AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2010

Young Guns   

Iowa journalism students do the digging at a new center for investigative reporting.

By Abby Brownback
Abby Brownback is an AJR editorial assistant.     

The watchdogs are getting younger--at least in Iowa.

Student journalists at the University of Iowa are the newest investigative reporters, tasked with covering issues throughout the state for the recently formed Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism. The nonprofit news outlet will give students a venue for publishing and airing their work and will "fill a gap in long-form explanatory and investigative journalism here in Iowa that's a direct response to the financial problems news organizations have faced recently," says Stephen Berry, one of the center's founders and its interim executive director-editor.

This summer, five volunteer interns are producing content that will be published in the fall on IowaWatch.org or by news outlets throughout the state. "The primary buzzword is collaboration," says Berry, who also teaches investigative reporting at the university. "We want to collaborate, not compete, with other news organizations."

Jim Malewitz, a University of Iowa master's student in journalism, did just that with the center's inaugural piece on how the University of Iowa and Iowa State University handle missing students. The Gazette in Cedar Rapids published Malewitz's article following a semester-long writing and line-by-line editing process, and the submission of 30 to 40 footnotes and a bibliography with the piece.

"I'm proud of the way Professor Berry and I edited" the piece, Malewitz says. "It put my mind at ease when the articles were going to print."

Berry's involvement and the fact-checking material quieted any qualms Gazette Editor Lyle Muller might have had about publishing student work. "Concerns about inexperience go away when you know they're going to be under that tutelage," says Muller, who calls Berry a "top-notch journalist who knows his stuff."

The collaboration worked so well for the Gazette that editors are discussing additional projects on which they can work with the center to increase the amount of public affairs reporting in the paper. "It's no secret newsrooms have cut back," Muller says. "Fewer eyes and ears exist when you have fewer people."

The Iowa center is "an opportunity for more eyes and ears to learn stuff, important public affairs issues, examinations and explorations," he says, noting that the students are also learning to be thorough and accurate reporters, critical thinkers and concise writers.

But collaboration on specific stories like Malewitz's is just one angle of the center's goal. Berry and co-founder Robert Gutsche, Jr., a doctoral student in mass communication at the University of Iowa, envision more permanent partnerships with two or three news organizations in addition to ad hoc associations with news outlets for specific stories. "We want local newspapers to tell us the types of issues that are bubbling in their communities," Berry says.

However, not all media professionals are convinced that working with students is a good idea. Some have the attitude of "I don't want them learning journalism in my newspaper," Berry says. Malewitz says he didn't have the credibility to persuade local outlets to accept his original pitch for a missing students story.

Brant Houston, who holds the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois, says professionals who partner with the center's interns need to remember students "don't have all the experience the journalists have. Some things are going to take more time, because you're teaching someone who's never done it before... [But] when you're teaching, you're learning."

Adds Houston, a former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, "One of the things I like best about working with students is it gives me new ideas. It's discovering things you never knew, fresh ideas."

The surge of nonprofit, public interest journalism centers--and pairing students with those centers--is a recent and valuable trend, Houston says, one that reflects his belief that "there can't be enough watchdog work." Further, as the number of paid internships declines, "this is going to present students with the opportunity to get experience, to train the next generation of investigative reporters."

That's exactly what Berry, who won a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting while at the Orlando Sentinel in 1993, hopes to do. "We want this to be an educational element as well," he says. "The way to teach journalism effectively is to do journalism, to do it carefully and to do it with supervision." And though all of the center's interns are students at the University of Iowa, Berry has proposed accepting work from journalism students across the state. "To get anywhere in journalism," Berry says, "you have to have clips."

Malewitz, who is now collaborating on a piece with a reporter from Iowa Public Radio, agrees, citing two key purposes of the center--to give students opportunities for clips in major news outlets and on IowaWatch.org, and to offer public service journalism that keeps Iowans informed. "With the way print media is now, reporters don't have the time to go in-depth anymore," Malewitz says. "We help other reporters who have ideas but maybe don't have the time or the resources."

And now the Iowa center, recently approved as a member of the Investigative News Network (Houston chairs its steering committee), joins 32 other nonprofit journalism organizations doing public-interest reporting. "It takes us beyond the borders of Iowa," Berry says, expanding both the reach of IowaWatch.org and the possibilities for collaborative projects with other members. "It's almost too much for me to imagine."

But first the center will have to rustle up money. It hopes the Internal Revenue Service will approve by the end of the year its application to be recognized as a nonprofit foundation--like the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and ProPublica, after which the Iowa center is modeled. The center, though, started fundraising in early June under the auspices of its fiscal sponsor, the Wisconsin center, in an effort to secure funds to hire an executive director-editor, pay interns and purchase libel insurance. Once the director is hired, Berry will turn his attention to creating, and possibly chairing, a board of seven or eight professional editors "who will serve as mentors and take on a direct role overseeing a project" that falls within their area of expertise, he says.

For now, Berry himself is picking up the tab for incidental expenses--with the help of $500 donated by a former student who received prize money from the Hearst Journalism Awards Program.

"There's certainly not enough money to go around from the national sources," Houston notes, but "local, regional, state nonprofits will do well if they have community support behind them and diverse revenue streams.

"Usually people who believe in what they're doing find ways to continue doing it."