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.
The incident prompted Globe editor Martin Baron to publicly disassociate the paper from any libel threat. But he said the Globe will continue to work with the Center, calling it an “evolving relationship.” “I’ve made clear publicly that we are not a part of that incident,” Baron said. “People do things we don’t approve of all the time, sometimes on our own staff. No one incident would cause us to disassociate from someone.” Baron said the two organizations are working through structural questions about how stories are handled. For example, Baron signaled that he doesn’t much like being forced to run a story on a particular day because other publishing partners are doing so. “We like to work on our own schedule,” he said.
Other sites have had hiccups, but so far, big blowups have been avoided, despite the speed and multi-tentacled process by which sensitive stories are being handled. For instance, no one has yet suggested that any site secretly takes money to promote a funders’ political or policy agenda, something some investigative journalists worry could happen in the philanthropic model. The Investigative News Network, in fact, specifically excludes members that don’t publicly disclose all donors on their Web sites.
How far the influence of donors and their causes will creep into stories is being watched closely. “For investigative startups that depend on benefactors, it certainly is possible to see a time when the interests of the benefactors come into conflict with the inquiries of the journalists,” said Duvoisin of the Los Angeles Times. “I’m confident the editors at these organizations can manage potential conflicts, but it may take vigilance over time as this plays out. One shouldn’t assume nonprofit equals independent. It’s much the same battle journalists have fought for years to preserve their independence.”