That fledging group (see “Great Expectations,” CJR, September/October 2009) was forming under the direction of Buzenberg, Lewis, Rosenthal, and Brant Houston, the long-time executive director of ire, who now holds the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Houston, who also served as chairman of the group’s steering committee, hosted weekly conference calls among the twenty or so member nonprofit journalism groups as they tried to find a pilot project they could truly collaborate on—a sort of “proof-of-concept” story to show donors that investigative journalists really can work together and deliver a story of major impact across the country.
Lombardi’s story made sense for the pilot. Many of the new nonprofit centers were housed at universities, so the reporting could resonate and influence those most directly affected by the issue. She had developed several good data sets that could be broken out for individual universities, including one of schools that participated in a federal grant program to reduce campus assaults. Lombardi said she didn’t feel territorial about her work. “I thought, ‘if only we had a giant team, we could create a huge ripple effect. . . . A lot could be uncovered with on-the-ground reporting.’”
Lombardi and her editors got five regional nonprofit news organizations as well as National Public Radio to sign onto the project, a feat made easier when the Center for Public Integrity secured a $40,000 grant from the McCormick Foundation to fund the collaboration. Her first wave of stories ran in December and the second set was planned for February. As she was in final edits on her first piece, she began working closely with reporters in Boston, Denver, Houston, Madison, Wisconsin, and Seattle as they scoured their campuses for information about what was happening in their regions. “I’m not going to lie. It was very hard to do,” Lombardi said.
At the Wisconsin Center, Hall agreed. The Center was one of the collaborators, and “I stayed up thirty-three straight hours at the end of the project,” he said. Not only was he overseeing the biggest project his center had undertaken during those hours. He was also meeting a deadline to finish a fundraising and sustainability plan for his center, discussing several upcoming stories with radio and television partners, and speaking to a reporting class about another project planned for this spring. “I’m also trying to run a startup news organization,” he said.
Hall was pleased when the University of Wisconsin responded to the report by pledging to review its policies and having its dean of students post an open letter underscoring that sexual-assault allegations will be taken seriously by school administrators. Other Investigative News Network collaborators also said the package hit the mark.
At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, officials set up a commission to review their policies after the New England Center for Investigative Reporting led its story with a student who, after confessing to having raped a friend on campus, had been allowed to remain enrolled and escape significant discipline. Collaboration can get complicated, however. Despite its solid reporting, the story attracted some controversy because the version that ran on the front page of The Boston Globe omitted a sentence that was in other versions noting why Boston University, which houses the Center, was not included in the report.
When Maggie Mulvihill and Joe Bergantino, the associate director and director of the center, exchanged e-mails with a reporter from the Boston Phoenix who questioned the omission, the reporter wrote a story saying they had threatened him with libel, quoting a statement that read, in part, “An article that depicted our center as deliberately leaving BU out of the sexual-assault story so as to either protect the university or act as its public-relations agent would be totally inaccurate, defamatory, and display a reckless disregard of the truth.” Mulvihill and Bergantino told the reporter in an e-mail that their statement wasn’t a threat, but was just stating the truth. Bergantino said later that it would not make sense to try to sue the Phoenix, since the paper’s parent company also owns one of the center’s publishing partners.