News in Nebraska with Matt Wynn of the Flatwater Free Press
A new nonprofit journalism outlet will help to fill gaps in Nebraska’s media market by telling statewide stories and improving government transparency. Former USA Today and Omaha World-Herald data journalist Matt Wynn discusses the launch of The Flatwater Free Press.
Jim Vokal: My guest today is the Executive Director of a new Nebraska-based nonprofit journalism outlet, The Flatwater Free Press, which is launching in September of 2021. You might also know him from previous work at USA Today and the Omaha World-Herald. I worked with Matt when I was on the city council a little bit and subsequent to that, Matt Wynn, thanks for joining me today.
Matt Wynn: Thanks so much for having me, pleasure to be here.
Jim Vokal: All right, so I should let people know when we get started here that the Platte Institute is actually one of the sponsors of the Flatwater Free Press and the reason is pretty simple. As we all know, the media landscape in the state has gone through tremendous changes in recent years, and the need for reporting on issues statewide is greater than ever before.
Can you maybe share with our listeners how things are changing in the news field and what spurred the creation of the Flatwater Free Press?
Matt Wynn: Sure. You know, it’s not surprising, I think to any of us who have seen our news coverage change, have seen our paper get smaller, or you know our TV news get a little less impactful, but media jobs in Nebraska are down 52% over the past 20 years. We have less than half the reporting firepower that we did as a state in 2002. That’s astonishing. That is in the face of general growth—our population has grown, other employment has grown, and yet our ability to tell the stories of what’s happening here is at, you know, historically low levels. And that hurts us all.
That that impacts the understanding that we have of the place we are. It means holding truth to power—something that’s near and dear to my heart—is harder and harder to make happen, right? The newsonomics has changed such a degree that if you’re doing a story, you’ve got to be sure that it’s going to draw clicks, right? That’s sort of the way that I was measured at USA Today, and that’s the way that a lot of media is measured.
And it leads to a different kind of work, so I think it’s important, it’s vital for us to build that back, and I think the answer is something new. That business model, that advertising business model, is not really serving us. They had a great run, right? Hell of a run. But it’s not there anymore, and so I saw the philanthropy-based nonprofit newsroom project really take off in 2008, 2009, around the time, interestingly, that Nebraska’s media employment really fell off the cliff. At the time, 27 nonprofit newsrooms started up. They got together, they said we think this is important, and we’re going to make it happen.
That was 2008. Those have grown to 330 nonprofit, independent nonprofit, newsrooms around the country, be they at the state-level, the city-level, the neighborhood-level, some kind of region. But they’ve shown that this is sustainable and that it works, and we’re kind of honored to be able to follow in their footsteps to make it happen here in the Good Life.
Jim Vokal: And I think you and I can agree that a lot of Americans right now feel unheard by the media, and I’m not just talking about conservatives who feel that there’s fake news, or the press has a leftward bias. Your industry often has the same issues as people in many public roles where a group that is not necessarily a mirror image of its community has a job of covering audiences with many different backgrounds and perspectives. Your team today has been reaching out and doing a lot of listening to get started, right? What have you learned about your challenges in these areas to this point?
Matt Wynn: Wow, we bit off a lot here. I mean, really, that’s it. We have an obligation to tell people’s stories. One thing that I think both Matthew, our editor, and I are committed to is letting people tell their stories through us and building a staff around that so you know we are committed to it.
We’re going to make this happen. We’re going to speak for people, we’re going to give them the bullhorn that we have our at our disposal, and let them use it for themselves. I think a little bit of humility also goes a long way, and given some of the kind of flowery language I’ve used, that might sound shocking, but we know that we can’t do everything. We know there’s a lot we don’t know. I think admitting that and being upfront about that—being honest about it—is how we’re going to make something that really lasts and matters.
Jim Vokal: I appreciate that. So let’s talk about the first product your team and the Platte Institute are going to be working on together, and that’s about government transparency. It’s an important principle not only at the Platte Institute but broadly in the tradition of U.S. media, however, some of the transparency resources that you and I have seen in the past are no longer available in Nebraska and have been cut back. What’s the Flatwater Free Press planning to do in the area of transparency?
Matt Wynn: Yeah…this goes back to when you and I first worked together, right? This is something that’s been near and dear to my heart for as long as I’ve been in the game. I’m a data journalist, right, my expertise is in acquiring giant piles of data, analyzing them, and finding out what they say. That is a skill unto itself, and I recognize that, and what I do is turn that into a story then that gets told to people.
