New nonprofit journalism centers aim to fill the gap in state and local investigations.
By Will Skowronski
Depending on donations in an economic climate that makes people cringe every time they open their wallets may not be the perfect business model.
But Andy Hall believes nonprofits are well-suited, in some cases, to finance hard-hitting, local investigative reporting.
That's why Hall, 49, left his desk at the Wisconsin State Journal in January, after 18 years of reporting there, to head the new Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The center will team up with the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and other news organizations around the state to produce investigative reports on government and quality-of-life issues.
The center is just one of several new, locally focused, nonprofit investigative news organizations in the works. Boston University opened its New England Center for Investigative Reporting in January. In California, the Center for Investigative Reporting plans to launch a similar venture in May.
The organizations are part of a growing trend toward donation-supported journalism, which includes ProPublica , led by former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul E. Steiger (see " Nonprofit News," February/March 2008).
With a severance package and a pledge of $2,000 in seed money from the State Journal, Hall left for the center to seek donations from foundations and individuals to fund what he hopes will become a staff of five investigative journalists, including a Washington, D.C.-based reporter. For now, Hall is the sole employee, working with a five-member board of directors.
"It's the best of times and the worst of times to start something like this," he says. The economic crunch, he believes, has only increased the need to find new ways to sustain journalism.
"We're in a period here of big problems facing our society and declining resources to investigate them. We hope that WCIJ can offer some help and will lead to a resurgence in investigative coverage in the state and in communities around the state, urban and rural areas alike," he says. "With the economic side of journalism in such peril, it's important to launch ventures such as WCIJ, to find models for sustaining the critical work of journalism in keeping an eye on power and in monitoring the impact of public policies upon the public."
The Wisconsin center will collaborate with the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity (see The Beat, December/January 2008), which conducts investigations at the state, national and international levels. Among other projects, the Center for Public Integrity monitors state governments and ranks them based on their level of ethical disclosure.
Its executive director, Bill Buzenberg, was eager to partner with Hall because he respects his extensive experience. Buzenberg is alarmed by the dwindling number of statehouse reporters and hopes their partnership will help fill the gap in Wisconsin and serve as a model for other states.
The two centers are still working out details, but Hall said they will probably cooperate on news coverage and share resources. The Center for Public Integrity is also acting as the Wisconsin center's fiscal agent until the Internal Revenue Service grants the latter nonprofit status. This allows donations to Hall's center to be funneled through Buzenberg's.
The new center will publish its material online and make it available free to any news media in Wisconsin. Its partners, as well as any other news organization that supports or collaborates on a given project, will have a say about when the report is released.
The Center for Investigative Reporting's planned California initiative has a similar model. The James Irvine Foundation is donating $1.2 million over three years to the effort. Executive Director Robert J. Rosenthal says the venture aims to raise $4 million, an amount that would ensure its continuation for at least three years.
"We're really ramping up our ambition and trying to raise a lot more money so that in this time of newsrooms being dismantled, we can be a model for growth and the future," says Rosenthal, a former Philadelphia Inquirer editor. He left his managing editor position at the San Francisco Chronicle in June 2007 before signing on to the top spot at the Center for Investigative Reporting "to be part of the solution for journalism and stop taking newsrooms apart."
The California team will partner with dozens of news organizations, universities and public policy institutes from around the state to produce multimedia stories that can be broken into smaller pieces and distributed in many forms to try to reach the largest audience possible.
Boston University's New England Center for Investigative Reporting will also focus on collaborative multi-media investigations, its Web site says. Based at the university's College of Communication, it will collaborate with the Boston Globe, New England Cable News and WBUR public radio, among other news outlets. Students, under the guidance of center founders Joe Bergantino and Maggie Mulvihill and other faculty members, will assist with investigative projects that will be shared with their media partners.
"Investigative reporting is one of democracy's most important tools for providing citizens with the information they need to hold the powerful accountable and make informed decisions," Bergantino wrote on the center's Web site.
Wisconsin's Hall got his start as an investigative reporter when, as an intern at the Arizona Republic in 1980, he went undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. He later was part of the Republic staff's investigation of the Keating Five scandal, which embroiled both of Arizona's senators, including former Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
Hall says heading the center will let him pursue not just his passion for investigative journalism, but for teaching as well. He'll guest lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he has taught several courses before, and involve students in investigative projects.
Hall hopes to reach a wider audience. He plans to offer workshops and information online about the state's open-records law and simple investigative techniques to empower the public to find out how schools are performing, if the water is clean and if neighborhoods are safe.
"These are things that the public can and should know how to do," Hall says.
If someone stumbles onto a big story, Hall hopes he or she will share it with the center so it can also launch a journalistic investigation or pass along the idea to local news media. He and the board will explore letting the public make micro donations, as small as $1, for stories they support.
But most support so far, Hall says, has come from fellow journalists flooding his e-mail inbox and voicemail, if not yet his bank account.
"Journalists are so excited to see an effort underway to help strengthen local investigative journalism and to maintain this critical work that all of us care so much about," he says. "The messages are flowing in from around Wisconsin, but also from across the country.
"We all still care very deeply about journalism and its power to do good, so perhaps this is part of the answer."
Skowronski (email@example.com) is an AJR editorial assistant.