President of Franklin Center of Public Integrity & Government and Watchdog.org, Chris Krug came to speak to students on campus last Tuesday, Oct. 2 about the role of watchdog journalism. Through the use of watchdog journalism, the Franklin Center and Watchdog.org keep government officials accountable for their actions and statements, providing taxpayers and local citizens with understandable news coverage. Krug has worked in journalism for nearly 20 years, serving as a publisher and general manager at the Illinois News Network, executive editor at the Northwest Herald, and publisher for the Pioneer Press papers in the Chicago Sun-Times, along with experience in international business.
The Franklin Center for government & Public Integrity is “dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility.” How are each of these principles important to society today?
At the Franklin Center we are state-focused journalism and are interested in what happens on the state level in the legislature. We’re non-political, non-partisan. We tackle stories from the perspective of the taxpayer and how taxpayers’ money is being spent. We talk to Republicans, we talk to Democrats, so we talk to both sides. Our focus is different than other outlets.
What does Watchdog.org do?
We are solely focused on investigative work. As I’ve taken over as President of the Franklin Center, in the past fifteen months, I’ve tried to change the way that we do the work that we do, without changing the space where Watchdog had been most effective. Watchdog used to focus on long-form stories and deeper investigative work, but our interest is in the dailies and providing excellent State House and statewide news coverage. We want to convey stories in very straight forward English, because what happens in government should not be solely for those who have a dictionary or thesaurus at the ready. There’s too much focus on jargon and mechanics, without explaining mechanics, and we want to make news accessible.
How does Watchdog share its sources and back-up its facts, especially in a generation of young people who “regurgitate” facts?
The Pew Center came out with study that 1 out of 4 could tell the difference between straight news and opinion. What we attempt to do and feel is important is to talk to the people making the news or having a direct impact on the news, not simply to speak to experts around the corners or the edges of the news. We talk to legislators in general assemblies across the United States to understand why they feel a certain way that they do about an issue.
Is it possible to be non-partisan in today’s political climate?
The word ‘partisan’ and the word ‘political’ are often used as synonyms, and they’re not. We’re non-partisan, but we’re also non-political. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a certain point of view. The point of view that we focus on is, “What is the impact of the news on taxpayers?” These are the viewers we try to reach. We do not endorse political candidates. We just give the information required in order for the people to make the best decisions.
With your background in publishing at the Illinois News Network, as executive editor at the Northwest Herald, and publisher for Pioneer Press in the Chicago Sun-Times Media Group, how did it prepare you for the skills needed for the Franklin Center?
I came up in this business as a reporter, so I was one of those people who while I was writing, I was also managing at a younger age in the industry. I got into management full-time almost immediately, and have been in management the entire time. Being a journalist is committing to a life of continuous improvement. I took on more and more responsibility and rose through the ranks. I started as a reporter, became a copy editor, and then became an assistant sport editor, then a sports editor, then I became an editor. I left sports for news, because after 9/11, I felt that there are more important things than sports. I have the utmost respect for sportswriters but for me there had to be more than winning. There had to be more to be said.
Tell me about your new collaborative project MediaWise, with Poynter, Stanford History Education Group, Local Media Association for Media Literacy Education, and Google Inc.
The idea behind MediaWise is to address a known problem among the next generation of news consumers. The problem is that there is a significant gap between civic online literacy and the ability for people to read stories, and it’s potentially damaging to the future of our country to have such misinformation. What we have learned from the great people at Stanford, Poynter, and Google is that if left unchecked, this generation of teens and tweens is going to continue on the path that is not dissimilar to the adults who can’t tell between a news story and an opinion.
MediaWise is an initiative with local newspapers and new outlets, to host public events where we arm kids with the skills, tactics, techniques, and tools to better fact-check the news that they’re consuming before they pass it on. This project is going to run until the end of next year. Ideally, we would like to reach a million kids between the ages of 12 to 19. We want to reach diversity in socioeconomics, so we’re not just creating this for suburban groups or those with great access to the Internet. We want this to be all-encompassing, and want 50% of the people we touch to be those that may have less access to those resources that would help them better scrutinize the news. It’s important that everyone participates in a meaningful, honest, and truthful understanding of the news.