Controlled chaos: As journalism and documentary film converge in digital, what lessons can they share?

Documentary film and journalism are, in many ways, rooted in the same traditions. Though focus on narrative often differentiates film from traditional journalism, it helps to remember that the earliest films were straightforward recordings of real life, such as trains pulling into stations

Decades after L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, journalists like Edward R. Murrow made activist films that helped shape the documentary’s focus on social issues, while 1960s direct cinema filmmakers played with a journalistic sense of objectivity and realism.

Today, more and more documentaries are finding news publishers to be the ideal platforms for their work — especially interactive documentaries, like those mapped by Docubase. Meanwhile, journalism schools increasingly offer courses in software development and multimedia production. As both practices migrate into the digital space, they have a lot to learn from one another.

To further explore this convergence, earlier this month MIT’s Open Documentary Lab and the MacArthur Foundation hosted a daylong event called “The New Reality.”1 Participants represented old stalwarts with large audiences like The New York Times, The Guardian, and Frontline, younger upstarts like Vox and Storyful, documentary fixtures from Tribeca and Sundance, and a range of academics studying digital journalism and interactive media. The goal was to explore the synergies and fissures at the crossroads of interactive documentary and digital journalism; here’s a brief overview of what was discussed, what remains unsolved, and what went unsaid.

The forms and platforms are converging

Journalists and filmmakers are increasingly using the same tools to tell stories, and they’re releasing them on the same platforms. Two panels at “The New Reality” — “Documentary Forms and Processes” and “Technologies in a Changing Media Landscape” — focused on these issues. Recurring examples of this technical merging were the many docs released by news entities, such as Katerina Cizek’s Highrise project produced by the National Film Board of Canada and published with the Times.

News organizations already have a built-in audience with stakes in social issues, an ideal springboard for a documentary filmmaker. In addition, entities like the Times and the Guardian have rich archives and technological firepower, allowing filmmakers to continue to push the boundaries of their form.

'Tech & journalism ran into each other in abt 2000. Since then it's been exciting, loosely controlled chaos' @gabrieldance at #MITNewReality

— Anika Gupta (@DigitalAnika) October 10, 2014

At the outset, Frontline’s Raney Aronson, a panelist, asked when a documentary should be interactive instead of linear. Panelists explored the tension between immersion and play, and the balance of experimentation with cohesion; web-native documentaries can take endless forms, each with endless capacity, but nobody wants to see a sprawling, sloppy product. The interactive form often requires the viewer to be an active and interested participant in the topic.

Cizek mentioned her favorite line, “I came for the technology, I stayed for the story,” but many storytellers are looking for a broader audience than activists and doc enthusiasts.

The unique form of each interactive doc also makes critical comparison and audience literacy difficult. Most agreed that projects should start with the story and build the form around it, but templates can serve as shortcuts to start developing a language for interactive features. Gabriel Dance of The Marshall Project called each story “a beautiful delicate flower…there is no template, there is no tool,” and AIR’s Sue Schardt stressed that it’s important to find the language before the funding models.

But too much experimentation may also keep the field from legitimizing. Some documentaries, like 18 Days in Egypt or Rachel Falcone and Michael Premo‘s Sandy Storyline, are about process and participation too; how can we judge these works critically? How will they be assessed for potential funding? And do they have a place in the newsroom, as CUNY’s new social journalism master’s degree might suggest?

There was also more practical discussion around technologies and platforms, and the challenge of balancing readymade templates and customized tools and code. Standardizing forms would also mean standardizing technologies and frameworks, which would streamline the process and reduce costs, but risk some of the creative experimentation. For now, storytellers are limited by the small screens of mobile devices and minimal capacity for interaction; the most exciting content-sharing platforms are too complex for mass audiences and commercial viability. Having conceded to Facebook and YouTube as the primary interaction and communication platforms, the trick might be to build tools that creatively remix them, though APIs may be unstable and engineers would end up taking on editorial responsibilities.

