Watchdog.org is a network of American news websites that features reporting on state and local government from a conservative perspective. It is a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, an online news organization. Watchdog posts stories on Watchdog websites and syndicates them. Watchdog broke the story of the phantom congressional districts in the wake of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Watchdog.org's stated mission is "to restore oversight of our state governments, to hold politicians and bureaucrats at all levels accountable for their handling of taxpayers’ dollars and to promote individual liberty and free markets." Watchdog's websites reflect a focus on government waste and public employee unions. Columbia Journalism Review said the productivity of the Watchdog sites was "impressive," and noted the commitment to original news reporting, as opposed to news aggregation or punditry.
Watchdog.org is a project of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. The Franklin Center received 95% of its 2011 revenue from the donor-advised fund Donors Trust. Watchdog.org has state-based investigative reporters in more than 40 states. In 2012, Watchdog had sites in 18 states. In 2014, the Franklin Center said they had one reporter in each of 14 state capitols and two in Nebraska and Virginia. Most of the Watchdog sites have one staff reporter in addition to accepting contributions from citizen journalists via a platform called Watchdog Wire.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism of the Pew Research Center surveyed and analyzed nonprofit news organizations active on the state or national level in 2011 and again in 2013. The studies found that the most consistently ideological of the news outlets were those that were organized in networks, specifically the conservative Watchdog network and the liberal American Independent News Network.
Reporting on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
In 2009, Watchdog New Mexico analyzed data published in the $84 million website, Recovery.gov, regarding the stimulus expenditures authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. A series of articles were published on the stimulus topic, initially examining the number of jobs created and the cost per-job, but the conversation turned to the revelation that $6.4 billion in grants had been awarded in 440 non-existent congressional districts:
- November 15
- Jim Scarantino updates his earlier reporting, finding that stimulus spending has reached nearly $314,000 per job created in New Mexico.
- November 16
- Scarantino reports that millions of dollars of federal stimulus funds are allocated to projects in congressional districts that do not exist; for example, to the twenty-second congressional district in New Mexico, although New Mexico has just three congressional districts.
- Ed Pound, Director of Communications for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board goes on record with Michael Noyes of Watchdog Montana. Pound states that the stimulus recipients made these data entry errors and confirmed the $84 million budget for the Recovery.gov website.
- ABC News publishes a story targeting other states and territories, "Exclusive: Jobs 'Saved or Created' in Congressional Districts That Don't Exist", also quoting Ed Pound.
- November 17
- Scarantino does a follow-up story, referencing Watchdog National reporter Bill McMorris' findings that $6.4 billion was distributed to 440 non-existent congressional districts. McMorris also found that nationally, just under 30,000 jobs had been created, at a cost of just under $225,000 each. Both November 17, Watchdog articles note that Ed Pound had been contacted for clarification on the congressional districts data errors on the day prior.
- November 18
- The Associated Press, via CBS News, confirms that Scarantino's discovery and original reporting is correct. Scarantino states, "I'm not going to say it went into a black hole," but adds that non-existent congressional districts are a "huge red flag," when asked if people are using the data discrepancy to suggest loss or misuse, "They should do some of their own research," he replied.
- November 19
- A similar, but abbreviated version of the Associated Press article, is posted by the Deseret News. This article also names Scarantino and makes the same statement about the correctness of his reporting, but does not contain the majority of Scarantino's quotes carried in the ABC News story posted the prior day. The author, Matt Apuzzo, fact-checks the "phantom congressional district" story by tracking down the addresses for two grant recipients, one with an errant zip-code and one from a faulty numbered congressional districts.
- December 7
- Reuters' James Pethokoukis independently validates the cost per stimulus job "saved or created" at $246,436. Pethokoukis calculates the average salary paid per stimulus job is $59,867 when annualized.
- May 2010
- Writing for the Washington Monthly, Laura McGann infers that ABC News scooped the "phantom congressional districts" story as an exclusive without attribution to the Watchdog; although similar, the ABC News story covers different localities. Referencing Apuzzo's AP story, McGann concludes: “The problem was simply that a handful of the local government agencies and nonprofits that had received stimulus funds had mistyped the zip codes when they entered information about their projects into the federal database.”
- CapitolBeatOK (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)
- Florida Watchdog
- Illinois Watchdog
- Iowa Watchdog
- Kansas Watchdog
- Missouri Watchdog
- Montana Watchdog
- Nebraska Watchdog
- New Jersey Watchdog
- New Mexico Watchdog
- Ohio Watchdog
- Oklahoma Watchdog
- Old Dominion Watchdog (Richmond, Virginia)
- Pennsylvania Independent
- Tennessee Watchdog
- West Virginia Watchdog
- Wisconsin Watchdog