Anne Schieber, Jarrett Skorup, Tom Gantert and Michael Reitz
From left to right: Reporters Anne Schieber, Jarrett Skorup, Tom Gantert and Mackinac Center Executive Vice President Michael Reitz

When Michigan Capitol Confidential made its debut in 2010, the traditional media didn’t know what to make of it. I know because I was in the traditional media at the time. I remember thinking “who was this usurper, should they be feared or dismissed?” In any case, there was envy. CapCon was exposing stories I wish I had. 

I now write and produce videos for CapCon and see things from a different perspective. One of the first things I noticed was the freedom I had in covering news, and not because the Mackinac Center was all about promoting freedom. Traditional reporters and editors don’t discuss it openly, but there is a line to toe between courting a source and offending one. 

With dwindling resources, traditional journalists are expected to fill large holes with very little time. The last thing you want is to bite the hand that feeds you. A good example is crime. Crime stories are easy and compelling filler, but reporters are at the mercy of law enforcement for much of the information. Pity the reporter who writes a critical story ­— you can kiss those call-backs goodbye. It was true for most sources of news, especially politicians. They fed you stories and you paid them back with the benefit of the doubt.

“We’re breaking stories that the traditional media is being forced to follow, and we’re investigating issues that are important to taxpayers across Michigan,” said CapCon Managing Editor Manny Lopez. “Our stories are important and readers appreciate what we’re doing.”

The beauty of CapCon is the freedom from these restraints, but its place is something traditional reporters still struggle with. Is CapCon a competitor or an ally? Is it a provocateur, keeping traditional reporters on their toes by pointing out factual errors in their stories, as was the case recently with education funding? At one point, some in the media referred to CapCon as a “newsletter,” suggesting it is nothing more than a mouthpiece of free market ideology.

The answer to the above questions is “yes.” Having a point of view no longer is a sin. Pretending you don’t have one is. CapCon does everything traditional media does or should be doing — getting the facts from all sides, double checking sources, being fair and accurate. Ideologically, it is non-partisan despite what detractors say. It is different because it introduces a perspective so often ignored.

All of this makes CapCon’s recognition by the Detroit chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists so momentous. These were awarded “by outside judges who are looking at quality of journalism, not where it came from,” as the Mackinac Center’s Marketing and Communications Team Leader Dan Armstrong put it. And this came on the heels of two awards CapCon received from the Michigan Press Association last year.

At the SPJ’s “Excellence in Journalism” dinner in April, I was honored with three other members of the CapCon staff. Jarrett Skorup won second place in the “Consumer/ Watchdog” category for his stories on corporate welfare, asset forfeiture laws and government waste. Jack Spencer was recognized for his coverage of lawmakers trying to define for the purposes of regulation what a journalist is. Tom Gantert won third place for his coverage of unions. Judges called his work: “strong, persistent reporting. Great series of stories on an issue that the reporter makes clear…tough dogged work.”

The judges honored my work on a series in print and video on tax assessor attempts to invade private property. The reports led to the introduction of two bills in the Legislature, something that might not have happened had I not had the time and support for such an investigation.