Audiences, participants, and publics are in transition

Journalists and documentarians have always cared about the impact of their work, but now they can see, measure, and interact with it. Digital metrics have changed what constitutes a successful project, which increasingly contributes to choices made by the creators (and some argued that it certainly should). Moreover, the web has created new opportunities for crowdsourced and participatory works — journalists use their audience to land scoops, source data, and fund projects. At MIT, the depth of potential audience interaction was discussed on panels such as “Rethinking Participation: What Can We Learn from Documentaries?” and “Audience Engagement & Impact.”

But “the audience” and “the public” are two very different groups, as the Times’ Lexi Mainland pointed out. Times readers represent a limited demographic, and will only be able to contribute to a small subset of the paper’s journalism; this is even more true for the niche audiences at small startups and trade journals. Tapping into the web’s communication channels without falling into the audience bubble will be crucial as storytellers hunt for stories worth telling, and presenting them compellingly.

"Let's move from 'public service media' to 'public participation media.'" – @henryjenkins from #MITnewreality

— Andrew DeVigal (@drewvigal) October 10, 2014

Some panelists claimed to have a clear picture of their audience, but none have a solid grasp on impact. This is unsurprising, given that even the audience turns out to be slippery — public institutions are there to serve the public, of course, but their viewership and donors must be a priority. Older demographics still reach for TV and traditional forms, while digital and interactive viewers will skew younger. We can measure some behaviors, but they’re continuously shifting. For example, panelist Kamal Sinclair of Sundance pointed out that, while nobody expected millennials to sit and watch a 45-minute video on mobile, Vice has proven that they will.

What does that mean for the definition of a “successful” video project, as compared to a few years ago? Panelist and Rutgers professor Philip Napoli suggested that time spent was a dangerous measure of quality, too, calling attention “the last bottleneck” for the media world. There was general agreement that while metrics for documentary skew towards qualitative and personal impact measurement, journalism skews more towards the quantitative and aggregative. A blurring of these lines seems healthy as the forms collide.

Another concern around audience was the necessity of closing the feedback loop with creators. Participant and USC professor Henry Jenkins championed networked “circulation” over traditional top-down “distribution,” saying it would afford a better afterlife to projects and inform newsroom processes and practices.

The traditions, standards, and institutions remain divergent

Finally, a panel called “Journalistic Standards in Transition” focused on the balance between aesthetics and ethics in documentary and in journalism. For better or worse, journalism is a more codified institution than documentary, with its own degrees and standards about what journalism “is” or should be. Documentary is a more ramshackle affair, with its share of festivals and awards but less unified and established conventions.

The panel started with Aronson asking panelists to define journalism, which set the tone for complex questions: how do you deal with bias or media with an agenda, like an ISIS propaganda video? How many cameras need to be present to “verify” an event? Is it wrong for journalists to manipulate footage, even to add sound effects or music?

The current trend towards advocacy journalism can borrow ideas from documentary, but Jason Spingarn-Koff of the Times’ Op-Docs reiterated the need for fact-checking in order to maintain journalistic rigor. “We shouldn’t make everyone adhere to being journalists, but we do have journalistic standards at the Times,” he says.

"It's amazing what documentary filmmakers will try to pass off as truth." @jskoff on bringing Op-Docs to NYT #MITnewreality

— Lexi Mainland (@lexinyt) October 10, 2014

But outside the Times, the line grows ever blurrier — there is no journalism, only “acts of journalism,” as Jeff Howe said, reiterating a line of Jay Rosen’s. Some journalistic outfits, like the Center for Investigative Reporting, are making graphic novels and rap videos; Ariane Wu asked when this stopped being journalism and became something more like art. On the one hand, this is a question of semantics, but on the other hand, the question has major consequences for how nonfiction video and interactive projects get made, structured and funded.

Another major difference is that, while docs can take years to create, news is inherently fast-paced. Longform works emerge between these time scales, of course, and can be crucial for bringing the public’s attention to complex story arcs; this type of storytelling helps the audience place newsworthy events in the context of larger historical phenomena. Interactive features might have form and marketing challenges, but they can play a crucial role in balancing the time scale of the news cycle.

