State Capitol Baton Rouge politics

Advocate file photo -- The Louisiana State Capitol.

Maybe you've seen a tweet from Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards linking to a publication called the Bayou Brief.

Or a Facebook post from a Republican legislator linking to a website called Watchdog.org.

As more openly partisan media outlets have grown nationally — think Fox News or MSNBC — a new crop of them is gaining traction in Louisiana.

The growth of nontraditional media outlets comes as more traditional sources have cut back on the press presence inside the State Capitol. With statewide elections a year away, it's expected that more partisan outlets will be promoted even further, as has happened on the national stage and in other states where such entities have been operating for years.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, has shared several articles from Watchdog.org with her Twitter and Facebook followers, which she acknowledged as a more conservative news outlet.

"I think it opens up the conversation so that the messaging isn't just controlled by the predominant media in the area," she said. "It gives you an opportunity to get other messages out to the public."

She said she stumbled upon the site through social media and has been contacted by phone to comment on stories.

But Hewitt said she realizes that more partisan media can also come with a price.

"Those outlets, I think, sometimes can take things too far and too personal — crossing a line that more traditional media may not," she said.

For nearly a decade, the Hayride has billed itself as Louisiana's "premier conservative political commentary site." Publisher Scott McKay did not respond to The Advocate's request for comment.

Other nontraditional media outlets have also covered the State Capitol for years but without explicit partisan tilt, including LaPolitics.com.

But this year marked the full-scale introduction of Watchdog and Bayou Brief, which have increasingly been shared by politicians via social media.

Watchdog, which is run by the nonprofit Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, isn't unique to Louisiana. It's part of a network of websites that cover state capitols across the country. Billed as "nonpartisan" on its website, it's generally seen as having a conservative bent and it has been linked to several conservative groups financially.

The Watchdog website notes that the nonprofit allows its work to be republished across "all media organizations at no cost to them" and that in other states its articles have been published by more traditional media outlets.

Chris Krug, president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, said that the organization wants to provide an outlet for more news from state capitols.

"Statehouse reporting corps have been diminished across the country," Krug said via email.

Krug said that Watchdog has only started focusing on Louisiana this year.

"We're extremely pleased with our early growth and reach in Louisiana, which is an incredibly interesting state legislative market that never lacks for news but does lack for reporters to cover it," he said. "Our team looks forward to serving readers across the beautiful Bayou State for years to come."

Currently, the reporters covering Louisiana for Watchdog are primarily based in other states, but Krug said they plan to recruit a Louisiana-based reporter and it is advertising an opening for one on its website.

A recent story on a referendum that will be on the November ballot quoted a speaker at the Baton Rouge Press Club and a Senate floor hearing that took place in April. The same reporter frequently writes about Florida issues for Watchdog.

Another recent Watchdog story was based on a joint meeting of the Senate Finance and Revenue & Fiscal Affairs committees, during which senators discussed the state's ongoing litigation stemming from the opioid epidemic. The author of that post frequently writes about Pennsylvania.

The site also often reports on national rankings from various groups and posts numbers-driven listicles – recent headline on one: "By the numbers: Delta College of Arts & Technology takes in least state student financial aid in Louisiana."

Bayou Brief, meanwhile, has become popular among a more liberal audience and has been spread by Edwards and his supporters. It has been promoted as "progressively-minded."

"What we are doing is real journalism," said founder Lamar White. "No one controls our editorial content. No one tells us what to report."

As the Louisiana Legislature cycled through three special sessions earlier this year to try to bridge the state's budget shortfall, Bayou Brief was a steady critic of House Republican leadership that was at near-constant odds with Edwards.

White has hired veteran Capitol reporter Sue Lincoln, who previously worked for WRKF radio, to be the boots on the ground for State Capitol coverage.

White said his goal is to provide insight into issues that might otherwise go unreported.

"There are a lot of stories that fall through the cracks," White said.

Financial supporters of Bayou Brief and Watchdog, operated as nonprofits, can be difficult to track.

White operates Bayou Brief as a 501(c)4 currently, which means that its donors don't have to be disclosed. White said it gives his supporters privacy.

"I am seen as a liberal, but it shouldn't be politicized," he said. "The reason people are donating is to promote quality journalism.

"They're doing this because they believe in the work they are doing and not to promote themselves," he added.

He described his donor base as 95 percent Louisiana residents and said about 5 percent could be considered "trial lawyers."

"They run the gamut from retired folks to young professionals, but they also include people all across the political spectrum," White said. "The people we take money from are principled and believe in what we are doing."


Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.