One of the first stories I ever did using data journalism was about gas pumps, right? And this is so nerdy, and when you go and you use a gas pump, you put it in your car and it says “okay we’ve pumped one gallon, two gallons,” and we just kind of assume—we trust that it is measuring that accurately, right?
Turns out, it doesn’t. And there’s actually a state agency that’s devoted to going out there and measuring, is this actually measuring a gallon when it says this measuring gallon? If not, how far is it off, and then fixing that, holding them accountable. So, I did that story and you know, it was a story. It was text. I was able to say the worst gas pump in Nebraska was out in west Omaha. It was off by some massive amounts, and that would have robbed people dozens of dollars over the course of a tank of gas.
But what I wasn’t able to do…is what about the gas station that I go to all the time? How are they doing? The one by my parents’ house, right, how is that faring? And so that really is the power, I think, of transparency and, you know, public information outside of the data form. It’s not about what me, Journalist Matt brings to the table, and what I think is most interesting, what the data says is most interesting, it’s about you bringing your context and what you see.
So something that we’re working on together here is a public salary transparency project. That’s step one. I think it’ll be the first volley, and hopefully many to come, but the idea is these people work for us, right? State government is employees paid for by our tax money, and we should see how it’s being spent. We put in a records request to the Department of Administration Services, I believe it’s called, for the payrolls over the past year, and they shared that to their credit. We did ask for some additional information about, you know, overtime, second vacation payouts, other components of pay—uniform pay, these sorts of things, and that was denied. We’re working with the governor’s office to see if there’s any motion there. I fully believe that the public records law tells us that fiscal information is beyond the pale public. Anything about how our taxpayer dollars are spent should be public and held accountable, that’s if there’s one thing the government has to show us, it’s how they’re spending their money.
Jim Vokal: Absolutely.
Matt Wynn: So I hope they’ll come around on that but the idea is to give something that people can use to find out what you and I both know about how that money’s being spent, you know what it’s being invested into, what departments make up most of the money, and kind of what their shape is, right? What their belt curve is, it mostly entry-level, mostly people at the tail-end of their careers? That sort of thing. I’m really excited about it.
Jim Vokal: OK, you just started to walk us down the road of some of the challenges that you’ve faced with your team gathering information. Is there anything you think people who care about government transparency might like to know about what the work process looks like for journalists who are trying to hold government accountable? Can you expand on where you just started?
Matt Wynn: Yeah, I mean…everything that we do is based on data and documents. There’s a kind of journalism that’s about “Yeah, Joe Blow said this,” and now I’m publishing it, and it’s Joe Blow saying this, and that’s the story. That’s not going to do it. We have this entire, you know, set up with government. A reporter, Mike McGrath at the Kansas City Star [says] government is fantastic at tracking things and terrible about reading what it’s tracking, right? That’s where journalism steps in. Anything that, I mean God, those guys who are tracking does a pump actually measure a gallon out when it says—there’s a record created every time they do that, it’s input into a computer, there’s entire staff based on making sure that we’re all getting what we paid for. That’s probably good, that’s valuable government service that they’re offering there. But then there’s no, right, secondary process. So part of the fun of being in journalism is finding those things, finding those rich resources that are being created by our taxpayer dollars, and telling the stories that that they give us, sharing the information that’s locked in there.
And it can be really wide, right? Public emails, I think a lot of people understand now that any elected official, their email is public. Text messages, there was that brouhaha a couple years ago with the World-Herald and Mayor Stothert where they proved that text messages are indeed public information. But it goes beyond that, it’s calendars, it’s finding out where our public resources intersect, with, you know, the carrying out of public duties is a rich way for us to tell stories that don’t rely on someone telling us that they exist, right? Getting those source documents, getting that source data finding out what the evidence tells us, I get real—I don’t even need a cup of coffee when i start talking about this stuff—this is exciting, that’s why I got into this business, and what I’m so excited about doing here in Nebraska again.
Jim Vokal: Yeah, we’re excited to partner with you on the transparency side of it, and just what your future holds. All right, let’s talk some current events, and bring it back to Nebraska. Just this week we saw Cubans take the streets, right, in defiance of a communist government that doesn’t tolerate freedom of expression or press like we have in in the United States. In their state-run media in Cuba it’s unlawful to criticize the government, and you can’t find the perspectives of the protesters themselves as we can do here in the states. All right, this may sound far off for you or for those that are listening who have never lived under this kind of regime, but how does an event like this strike you when it comes to freedom of the press and freedom of expression?
