Jumping into the ‘swirling maze’: How investigative journalism is being reborn
by Andy Hall
March 30, 2009
As an 8-year-old boy living in rural Southern Indiana, I always looked forward to the sci-fi TV series "Time Tunnel" and the adventures of two scientists (actors James Darren and Robert Colbert) who were, as the narrator said, "lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on America's greatest and most secret project."
Now, old enough to join AARP, I find myself living in a version of "Time Tunnel," bouncing between past and future.
The outcome of this experiment will influence the future of investigative journalism and democracy.
Unlike "Time Tunnel," the results will be public, not hidden on a secret base.
ANDY HALLis the executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit organization based at the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication. More information is available at WisconsinWatch.org
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My odyssey began two months ago, when I ended a 26-year career as an award-winning daily newspaper reporter in Arizona and Wisconsin to establish a non-profit investigative journalism center. The move from old media came after more than two years of planning. My wife, Dee, an investigative reporter, remains at the Wisconsin State Journal and continues to assist the new venture in her spare time.
I'll admit that my excitement about all of this was tempered by the knowledge that I was plunging into the unknown despite the continuing realities of a mortgage payment and college bills for our oldest daughter -- at a time when journalism and the nation are experiencing financial collapses of historic proportions.
So far, the unknown is a good place.
In February, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which will be operated by a staff of professional journalists under the guidance of a board of directors, was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation to begin its work of producing journalism in the public interest.
The board, five leaders in non-profit journalism and management, hired me as WCIJ's executive director. As resources expand, we hope to build a staff of four Wisconsin-based investigative journalists and a Washington, D.C., correspondent who will keep watch over Wisconsin's congressional delegation, lobbyists, and the impact of federal policies and programs upon Wisconsin residents.
WCIJ aims to increase the quality and amount of investigative journalism in Wisconsin -- whether through its own stories or by assisting other news organizations in ways ranging from quick advice about open records to intensive collaboration on a major investigation.
Why would the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, which is based in Oklahoma City, give so much money to a Wisconsin start-up venture?
Because the foundation's board of directors and board of advisers believe that WCIJ -- a model based upon a professional staff, partnerships with college journalism and public broadcasting, and collaborations with other media and the public -- represents a glimpse into the future of investigative journalism in America.
It turns out that we're not alone.
Non-profit investigative journalism is expanding even while the overall industry is suffering the most wrenching series of layoffs and shutdowns of our lifetimes. And while the rise of the non-profit business model for investigative journalism is greeted by many journalists seeking hope for the future, it also raises profound ethical and operational questions.
We'll be turning to experts to help address issues such as:
From whom will we accept contributions, who is off limits, and how many strings may be attached to a contribution, such as specifying the nature of a project?
As they pursue investigative stories, how will non-profit news organizations, funded by contributions from individuals and organizations, deal with real or perceived conflicts of interest involving donors?
What is the appropriate role of students in high-stakes investigative coverage that can damage the reputations of people and institutions, lead to civil and criminal legal actions and influence public policy?
How effectively will news organizations, which traditionally have competed for news, collaborate with one another and non-profit centers on investigative coverage, and what role should competition continue to play?
To what extent should non-profit investigative centers integrate the work of volunteers, such as retired or laid-off journalists, into their coverage?
The same week that we announced the launch of WCIJ, Boston University announced the formation of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, which has received a $250,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The New England model differs from ours in some respects – it is controlled by a journalism school instead of being an independent organization, and it is focusing upon a region rather than a single state, for example. So it will be interesting to see how each of us fares as we step into our own episode of "Time Tunnel." We're already working together on this shared adventure.
Journalists and college journalism leaders in a surprising number of states -- including Colorado, Washington, Florida, California, Montana and Arizona -- plus Puerto Rico, are discussing ways to launch regional, state or local non-profit investigative journalism centers. Texas Watchdog , a non-profit organization funded by the Sam Adams Alliance from Chicago, recently began operations with a staff of four professional journalists.
On the national level, several non-profit investigative journalism organizations are hard at work on new initiatives.
The Center for Investigative Reporting which has produced national stories since the 1970s, has obtained a $1.2 million grant to focus upon its home state of California. The Center for Public Integrity continues to produce high-impact state, national and international investigations in Washington, D.C. -- and is assisting WCIJ by serving as its fiscal agent while the Wisconsin center awaits its IRS tax exemption and by offering to collaborate on coverage. In New York, ProPublica, funded by Californians Herbert and Marion Sandler at $10 million a year, is producing strong coverage, too, often in collaboration with other news media.
Investigative Reporters and Editors, a journalism training organization based at the University of Missouri, is nurturing new and venerable non-profit ventures and their relationships with other media organizations, and the Poynter Institute in Florida also is taking a leadership role. The Sunlight Foundation is creating high-tech tools to increase the transparency of government's operations and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University is experimenting with new forms of national and international journalism.
Watch for some of these organizations, and maybe even some yet to be formed, to lead regional and national efforts to support and coordinate the work of the new locally focused investigative journalism centers, with help ranging from business and fundraising services to sharing investigative stories and data. We're all eager to collaborate, but first we've got to hold conferences and talks to figure out how.
Despite the new financial landscape, and the new emphasis on collaboration, investigative journalism's soul remains relatively unchanged. Non-profit newsrooms and their counterparts in other media will continue to pursue investigative journalism that, as long defined in "The Investigative Reporter's Handbook" from IRE, is "the reporting, through one's own initiative and work product, of matters of importance to readers, viewers or listeners."
WCIJ's mission is vintage investigative: Protect the vulnerable, expose wrongdoing and seek solutions to pressing problems.
While the Internet has undercut the for-profit business model of journalism, the Internet and technology also are creating unprecedented opportunities for journalists, even at small news organizations, to produce powerful data analyses and multimedia presentations that enhance the public's understanding of critical issues. The Internet has boosted the total audience for many news outlets to record levels, even as those organizations struggle to stay afloat.
News organizations in Wisconsin are fighting to retain their investigative capabilities. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won the Pulitzer Prize last year for local reporting and continues to support an excellent 10-person Watchdog team.
As we mourn the shuttering of newspapers and the loss of friends' and colleagues' jobs, let's remember that good investigative journalism surfaced all too rarely in most communities, even during the 1980s and 1990s when newspapers and television networks had cash.
This financial crisis and the reaction to it presents an opportunity to build -- often for the first time -- the capacity of news organizations to deliver investigative reporting. WCIJ's board of directors and other journalism organizations are developing procedures that will protect the integrity of the journalism while drawing on the generosity of donors, the skill and energy of students and the resources of public broadcasting and other media to produce journalism that matters.
Our success in attaining that balance in Wisconsin and across the country will determine whether non-profit investigative journalism, like "Time Tunnel," is canceled after a single popular season.
I believe that WCIJ, and similar locally focused non-profit investigative newsrooms, will be producing important stories for a long time -- even when our two daughters, who now are teen-agers, receive their first AARP cards.
If, like me, you believe that democracy needs investigative journalism to survive, there's really no choice: Better to evolve than to cower in wait of an end.
So here's my vision of the future of investigative journalism: Within five years, in many areas served by a non-profit investigative journalism center, you will see an increase in the quality and amount of investigative news in mainstream and ethnic media. Foundations and individuals will support ventures in nearly every state. We're going to build personal connections to residents, through our coverage and the civic-engagement tools offered on our Web site and in series of workshops. News organizations new and old will harness the powers of collaboration and technology to hold the powerful accountable and comfort the afflicted.
Don't be afraid to leap into "the swirling maze of past and future ages."
When you do, you'll find a new landscape, bathed in sunlight.