2020 General Excellence in Online Journalism, Small Newsroom finalist

Spotlight PA

About the Project

Nine months ago, we launched the most ambitious collaborative journalism project in Pennsylvania’s history: a digital-first newsroom producing accountability reporting about state government and urgent state-wide issues. Today, Spotlight PA is ubiquitous across the state, with our stories appearing on the front page of big-city newspapers from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and on hyperlocal rural news websites from Lebanon to Clarion counties – and, most importantly, driving meaningful policy change in Harrisburg.

Spotlight PA brought a much-needed infusion of talent into a Capitol newsroom that had become nearly empty over the years, despite the fact that the Pennsylvania legislature is one of the biggest and costliest in the nation and the state has some of the nation’s most opaque public-records laws. Spotlight PA’s coverage is filling this yawning gap in a big way, connecting Pennsylvanians to their government with fact-based, non-partisan journalism.

Without Spotlight PA, Pennsylvanians wouldn’t know that the State Police had stopped recording the race of drivers it pulls over – a key indicator in detecting potential racial profiling. Or that state lawmakers had hidden millions of dollars in campaign spending on trips to Europe, sports tickets, and golf club memberships. Or that Pennsylvania had a plan to protect nursing home residents from the coronavirus but never fully implemented it – now, 70% of the state’s virus-related deaths are in nursing homes.

Spotlight PA’s innovative use of online technology has enabled us to create a pioneering, innovative model for statehouse journalism. Our tech director built a unique story portal that enables our partner news outlets to seamlessly republish our stories across the state – as one lawmaker put it, Spotlight PA’s work is “everywhere.” Spotlight PA’s online reader engagement – via reader tip widgets that feed responses directly into our internal Slack – has led Spotlight PA’s journalists to vital sources and under-covered issues.

Spotlight PA’s work is also garnering attention on the national level. Our series on campaign spending, with The Caucus, was a finalist for an Investigative Reporters and Editors award and a Toner Prize for Excellence in Local Political Reporting. (Locally, it won the John V.R. Bull Freedom of Information Award from the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.)

Our editor in chief has spoken about Spotlight PA’s groundbreaking model in Nieman Reports, the International Journalists’ Network and on NHK World Prime.

In Pennsylvania, Spotlight PA lifts up the media ecosystem not only through distributing its stories (at no cost), but also through sharing resources, trainings, and directly collaborating on projects. This spring, Spotlight PA coordinated Central PA media’s coverage of the state’s response to the pandemic: local news outlets contributed three additional reporters to our team, so that we could all provide robust coverage and avoid duplication.

As Pennsylvania continues to grapple with the virus and its consequences – in addition to ongoing, deep-seated issues like police brutality – Spotlight PA is shining a light into the darkest corners of the state, holding the powerful to account, and driving meaningful change for all Pennsylvanians.