What’s next — and what’s missing

While a few participants expressed relief at avoiding state-of-the-industry and revenue model discussions, such conversation was sometimes unavoidable. Beyond lamenting the lack of platform innovation in a crowded market, Larry Birnbaum of Narrative Science reminded attendees that advertisers lurk just around the corner of every new media innovation: there are people with much more money and much clearer goals who are eager for these tools and forms to be developed.

Looking further into the future, new platforms will mean new responsibilities for storytellers. Oculus Rift was cited as an example of a technology that raises the stakes, as do 3-D and tactile media. These platforms, like any others, have the potential to manipulate viewers and spread propaganda, but Birnbaum suggested that while computers can provide us with live data, immersive graphics and interactivity, they are still very far away from the higher-level field of complex storytelling.

Overall, “storytelling” was the word of the day. Participants preferred to self-identify as “storytellers” and “story-makers” rather than the platform-stereotyped “journalist” or “filmmaker.” It’s also telling that while everyone wants to be a storyteller, no one wants to be maligned as a “content creator.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Cizek spoke of “the people formerly known as subjects,” a phrase that resonated with many. I can’t help but wonder, though, whether we haven’t replaced “subjects” with “users,” a term that comes from the tech industry, which has fashioned better techniques for understanding its audience than the journalism or media industries. There could have been, I think, more discussion of these terms and who owns their histories.

Caught between advertisers and aggregators, journalists are not as in control of their message as much as storytellers typically like to be. In the age of the attention economy, gaining eyeballs often means producing work that triggers an emotional response, new ground for traditionalists. Is this journalism or documentary? Birnbaum, and others, called it loosely controlled chaos.

“Live with it,” he said. “It’s a haphazard field.”

Photo by Michael Saechang used under a Creative Commons license. Notes

  1. Disclosure: I’m a graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, which houses the Open Documentary Lab.
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Kosovo - Reporter stabbed three times inside TV station

Reporters Without Borders - wo, 29/10/2014 - 15:44

A man armed with a knife entered the headquarters of Klan Kosova TV in Pristina on 27 October and repeatedly stabbed journalist Milot Hasimja, apparently in retaliation for a report about him by Hasimja.

Police spokesman Baki Kelani said the attacker, identified as Sovran Syla, was immediately arrested.

Klan Kosova editor in chief Gazmend Syla said Hasimja was at his desk when the attacker entered and stabbed him several times in the neck. According to local media reports, he was allowed into the TV station after asking to speak with Hasimja.

Hasimja was hospitalized with three knife wounds, which hospital staff said were not life-threatening.

Both Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and the Kosovar journalists' association condemned the attacked. Thaci's office said: “Such acts are intolerable because they jeopardize freedom of expression and opinion (...) one of the most precious values of the state and society we are building.

The journalists' association said: “attacks against journalist (...) must not be tolerated.

Kosovo is ranked 80th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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Oettinger wil auteursrechtenheffing Google

Villamedia Nieuws - wo, 29/10/2014 - 15:07
Als het aan de nieuwe eurocommissaris voor Digitale Economie Günther Oettinger ligt gaan Google en andere internetbedrijven een heffing betalen als ze intellectueel eigendom van Europese inwoners en bedrijven gaan verwerken. Dat stelde Oettinger dinsdag…
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BBI wil inzage in contracten van freelancers Roularta

Apache.be - wo, 29/10/2014 - 14:58
De Bijzondere Belastingsinspectie vraagt Roularta inzage in alle contracten die de uitgeverij met freelancers heeft gesloten. Die stap komt er nadat vorige week een omzendbrief werd gepubliceerd waarin een definitieve regeling voor de uitbetaling in auteursrechten leek te staan. ‘Er heerst weer paniek’, aldus Pol Deltour van de VVJ.
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Füsun Erdoğan: nooit meer terug

