Today we’re announcing Sludge, a news website that will expose the hidden influence of lobbyists and special interests in the creation of public policy.
Sludge has been selected to be part of the “First Fleet” of newsrooms on Civil, a journalism startup that uses blockchain technology to guard against censorship and facilitate self-governance among reporters and communities. The Civil platform will allow Sludge to have independence from institutional funders and advertisers and build a closer relationship to the audience that the reporting will serve.
Sludge will focus on the shadowy ways that special interests have captured America’s political system, looking beyond traditional lobbying disclosures and campaign contributions to reveal the hidden networks and conflicts of interest that drive systemic corruption.
We’ll cover the ways industries launder their agendas through independent groups, the power maps of corporate networks that extend deep into government, how concentrated economic powers dictate public policy, and more. We’ll scour public records and databases, but our primary focus will be all the ways money influences politics that don’t fit established patterns and often don’t have to be disclosed.
As corporations and interest groups try to hide their lobbying, Sludge is committed to exposing them.
As an ad-free and subscriber-driven journalism startup built on Civil, Sludge is structured to retain its editorial independence and its mission to openly document how the money trail really works to affect public policy.
Who We Are
Sludge comes from David Moore and Donny Shaw, the editorial team behind OpenCongress.org, which from 2007 through 2013 was the most-visited non-profit website in the world for tracking bills and money in the U.S. Congress. Over seven years of covering Congress, from the 2008 financial crisis through Obamacare through the SOPA/PIPA internet censorship bills of 2012, we were repeatedly struck and dismayed by the power of corporate lobbyists on the Hill. Fundamentally, the boundaries of the politically possible were set and guarded by Big Banks, Big Pharma, Big Telco, major defense contractors, and other monopoly actors. In 2009, Sen. Dick Durbin (D, IL) famously stated, of the Big Banks: “Frankly, they own the place.”
Launched back in 2007, OpenCongress’ unique data aggregation made it the first website to display campaign donations on the same page as votes and member of Congress’ legislative profiles, for contextual info & peer-to-peer watchdogging of major bills.
Now, the data shows that lobbying culture has evolved. After decades of steady increases in reported lobbying activities, totals have recently started to decline. With corporate profits, income inequality, and market consolidation at all time highs, lobbying isn’t going away; special interests are shifting to tactics that are harder to trace.
Sludge will tell new stories of money in politics by muck-raking and explaining the diffuse connections of how government really works, then taking the next step of identifying the most-effective areas of political leverage. Crucially, there will be a strong digital outreach component to investigative reports, to break news & public-interest reporting out of academic or “good-government” info silos. Sludge will seek to lead in disseminating and building awareness of its conflict-of-interest stories, through follow-up “action steps” and creative images for social sharing.
From 2009 through 2013, OpenCongress’ daily Blog and Congresspedia wiki community worked to expose how campaign contributions shaped and controlled the federal legislative process. Our founding team’s history of public-interest work— with PPF’s questions-and-answers platform AskThem, as well as with non-profit allies MapLight, Fight for the Future, and Represent.Us — demonstrates our impact on real political power struggles, such as in the successful SOPA/PIPA internet censorship battle of 2012. Being built on the forthcoming Civil platform enables Sludge’s independence from the political arenas we cover — not dependent on access from Hill sources, not part of the D.C. revolving-door career circuit — harnessing the financial support of our subscribers that will make contemporary muckraking strong and sustainable.
With so many under-the-radar channels of corporate influence in the legislative and regulatory system, the public could use far more independent, deeply-researched reporting exposing conflicts of interest — and Civil offers a sustainable path for reaching that level of community support.
For example, a successful impact of an Sludge story on telecom lobbying of Congress would be to expose industry ties and highlight the committee testimony of net neutrality experts and small-business entrepreneurs. A successful Sludge story on state government lobbying by industry groups would place a new spotlight on little-known policy firms who craft leadership’s legislative templates. A community group could use Sludge’s reporting on the public cost/benefit of ISP monopolies for local advocacy in the value of community broadband and increasing local competition.
Sludge initial team will be composed of two full-time reporters, with data journalists and bloggers to come:
- David Moore, co-founder— previously, OpenCongress Director. Later open-source projects: AskThem, the first version of the Obama White House’s “We the People” petition platform for every U.S. elected official, with 80 politicians participating nationwide; NYC Councilmatic, the first open data resource for tracking NYC Council legislation, which in Dec. 2017 was adopted as an official NYC government website; and more.
- Donny Shaw — co-founder— previously, OpenCongress Editor & Researcher. Bylines Ars Technica, The Hill, Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and others.
- We’re seeking a third reporter & researcher to join our team on a paid, part-time basis — working remotely, with the possibility of full-time in mid-2018. To apply, simply send us a short introduction and a couple of links to your reporting or blogging work.
As a public-interest startup, Sludge seeks financial supporters of our mission of independent journalism. Donors will receive previews of upcoming investigative stories, a supporters-only Slack channel, and invitations to conference calls with money-in-politics experts. If you think you know someone interested, get in touch.