adams Alliance, a Chicago-based nonprofit that has avidly encouraged the spread of the Tea Party movement.
“The Franklin Center is proud to support TNReport’s efforts to provide the people of Tennessee with more original content about what is going on in their government,” emails center spokeswoman Meghan Tisinger, who once worked for former Republican congressman John Kuhl. “The TNReport relentlessly works to promote transparency and keep Tennessee’s elected officials accountable through digging into the stories that the legacy media is no longer equipped to do.”
Still, despite the leanings of its backers, Tennessee Report shows not the slightest trace of partisan or ideological bias. In fact, the site runs press releases from the ACLU or, for that matter, any other organization with access to a fax machine. Meanwhile, Engler himself says the site will accept donations from people and groups of all political persuasions, provided the funding does not come with strings attached. So far, this arrangement doesn’t seem to trouble the Report’s readers.