Villamedia Nieuws - wo, 29/10/2014 - 14:41
Het is bijna zes maanden geleden dat de Turks-Nederlandse journaliste Füsun Erdoğan (op de foto met haar zoon Aktaş) plotseling werd vrijgelaten uit de Turkse gevangenis. Erdoğan werd ervan beschuldigd leiding te geven aan een linkse terreurorganisatie,…
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Lévy-Leblond juryvoorzitter multimediale World Press Photo

Villamedia Nieuws - wo, 29/10/2014 - 14:41
World Press Photo heeft Marianne Lévy-Leblond, hoofd van internet- en transmediale producties bij ARTE France, benoemd tot voorzitter van de jury die multimediale inzendingen gaat beoordelen voor de 2015 editie van de fotoprijs. Lévy-Leblond werkt…
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‘Ook ambtenaren betrokken bij fraude’

Villamedia Nieuws - wo, 29/10/2014 - 14:37
Niet alleen voormalig hoofdredacteur Henk Krol is schuldig aan het plegen van subsidiefraude, ook ambtenaren van het ministerie van Onderwijs hebben…
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Restyling voor jongerenkrant 7Days

Villamedia Nieuws - wo, 29/10/2014 - 14:05
Jongerenkrant 7Days heeft een uitvoerige restyling ondergaan. Met ingang van het nummer dat aanstaande vrijdag verschijnt wordt er meer ingezet op beeld en komt de nadruk veel meer te liggen op achtergrond. Daarnaast betrekt de redactie ook de lezer…
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Restyling voor jongerenkrant 7Days

Villamedia Nieuws - wo, 29/10/2014 - 14:05
Jongerenkrant 7Days heeft een uitvoerige restyling ondergaan. Met ingang van het nummer dat aanstaande vrijdag verschijnt wordt er meer ingezet op beeld en komt de nadruk veel meer te liggen op achtergrond. Daarnaast betrekt de redactie ook de lezer…
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Iran - Acid attacks on women - new grounds for harassing journalists

Reporters Without Borders - wo, 29/10/2014 - 13:39

Embarrassed by a public outcry about a spate of acid attacks on women in the central city of Isfahan since the start of October, the Iranian authorities have been threatening news media and arresting journalists and netizens.

After at least seven women had been the victims of acid attacks, scores of demonstrators gathered outside the lawcourts in Isfahan and the parliament building in Tehran on 22 October to demand an “end to violence against women.”

Several government officials and media outlets that support the Revolutionary Guards such as Tasnim and FARS have accused some media outlets of “excessive” coverage of the attacks and of “questioning the role of organizations that monitor compliance with correct women's dress standards [Islamic Hijab].”

Most of the victims of the acid attacks are said to have been women who, in the regime's eyes, were not “properly veiled.”

Islamic Republic prosecutor-general Ebrahim Raissi said on 27 October “we cannot close our eyes to the media crime of disturbing public opinion.” Ali Younessi, an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani, said, “an Iranian cannot have committed such a violent act” but “if the person responsible turns out to be Iranian, he must be under the influence of counter-revolutionary groups based abroad.”

Tehran's Friday prayer leader Ahmad Khatami, an ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said on 26 October, “media that accuse the people who monitor observance of proper social behaviour, blaming them for the acid attacks, must be prosecuted.”

Mohammad Javad Larijani, Iran's representative at the UN Human Rights Council, referred in an interview for Iranian national TV to “the possibility of a foreign state's support in the acid attacks affair.”

Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi announced on 25 October that, “as certain media reports disturbed public opinion, the editors of several newspapers have been summoned for possible prosecution.”

Plainclothes police arrested Arya Jafari, a photographer with the ISNA news agency, in Isfahan on 25 October after searching his home. Four other Isfahan-based ISNA journalists were summoned and detained on 27 October. Two of them were released provisionally a few hours later, while the editor in chief and social affairs editor were released provisionally 48 hours later. There has been no official word on the reasons for their arrests or who exactly was responsible.

