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From AJR,   September 2010  issue

Living the Dream   

A nonprofit investigative journalism center takes root in Wisconsin.


By Morgan Gibson
Morgan Gibson (mgibson@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Four years ago, Andy Hall started to think about his dream job, a position that would draw upon two of his passions: investigative reporting and teaching.

He had just been assigned to the education beat at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. It was a great job, he says, but when this dream started to creep into his head, he began to think about leaving the paper where he'd worked as an investigative reporter since 1991.

"I simply wanted to create a job that I'd love to do," Hall says. "As a middle-aged guy whose relatives were having health problems, I was developing a keen sense of how short and fragile life really is, so if we have a dream, we should pursue it."

Hall's dream is now a reality; he's the executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which produces investigative reports on government integrity and quality oflife issues.

Hall was acquainted with successful national models for nonprofit investigative journalism (see "Nonprofit News," February/March 2008, and "The Nonprofit Explosion," page 31), and it seemed to him that Wisconsin might be a good place to build a state-focused center.

By January 2009, Hall says he had quietly incorporated the investigative center as WCIJ Inc. and was ready to take the plunge. "My dream had become an obsession," Hall says. "I'd often wake up in the middle of the night with ideas about how the center would operate. I'd write them down and go back to sleep."

So Hall took a buyout from the State Journal, ending 26 years at daily newspapers. For that first month in January, he worked out of his basement, drawing on money from the buyout, until the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation called to say it had awarded the center a $100,000 grant. The School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offered office space. Hall began collaborating with students in the school and professional journalists across the state.

"And," he says, "the center came to life."

Since publishing its first dispatch in July 2009, the center, also known as WisconsinWatch.org, has distributed more than 20 major reports to news outlets serving more than 2 million Wisconsin residents as well as people in bordering states and a national audience.

"It's been an amazing first year full of more challenges and more successes than I could have imagined," Hall says.

The center has partnerships with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and the university's journalism school, and it has relationships with dozens of news organizations around the state and across the nation, including the Wisconsin State Journal, the Janesville Gazette and the Center for Public Integrity.

"This is a time of massive experimentation both in the editorial and the business sides of journalism," Hall says. "It's an exciting time for investigative reporting."

Barry Johanson, publisher of the Plymouth Review, a local paper in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, gives the fledgling investigative unit high marks. "The center's reports aren't commodity news. They can take the local angle to the next level, a principle of leverage which shouldn't be underestimated in this era of tremendous pressure on reporting staffing," he says. "I don't know how they do it exactly, but whoever covers my back in the current battle against relevant journalism is my friend."

Hall, 51, says collaboration is crucial for a nonprofit like his, because it makes possible more and better journalism than an individual news organization could produce on its own. And the work is seen by more people, which can mean a broader impact.

While reporters traditionally have steered clear of banding together given their competitive natures, Hall believes collaboration will be essential in the future. "It's a big jump to think first of collaboration rather than competition, but it's a jump that makes a lot of sense for journalists today," he says.

One major collaborative effort examined the underreporting of sexual assaults on college campuses. Published in February, it was a joint project involving the Investigative News Network, the Center for Public Integrity, National Public Radio and five nonprofit investigative centers around the country, including Hall's.

Kevin Davis, the recently appointed CEO of the Investigative News Network a group of 40 nonprofit news organizations that includes the Wisconsin center says he heard the sexual assault story on NPR and was very moved by it, only to learn later that it was produced in part by INN members. "The power of the network is to find local stories that have national ramifications and to be able to activate that content and put it in the national public eye," Davis says.

Another big piece the Wisconsin center produced was a six-part Dairyland Diversity project that examined the state's growing reliance on immigrant dairy workers, many of whom are in the country illegally. Hall says he's "proud of the journalism as well as the collaborations that have evolved out of this project."

The project got started when an editor at Country Today, a paper that covers agriculture in Wisconsin and Minnesota, called the center and asked if the two could work together on an in-depth examination of the issue. Hall says they developed a plan, and the center was able to draw upon the paper's expertise and resources. They also collaborated with others, such as Capitol News Connection, a nonprofit Congress watchdog reporting site, as well as a Spanish-language paper in Madison, La Comunidad.

But keeping the center going has not been a cakewalk. The upstart news outlet faced plenty of challenges during its rookie year.

One was that two of its first three major reports contained errors, Hall says. While he values collaboration, he says, it can also cause problems. If there's a mistake, for example, it can be difficult to quickly notify everyone involved and find the root of the problem. The center takes errors very seriously because it knows that its credibility is on the line.

Since that shaky start, the center has implemented a stringent fact-checking system to make sure its work is accurate. It adopted the Center for Public Integrity's fact-checking standards and, with permission from the highly regarded nonprofit investigative operation, modified them slightly to fit its own purposes. Now every fact in every story must be verified with written documentation, and someone other than the writer does the fact-checking. The new system is working as he hoped it would, Hall says.

Another challenge is money, Hall says, although the center has come a long way since it operated out of his basement. Since its first grant from the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation, it has gone on to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from various foundations, such as the Foundation to Promote Open Society, Challenge Fund for Journalism VI, the Peters Family Foundation in Utah and the Evjue Foundation in Madison.

The center can now meet its annual budget of $240,000, and its roster includes three professional journalists, paid interns, one volunteer journalist and some freelance reporters, not to mention volunteer service from board members and from a retired photographer as well as from a lawyer who works pro bono.

Charles Lewis, the founder or cofounder of four nonprofit organizations, including CPI, says Hall's biggest achievement is that "he's created a new institution..especially to do it in a recession, that's no small accomplishment."

Hall's wife, Dee J. Hall, is an investigative reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal but she also volunteers at the center, coordinating the work of the summer interns. "It's definitely a family business," Andy Hall says.

Besides publishing material on its Web site, the center makes its content available free to other Wisconsin news outlets. Hall says the center is exploring other options for paying the bills, adding that one route may be to seek voluntary contributions through a membership program and sponsorships similar to public broadcasting.

Hall recalls that when he and Lewis had breakfast in June 2007, Lewis told him that "the single most important skill you'll need is adaptability." Hall took that advice to heart.

Lewis, who is a member of the center's board of directors, says he's excited by and proud of what he's seen so far at the Wisconsin center and at similar organizations, as well as the people who run them.

"These are not suits who ran newsrooms. Most of these people starting these are rank-and-file reporters," he says. "It's like reporters and editors taking over the profession."