Conservative Heritage Foundation starts online site to cover news

The Washington PostJune 2, 2014 

— It’s not enough to be a newsmaker these days, as the conservative Heritage Foundation surely has been with its vigorous opposition to federal budget deficits, Obamacare, immigrant “amnesty” and same-sex marriage.

Nowadays, you have to cover the news, too. Or so says the Heritage Foundation, which on Tuesday will start doing just that.

Call it think-tank journalism, or maybe just journalism. Heritage is calling it the Daily Signal, the Washington policy organization’s online helping of the day’s news, reported and edited straight up, the site’s architects promise.

“Our sense is there are a lot of really good stories that go unreported or under-reported,” says Geoff Lysaught, the site’s publisher and Heritage’s vice president of strategic communications. “Our whole role here is to make sure that the facts find their way into the light.”

Hence, Tuesday’s debut edition, which features an exclusive story by former CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson about government-funded medical research on premature babies. The article contends that researchers may have violated federal requirements on informed consent. (Attkisson’s work on medical topics has been controversial; medical experts criticized her reporting in 2012 about a purported link between vaccines and autism.) The site also has an interview with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, R, about the federal health-care law’s impact on his state,and a first-person account by Heritage President Jim DeMint about his recent trip to Korea’s demilitarized zone.

Plus, video featurettes and a daily infographic – just like many other news sites.

Which is kind of the point. The journalism has to be “fair, factual and trustworthy,” as Editor Rob Bluey puts it, to have credibility not just with Heritage’s 600,000 donors and members, but with the wider audience that DeMint, a Republican former senator from South Carolina, hopes to reach. The Signal’s news reporting, in effect, will act as a sweetener to bring conservatives, moderates and even liberals to the Heritage-friendly commentary that will be part of the site.

Bluey and other members of the Signal’s news team acknowledge that there are plenty of places to get a conservative take on the news (a partial list: The Blaze, the Daily Caller, the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, Breitbart.com, the Washington Free Beacon, the Drudge Report, Newsmax, the Weekly Standard, National Review, and a certain TV network that promises to be fair and balanced).

The Signal will have a small staff – 12 journalists to start – and a relatively small budget of $1 million a year. The site does not accept advertising, yet Lysaught figures the site can find its niche. “We want to be where the news gets its news,” he says. “We want to see a world where Fox, MSNBC, CNN, The Washington Post and the New York Times are reporting on the things that were first reported on the Daily Signal.”

The Signal’s precursor – a Heritage blog called the Foundry – has had a couple of greatest hits. In November, Bluey and reporter Kelsey Harris were tipped by a North Carolina man, Justin Hadley, about a privacy breach that occurred when he tried to use the HealthCare.gov website. The story resonated among conservatives and was picked up by more than a dozen news outlets, including the Drudge Report and Fox News’s “Special Report.”

In February, News Editor Ken McIntyre began relentlessly covering President Barack Obama’s pick to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division, Debo Adegbile. McIntyre’s stories emphasized Adegbile’s work defending convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, stirring strong Republican opposition. The Senate eventually blocked Adegbile’s nomination.

The Foundry will disappear with the advent of the Daily Signal, but its following – some 2.6 million unique visitors last month – are likely to gravitate to its replacement.

Although DeMint has pledged to stay out of editorial decisions, the Signal’s challenge will be to separate itself from its benefactor’s stated mission, which is to promote conservative public policies.

Most of the staff is drawn from news organizations with conservative leanings. McIntyre worked for two decades at the Washington Times; Bluey hails from Human Events (which describes itself as “the nation’s leading conservative voice”) and CNS News, an offshoot of Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center. Managing Editor Katrina Trinko joined in January from the National Review, the magazine founded by William F. Buckley. Other staff members come from Fox News and the Washington Examiner.

So far, the Signal’s news agenda doesn’t stray very far from Heritage’s policy agenda. The core of the Signal’s editorial staff, meeting Monday in the organization’s headquarters near Capitol Hill, showed a visitor an early version of the site. A news bar at the top displayed four “themes” that the staff expects to cover in depth: the Common Core educational standards, Obamacare, Benghazi and cronyism.

The four topics have been meat and potatoes for Heritage’s analysts. Cronyism refers to cronyism at the Export-Import Bank, which provides government-backed loans to foreign firms to enable them to buy American exports. The bank was the subject of a blistering Heritage report on Friday.

Still, Bluey hopes to reach beyond the people who already support Heritage.

“We’re probably not going to break through to the liberal left,” he says. “We do think that by doing the news, and having that wall between news and opinion, there is an opportunity to reach beyond” the foundation’s core audience.

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