On 20 October, four days after the media began covering the acid attacks, the Revolutionary Guards website in Isfahan announced the “dismantling of a malevolent organized network carrying out immoral activities on social networks” and the “arrests of six individuals with links to foreign countries.” National radio and TV broadcast their “confessions” the same evening.

According to the information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, several journalists in Tehran and Isfahan have been threatened, some of them by phone, and have been “forbidden to follow or write about this issue.”

In the run-up to Iran's Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council on 31 October, we draw the council's attention to the alarming situation of journalists in Iran,” Reza Moini, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Iran/Afghanistan desk said.

“Iran's record on freedom of information during the past four years has been disastrous. The regime's systematic attacks on the media and on both professional and non-professional journalists show that it has completely ignored its obligations.”

Ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Iran is one of the world's five biggest prisons for news providers, with a total of 48 journalists and netizens detained.

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Tip: Try these apps for producing video on your smartphone

Journalism.co.uk - wo, 29/10/2014 - 13:17
Mobile video expert Robb Montgomery shares some of his favourite apps for filming and editing on smartphones in this YouTube tutorial
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8 ways to make the most of your journalism course

Journalism.co.uk - wo, 29/10/2014 - 13:00
Higher education can be a pressure cooker of competing demands on students' time, so how can you get the best out of it?
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De XII werken van Rob Van de Velde

Apache.be - wo, 29/10/2014 - 12:00
Neen, echt goed boterde het de voorbije tijd niet tussen de Antwerps schepen Rob Van de Velde (N-VA) en Apache.be. Daarvoor hadden we teveel lelijke dingen geschreven over louche deals en oude politieke cultuur op 't Schoon Verdiep. Tijd voor een interview. 'Soms moet ik de bocht wel afsnijden. Jammer, maar het kan gewoon niet anders.'
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TV-journalist neergestoken in Kosovo

Villamedia Nieuws - wo, 29/10/2014 - 11:12
Een Kosovaarse journalist is maandag naar een lokaal ziekenhuis gespoed, nadat een belager hem meerdere messteken toebracht. Tv-verslaggever Milot Hasimja bevond zich op het moment van de aanval in een televisiestudio. De belager had zich toegang verschaft…
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Bezoek NRC Q ‘drie keer hoger dan target’

Villamedia Nieuws - wo, 29/10/2014 - 10:58
Het aantal bezoekers dat NRC Q twintig weken na zijn oprichting trekt ligt ‘drie keer hoger dan de interne targets bij NRC Media. Dat vertelt NRCQ-chef Freek Staps in een video-interview met…
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Annemiek Schrijver naar KRO-NCRV

Villamedia Nieuws - wo, 29/10/2014 - 10:50
Presentatrice Annemiek Schrijver stapt per 1 januari van de IKON over naar fusieomroep KRO-NCRV. Schrijver wordt het gezicht van een deel van de levensbeschouwelijke programma’s van NCRV, daarnaast zal ze een nieuw levensbeschouwelijk programma…
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Annemiek Schrijver naar KRO-NCRV

Villamedia Nieuws - wo, 29/10/2014 - 10:50
Presentatrice Annemiek Schrijver stapt per 1 januari van de IKON over naar fusieomroep KRO-NCRV. Schrijver wordt het gezicht van een deel van de levensbeschouwelijke programma’s van NCRV, daarnaast zal ze een nieuw levensbeschouwelijk programma…
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Omzetgroei voor Financieel Dagblad

Villamedia Nieuws - wo, 29/10/2014 - 10:47
Het Financieele Dagblad heeft zijn omzet voor 2014 tot nu toe zien groeien ten opzichte van 2013. De omzetgroei is zowel te danken aan een groei in abonnee-omzet als in de advertentiemarkt. Dat meldt Eugenie van Wiechen, algemeen directeur van de FD…
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Flush with mystery money, Kentucky nonprofit haunts Grimes’ Senate bid

Public Integrity - wo, 29/10/2014 - 10:46

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The most mysterious force in Kentucky’s pivotal U.S. Senate race is a ghost that dwells in a hole in a wall.