Matt Wynn: I guess I just feel grateful. And maybe, I don’t mean to be evasive, but we are lucky that we have the protections we have for press, for expressions, that we can have protests take place. And I sometimes take that for granted. I think we all sometimes take that for granted, but we have everything we need to be informed, to be clued in to how this government works for us. Again, I keep saying that, I’m a broken record, but it’s true—they work for us, not vice versa as in some of these places. I hope that I can always remember that, I think that’s something that I want to keep in the forefront of my mind more often. This is a privilege—it’s a privilege—to be in a position to do what we do here, to do what we can do.
Jim Vokal: Absolutely, you’ve got a bright future ahead at Flatwater Free Press. How can our listeners and our audience get involved in your organization, either as readers, sponsors, people who share their stories, contributors? Why don’t you walk us through what that looks like?
Matt Wynn: Yeah, that that would be great. I mean, we are building this to be a uniquely Nebraska newsroom, we want to reflect every walk of life in Nebraska. We want we want story ideas, right, we’ve got a staff of two right now, we will have a staff of five in a couple weeks, we’re going to need ideas from people beyond our little worldview, from across the state. And so, you know ,one thing that I ask people to give us is story ideas. We need to know what needs digging, what we can look into. We have an email set up around that: it’s tips at flatwaterfreepress.org. We are looking for freelancers. If you’ve got a story that you want to pitch us or if you just have an expertise that you think should be someone that we reach out to for a story, or if you’re just in a place where people who can tell a story are hard to find, get in touch. Our website is nebraskajournalismtrust.org, which is actually our kind of corporate entity, and there we have a Work With Us page where we’re listing freelancers across the state to tell us what they want to cover and be available to us if there’s a place that we can’t get to that has a story that needs to be told. Those are two really key ways.
Also on that website you’ll be able to sign up for our newsletter. We just sent out our first communication today, kind of stay tuned with where we are in the process, what our timeline is, how we get the next steps. We’re also hiring. We are, like I said, looking to add two or three reporters to the staff, explicitly solely investigative reporters who have a track record of digging into documents, data, and telling stories that don’t land in their laps, right?
Between those things, if we can really build something that I think your listeners—we want to hear from them—your listeners especially are clued into policy and public information and the way government works. And that’s near and dear to my heart, that’s the place where we want to be causing trouble, so anything that they have, we want to hear it.
Jim Vokal: Yeah, what we found here at the Platte Institute the best way to talk about policy is through the stories of Nebraskans across the state, and how it impacts their lives, so I think it’s so critical that you get that outreach to the public. What else, Matt? What should the public know about Flatwater Free Press, challenges, opportunities, anything else that you want our audience to know about today?
Matt Wynn: I mean just a little bit of, you know, 10,000 foot how we’re building this. This is not just a standalone, we will have a website, right? Flatwaterfreepress.org is launching in September, you’ll be able to go there and see all of our content, but we also realize that part of our promise is collaboration.
We are going to distribute all of our content at no charge to every member of the Nebraska Press Association, that’s 120 daily, weekly, newspapers across the state we’re working with News Channel Nebraska…we’re going to do kind of video feeds anytime we do a major piece so that their audience, be it on TV or radio, can hear what we’re up to. We’ve got partners on, again, across the spectrum, radio, print, TV, other online entities. Not that everyone’s going to print everything—print is the wrong word, publish everything—that we write, but they will have the opportunity to do that, and we’re keen to find further partners in that, so you will see our stories.
The idea is to uncouple journalism from distribution, that’s what we’re promising here, and that’s the idea, and I think it’s needed, I think it’s a way to make this work. Another thing that I would toss out there is while I get really passionate about the investigative side of things another thing that we bring to the table is just good storytelling, human interest stories, features, that sort of thing. I think about this is lifting up stories of Nebraskans who are showcasing what it means to be Nebraskan, and the way that I kind of make that work with our investigations, and I think it does work, is both of those are Nebraska at its best.
Investigations are holding our systems to their highest standards making sure they work as they should, for who they should, and feature stories, human interest stories, are the other side of that. Who are the people that we should be looking to and learning from, and lifting up, and just telling their stories, is so powerful. So again, if we have that freelance thing, if there are people in your audience who are just storytellers, we’d love to hear from you.
Jim Vokal: Matt, I couldn’t say that better than you did. Thank you for joining me today and thank you for your leadership with the Flatwater Free Press. I wish you much success in the future and look forward to partnering with you.
Matt Wynn: We are so excited to be working with you. Congratulations on everything you’ve built, and yeah, I can’t wait to look forward to work with you in the future. Thanks for having me.