New developments arise from ideas that only later are given their names. The Mackinac Center added short-form journalism to its communications arsenal more than a decade ago, but we practice it in a very particular way. Michigan Capitol Confidential, or CapCon, is its name, but “impact journalism” describes the way we do it.
Impact journalism is news that advances our policy aims. Many things are newsworthy, interesting, titillating, or even important, but not everything we could publish in CapCon moves the policy needle.
Our job as a think tank is to shift the Overton Window — the range of acceptable public policies — by informing and educating the public, and working with government officials who enact our ideas into law.
Our free-market ideas result in superior economic and social outcomes for all people. Our research demonstrates this in depth, and our litigation can force an issue when policymakers dig in their heels. But only so many people will read studies, and only so many lawsuits can be filed, so we created CapCon to reach vast audiences more quickly.
A huge CapCon audience does little to accomplish our mission if we publish stories on subjects outside our mission, or serve up clickbait. We’ve insisted that CapCon would publish only stories that “do Mackinac work.” That phrase, offered by my colleague Jack McHugh, has become CapCon’s true north.
CapCon Managing Editor Tom Gantert grasped this and made sure that each of our news stories passed through the filter of “Will this do Mackinac work?” Of course, stories have to pass tests of newsworthiness and uniqueness, too. Tom never wanted to publish something already covered elsewhere.
CapCon was doing impact journalism a decade before it had a name. Ballotpedia founder Leslie Graves saw the value of our approach, and she’s the first one I heard name our technique “impact journalism.” Leslie told us it’s fair to call it “impact journalism” when there’s a causal relationship between one or more news stories and a move in policy in our preferred direction.
Examples include ending the SEIU dues skim against vulnerable people, changing a legacy media false narrative regarding then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s education budgets, ending corporate welfare blowouts, and many more.
The Mackinac Center wasn’t the very first state think tank to add a journalism arm, but we were one of the first. Soon after, seemingly dozens of others were launched but none of them achieved our success and most of them faded. I think the difference is impact journalism — the intent to focus only on stories that do Mackinac work — and the discipline to avoid sensationalism and remain silent on topics outside our expertise.
Others have noticed Tom’s acuity. He will soon export himself and impact journalism to our friends at The Center Square, a multistate news service. Meanwhile, a generous supporter is matching $3 million in gifts other donors give to support our new Frank Beckmann Center for Journalism, which includes CapCon.
We may be outgunned by institutions pushing more government and less freedom. But the $3 million matching gift and our leadership in impact journalism mean we’ll keep shifting the Overton Window in the right direction.