Hunt for the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, and one finds no grassroots army, no canvassing operation, no office or headquarters at all — just a scuffed U.S. Postal Service box nestled inside a suburban shopping plaza about 10 miles from downtown Louisville.

About the only thing nearby that smacks of politics is an adjacent pop-up Halloween costume store. There, among monsters, ghouls and evil clowns, a vinyl President Barack Obama mask sells for $24.99 — the “scariest one of them all,” one shopper mused.

Corporeal or not, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has nevertheless capitalized on such anti-Obama sentiment, and the freedom to largely operate with anonymity, to haunt Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in her increasingly unlikely bid to unseat incumbent Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

About one in every seven of TV ads in Kentucky’s Senate race — about 12,000 of the more than 79,000 ads that have aired through Monday — has been sponsored by Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which operates as a “social welfare” nonprofit organization that, by law, is prohibited from making the influencing of elections its primary purpose.

Only the McConnell and Grimes campaigns themselves have aired more TV ads during what’s become one of the nation’s most contentious — and most costly — electoral battles, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking company.

No other group has had a larger footprint in Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race. In fact, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has aired about twice as many TV ads than the next most prolific player in the contest, a pro-Grimes super PAC called Senate Majority PAC, run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. And the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has aired more spots than all other pro-McConnell groups combined.

Despite having effectively no physical presence, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition now ranks among the largest social welfare nonprofits in Kentucky — bringing in more money, according to Internal Revenue Service records, than some of Kentucky’s more high-profile nonprofits, such as the Kentucky School Boards Association and the Kentucky Derby Festival, the group behind two weeks’ worth of events surrounding the Kentucky Derby.

Thank, in part, the loosened rules on corporate electioneering following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision for Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s unexpected rise. Certain types of donor-shielding nonprofit corporations may now raise unlimited funds to advocate for and against federal political candidates, not only in Kentucky, but in any race.

More acutely, though, thank a development akin to a corporate takeover for the group’s sudden prominence — the addition, last year, of a former top McConnell aide who previously worked in the White House with Republican strategist Karl Rove. Until then, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition didn't do much of anything.

That man: Scott Jennings.

McConnell’s mystery millions

Jennings served as the White House deputy political director in the George W. Bush administration and is a veteran of McConnell’s last two re-election campaigns.

Now a Louisville-based public relations consultant, Jennings served as a “senior communications advisor” to McConnell’s re-election campaign in 2008. Six years earlier, he worked as the McConnell campaign’s “political and communications director.” His skills have also been honed working for the GOP presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

Jennings, a co-founder of the media relations firm RunSwitch PR, said he was hired by the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s board of directors to “help ensure the organization’s message is dispersed in an efficient and effective manner.”

He stressed to the Center for Public Integrity that the nonprofit “abides by all rules and regulations governing an organization of its kind.”

He continued: “The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition seeks to bring about long-term positive change with fewer additional regulatory burdens and taxes. Its activities are all geared toward that mission.”

With Jennings’ assistance, the group, he said, has spent $14 million since the beginning of 2013 — nearly as much money as Grimes has raised — though Jennings is quick to assert that “much of the advertising was of an issue nature and has no connection to any election.”

But records show the group has reported more than $7.1 million to the FEC for expenditures that “expressly advocate” for election of McConnell or defeat of Grimes.

Issue ads that praise or criticize a politician but fall short of overtly urging people to vote for or against them do not generally need to be reported to the FEC.

Policy of non-disclosure

The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition appears well aware that its potential donors may want to contribute for political reasons.

For example, its website for months promoted the fact that donations to the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition did not count against the $123,000 aggregate limit on federal political contributions — a limit that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in April.

Furthermore, every one of the 12,000-plus TV ads aired by the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition mentions either McConnell or Grimes, as does every video on the group’s YouTube page.

Many of these ads have praised McConnell, a five-term incumbent, for being "Kentucky coal's chief proponent in our nation's capital" and for “fighting to protect Kentucky jobs from Obama's war on coal."

