Pushing for Accountability, Driving Change
Today, thanks in-part to grant support from our Community Fund, South Dakota News Watch is an award-winning news organization that explores not only the issues we face, but also how and where we can create solutions.
We believe seeding innovation and investing in scalable solutions are key to building a thriving community. So we collaborate with civic leaders, donors and community change-makers to help champion, fuel and accelerate aspiring and innovative nonprofits that show the promise and potential to drive meaningful, measurable change. Over the years, our competitive grant-making programs have provided “start-up charitable capital” to help incubate high-impact solutions and creative ideas, quickening the pace of progress toward a brighter tomorrow.
So, when we first heard about an idea to create a nonprofit dedicated to independent, investigative, solutions-focused journalism, we knew we wanted to learn more.
We know those who are informed about the issues and challenges facing their communities are also more likely to join movements and efforts designed to bring about positive change. They’re also more likely to engage in solutions-focused dialogue. That’s central to what we do here at the Foundation.— Patrick Gale, Vice President, Community Investment
An Idea Comes to Life
In 2014, Jack Marsh and Randell Beck got to talking over coffee. The two veteran journalists were concerned about “dwindling resources dedicated to in-depth, investigative journalism throughout the country,” Marsh said.
Due to ongoing struggles within the news industry, many newsrooms are smaller and reporters are fewer. However, the issues facing our communities have never been greater, Marsh explained. The public’s growing mistrust of traditional news media combined with an explosion of misinformation being spread on social media have created what Marsh calls “a crisis in our democracy.”
“The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press and recognizes the importance of a vigilant Fourth Estate to hold our government and our institutions accountable,” Marsh said. “In South Dakota we’re fortunate to have many honorable, decent and conscientious public servants in government and holding elective office. But if you don’t have journalists out there serving in a watchdog role, bad things still can happen. We believe it is vitally important to equip citizens with the truth — with the information they need to make good decisions.”
So Marsh and Beck decided to do something. They talked with thought-leaders throughout South Dakota to determine whether their concerns were shared by others. They were. Marsh and Beck asked if the Community Foundation would provide a grant to help them explore the feasibility of creating an independent nonprofit news organization. We did. And in 2017, South Dakota News Watch was founded with a mission to produce statewide investigative and public-service journalism.
News Watch is the region’s first independent nonprofit news organization. Its operating model is distinct from most other nonprofit outlets throughout the nation.
“To maintain our credibility, we accept no advertising or financial sponsorships. All of the material we produce is available to the public free of charge. All digital, broadcast and print media in the state also are encouraged to redistribute and publish News Watch content,” Marsh said. “One thing that distinguishes us from other organizations around the country is that we work with existing media — we’re not in competition. They don’t have to pay to run our material. News Watch is a public trust, wholly dependent on voluntary donations and grants. We ask other media organizations to put aside their normal competitive instincts, to use our material, collaborate for the good of the people of South Dakota and advance better journalism. Our success and impact are due largely to the cooperative spirit and support of our media partners and colleagues.”
Working Toward Better
They say the best journalists are relentless in their pursuit of truth. It’s safe to say News Watch has been relentless in pursuit of its mission.
“Our primary mission is a better informed, more engaged citizenry for the betterment of our state,” Marsh said. “We think that will lead to a healthier society and will certainly lead to a more robust and well functioning democracy in South Dakota.”
Since its launch, thanks in part to additional grant support from the Community Foundation, News Watch has become an award-winning news organization, publishing nearly 300 in-depth stories examining complex issues across a broad range of topics. It’s also making a difference. Since 2018, News Watch investigations have prompted dozens of legislative bills intended to improve the lives of South Dakotans.
But News Watch is about far more than just investigating and reporting on the challenges facing our community. It’s also about finding solutions. While they dig deep to research challenges and push for accountability, News Watch reporters also are working to explore solutions and engage the public through online forums and town hall-style discussions focused on community problem-solving.
Heightening Accountability, Driving Change
In 2018, content director Bart Pfankuch was working on a story for South Dakota News Watch when he got an email that made his stomach drop.
The message was from a parent whose child had been a resident at the Aurora Plains Academy, an intensive residential treatment facility for youths and young adults experiencing mental illness and emotional challenges, as well as other issues such as conduct problems, learning difficulties and chemical abuse. The email alleged that residents of the facility, located in Plankinton, S.D., had been subject to physical, mental and sexual abuse by staff members.
Desperate for change and accountability, the parent asked if South Dakota News Watch could investigate the issue.
For Pfankuch and the team at News Watch, the request aligned not only with its mission to report untold stories to help South Dakotans be informed and engaged citizens, but also with its vision for the future of journalism: Journalism for the public good. Journalism that not only asks questions and uncovers challenges, but also shows potential ways to respond. Journalism that is solution-focused.
“I refer to it as covering problems, but seeking solutions,” Pfankuch said.
In the case of the Aurora Plains Academy, News Watch did just that.
After spending six months digging into public records and conducting on-the-record interviews with former residents, parents and former employees, the News Watch investigation showed that hundreds of child-abuse or -neglect complaints were filed against the academy over the last decade. However, only 39 of those were investigated by the state, and only four corrective-action reports were issued. Furthermore, the investigation illustrated how a culture of secrecy and a lack of oversight allowed the abuse to continue.
Beyond reporting on just the issue, the series also included outside viewpoints on industry best practices, including those of the National Juvenile Justice Network, a nonprofit that studies treatment options and resident safety at for-profit, private operations such as Aurora Plains, as well as publicly owned and overseen facilities.
When the story ran in news outlets across the state, the public’s reaction was swift and strong.