Others have castigated Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of State and daughter of former Kentucky Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan, as "a liberal who is wrong for Kentucky" and a "rubber stamp” for Obama’s political agenda.

Overall, about 53 percent of the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s TV ads have praised McConnell while the rest have attacked Grimes, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

Jennings told the Center for Public Integrity that these ads have had a “tremendous impact shaping the public policy environment” and that his group was “grateful” to have had “the resources to educate Kentuckians on a range of issues.”

He declined to say who was bankrolling this advertising spree. The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s policy is to “not provide the names of its donors to the general public,” its website states.

Campaign finance reformers say the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition is the epitome of “dark money” nonprofit groups that have little or nothing to do with promoting social welfare, as their IRS designation would suggest.

“This group for all practical purposes is simply an arm of Sen. McConnell’s campaign,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Democracy 21.

“This group exists to allow donors to give secret money to benefit Sen. McConnell’s campaign without the public knowing who these people are,” he added.

The FEC tried in August to compel Kentucky Opportunity Coalition to release more information about its donors when filing mandatory expenditure reports.

The group, in response, effectively told the government’s top election regulator to take a hike.

“Kentucky Opportunity Coalition understands the applicable reporting regulations,” group treasurer Caleb Crosby wrote. “The omission of contributor information on future reports should not be assumed to be an oversight.”

The FEC has held that social welfare nonprofits like the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which are organized under Sec. 501(c)(4) of the tax code, need only disclose the names of donors who give with the stated intent of “furthering” a specific ad or expenditure.

Notably, Crosby also serves as the treasurer for a number of other politically active groups, including American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, the super PAC and nonprofit co-founded by GOP strategist Rove after the Citizens United decision.

The Citizens United ruling loosened campaign finance restrictions on corporations, including certain classes of nonprofits, which previously could not call directly for the election or defeat of federal politicians. They may now also raise unlimited amounts of money to fund such overt political messages.

Both Crosby and Jennings are also involved with a pro-McConnell super PAC known as Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, which raised $7.5 million between its formation in March 2013 and Oct. 15, 2014, according to campaign finance filings. Super PACs, unlike politically active nonprofits, must disclose their donors to the FEC in regular filings.

Many of the donors to Kentuckians for Strong Leadership have also donated to American Crossroads, including investor John W. Childs, a pioneer of the leveraged buyout, and Joe Craft, the president and chief executive officer of Alliance Resource Partners, a Tulsa-based coal giant.

Neither Childs nor Craft responded to requests for comment about whether they donated money to the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition.

‘They understand the game’

The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has earned accolades from some local Republicans for its increased profile and involvement in Kentucky’s white-hot U.S. Senate race.

“They understand the game that has to be played in order to win,” said Nathan Haney, the chairman of the Louisville-based Jefferson County Republican Party. “And they’ve done a great job.”

Haney added that he had “no idea” where the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition was getting its money, but, he continued, “I’m assuming that they have a nationwide network because they are all very well-connected people.”

For its part, the McConnell campaign repeatedly dodged opportunities to discuss the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition.

At one campaign event in the northern Kentucky city of Hebron, McConnell himself was whisked away by staffers when this reporter introduced himself. And McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Only after the mid-October debate between McConnell and Grimes in Lexington did McConnell campaign senior adviser Josh Holmes offer a curt response about the role of the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition in the race.

When asked by the Center for Public Integrity how the senator would be faring without the group’s ad blitz, Holmes said, “We’d be winning just like we are right now.”

Most recent polls have shown McConnell with a narrow lead.

McConnell has held a wider lead in the fundraising race: Through the end of September, his campaign had raised nearly twice as much as that of Grimes — $29 million versus $16 million.

Despite these financial disadvantages, Grimes has kept the contest fairly close.

Meteoric rise from humble beginnings

When it was launched in 2008, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition offered no indication it would morph into one of the most prominent players in the fight for Republican control of the U.S. Senate.