And as a result, changes were made.
“Governor Kristi Noem (outlined plans for) unannounced inspections going forward. She also changed the way the oversight was handled,” Pfankuch said.
“For me, that story was a real breakthrough. It was a real investigative piece that told a story that could really help people,” he said. “We’re trying to bring that to almost every story. Looking forward and asking, ‘How can this be better?’ Rather than just parachuting in and saying, ‘Here’s a problem,’ — that’s very easy to do. It’s pushing to consider things such as, ‘Where is it working?’ or ‘Where is a problem like this being solved, how did that happen, how is that measured, and can that be replicated?’”
Pfankuch said a relationship with Solutions Journalism Network has helped News Watch to consistently look forward in its investigations. The nonprofit offers training and resources to help journalists “rebalance the news, so that every day people are exposed to stories that help them understand problems and challenges, and stories that show potential ways to respond.”
Look forward is exactly what News Watch reporter Danielle Ferguson did for a story she researched on the shrinking availability of ambulances in rural areas of South Dakota.
Ferguson’s investigation found that most of South Dakota’s ambulance services are staffed with at least some volunteer labor. In rural communities, where most EMTs are older than 45, younger volunteers are not stepping in to replace those who retire. The pandemic also affected the volunteer EMT force. One Department of Health estimate noted a 30 percent decrease in the state’s active EMT workforce due to volunteers’ concerns about contracting COVID-19 or one of its variants.
Ferguson researched the issue from all sides, talking with EMTs and community members on the ground in small towns across the state. She spoke with state officials about future plans for funding and staffing emergency medical services. And she learned about efforts to make education and training more accessible for EMS workers, as well as a push to educate the public about how to prevent common injuries to help limit ambulance calls.
For Ferguson, working on the story was an opportunity to investigate a complex issue affecting thousands of people.
“There aren’t many people who are able and/or willing to volunteer for their local ambulance service. But if you’re 50 miles from the nearest hospital, who’s going to help you in an emergency?” Ferguson said. She explained that News Watch doesn’t cover breaking news. Therefore, it doesn’t operate under the same time frames and news cycles as traditional news media, and she had the time to dig deeply into the issue.
“I had time to take a look at this and talk to people all over the state about what they were experiencing and what they think needs to change,” she said.
Gauging Opinion, Convening Discussion, Sparking Dialogue
Beyond its investigative reporting, News Watch works to gauge public opinion on a variety of topics through polling. In addition, the organization convenes virtual public forums through an initiative called South Dakota Matters.
“We’ll do an in-depth piece on a topic and then we’ll have a panel discussion about it, bringing in some experts who represent different perspectives on the issue. People can participate on Zoom, or watch on Facebook Live or YouTube,” Marsh said. Each forum is archived, so people can watch anytime.
Pfankuch said the discussions allow issues to be discussed at deeper levels, from all angles.
“When we can bring experts in to discuss these issues, while allowing for public input and questions from people across the state, with the help of Zoom and other technology, we can go more in-depth,” he said. “The panel discussions have been an important part of our evolution as conveners — convening communities of interest to see what’s beyond the surface.”
News Watch also has developed a partnership with the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota to conduct two major scientific polls each year.
“We stay away from political polling,” Marsh said. “We do polling on relevant, timely issues. Chiesman helps us write the instrument, and from there we work with a research firm to do the scientific survey. The folks at USD check the validity of the poll. We’re confident that the poll captures a true snapshot of public attitudes and opinions.”
“I think the polls have allowed us to cut through what might be a dominant rhetoric that’s out there and find out what people across the state actually think. There tends to be, here and everywhere, dominant voices that get heard, and there’s also this view of news where people are selecting the news they want to see that agrees with their pre-existing values. Our polling has allowed us to move beyond that and show that not everyone is thinking the same way about things. It’s really allowed us to extend our reach and our ability to look for the truth, explore what people are really thinking and what’s happening at the ground level across the state.”
Funding Transformative Ideas
For Andy Patterson, president of the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation, the idea for News Watch aligns well with the Foundation’s mission.
“We believe we have a responsibility to champion ideas and movements that have the potential to make our community even better. So we make it a point to step forward to fund transformative ideas that show the potential to effect meaningful change,” he said. “Independent, investigative and solutions-focused journalism has the power to do just that."
Believing in the concept of News Watch and seeing its potential for widespread social impact, the Community Foundation awarded News Watch an initial grant to support a feasibility study that helped the organization officially launch. Another grant in 2018 provided support as the organization solidified its infrastructure, strengthened its financials and began to spread its wings. And a recent grant helped the organization to launch its South Dakota Matters initiative for public engagement.
The support from the Community Foundation has been critical to News Watch’s success, Marsh said.
“Somebody had to take a chance on us, initially. And the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation was among those that gave us a shot,” he said.
“The philanthropic spirit in the Sioux Falls area is extraordinary. The Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation has played a key role in that,” Marsh said. “Imagine how different this community would be if we didn’t have the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation. The Foundation is a major player, along with the Chamber, incredible corporate and community leaders and those dedicated to public service, in advancing this community for the betterment of all. The Foundation deserves enormous credit for encouraging good corporate citizenship as well as individual philanthropy.”
Community Spirit Award
In recognition of its work to inform and engage South Dakotans, as well as its efforts to inspire solutions for the future, South Dakota News Watch is the recipient of the Foundation’s 2021 Community Spirit Award, an honor that recognizes a grantee that has used its grant to drive change, engage in dialogue and spark new ideas, making an extraordinary impact throughout the community we call home. Learn more.