When it applied for tax-exempt status as a social welfare nonprofit, the group told the IRS that it did not have any plans to spend any money “attempting to influence” the election of any political candidates.

It added that it would be “operated exclusively for public and social welfare purposes.”

And it further stated that it hoped to raise nearly $2 million during its first few years of existence from “individuals and corporations.”

Large donors would receive “invitations to policy conferences, dinners and premier events and “preferred seating and reception access” at Kentucky Opportunity Coalition events.

That funding, however, never materialized.

Between its formation in 2008 and the end of 2012, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition never reported more than $50,000 in annual receipts, according to tax records. Press releases show it briefly advocated against a prevailing wage for education projects in 2009 before falling off the radar.

“The organization really did not have a tremendous amount of legs in its early years,” said David Mast, a lobbyist who served on its board of directors when it first launched.

But its current officers aren’t eager to talk about the group’s sudden rise.

Mum’s the word

Three Republican women — Kristen Webb, Bridget Bush and Karen Sellers — compose the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s current board of directors.

All have been involved with the organization since its founding, according to records.

Webb, the group’s chairwoman, is a Louisville-based attorney who previously worked in state government.

During the 2000s, she worked for Kentucky’s Finance and Administration Cabinet, which is the primary support agency for state government. She also served on Kentucky’s Registry of Election Finance, the state’s election and campaign finance regulator.

Bush, too, is a Louisville-based attorney.

In 2012, Bush was the lead counsel associated with the amicus brief of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in the legal fight over the constitutionality of the individual mandate in Obama’s health care reform law.

She was a founding member of the Louisville lawyer’s chapter of the Federalist Society, of which her husband, attorney John K. Bush, is the president. Her favorite books, according to her profile on a blogging website, include the Bible and Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged."

Sellers, meanwhile, is the assistant to the president and CEO of the Highlands Regional Medical Center in Prestonsburg, in eastern Kentucky. She also chairs the board of directors of the Big Sandy Technical and Community College in Prestonsburg.

None responded to requests for comment. After phone calls and emails went unanswered, the Center for Public Integrity also attempted to contact Webb and Bush at their homes in Louisville.

John Bush, returning from walking the family’s dogs, said that his wife was “unavailable.”

No one answered the door at Webb’s stately, two-story brick home — a handsome structure that Jefferson County values at $767,500.

Jennings, the public relations consultant who serves as the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s spokesman, declined to comment on their behalf.

“I believe you have been trying to contact our board members,” he wrote in an email to the Center for Public Integrity. “I will be the only person commenting for the group.”

Up for sale?

On the campaign trail, Grimes has slammed McConnell as “Mr. Citizens United” and has criticized the “millionaires and billionaires” who are trying to help “buy Mitch McConnell’s way back to Washington.”

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon in the northern Kentucky city of Florence in mid-October, Grimes reminded her supporters that the “hearts and minds of Kentuckians” cannot be bought — even if the airwaves can.

McConnell and his allies have aired nearly three TV ads for every two from Grimes and her allies over the course of the campaign, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG covering spending through Oct. 27, though in recent weeks that gap has narrowed.

Since the start of September, McConnell and his supporters have aired about 20,800 ads compared to the approximately 17,400 aired by Grimes and groups backing her. That’s about one TV ad every four minutes for Team Mitch versus about one every five minutes for Team Alison.

Super PACs have aided both candidates, but Grimes has less dark money support than McConnell.

Liberal-aligned nonprofits such as the Vote Vets Action Fund and Patriot Majority USA have made modest ad buys on Grimes’ behalf, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS have both joined the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition on the air in support of McConnell’s re-election bid.

When asked by the Center for Public Integrity about the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, Grimes remarked that the group’s initials are just “one letter shy of Koch brothers” — a swipe at conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, whose political network has spent millions of dollars aiding GOP politicians across the country this year.

In the home stretch of the campaign, she’s resolute in the face of whatever dark money the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition spends against her.

“This election won’t be bought,” Grimes said. “Our democracy isn’t up for sale.”

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