MADISON, WISCONSIN — In just under two years, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has broken over twenty-five major stories, ranging from the increased dependence on immigrant labor in the dairy industry to the stories behind the alarmingly high Native American suicide rates. The two-person team, led by executive director Andy Hall out of an office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has also had its work picked up by numerous news organizations throughout the state, including the La Crosse Tribune and WBAY-ABC in Green Bay.
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But those partnerships are only two of many. Collaboration is one of the Wisconsin Center’s guiding philosophies. The Center has three “full” partners: Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Hall, a former reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal and The Arizona Republic, meets frequently with all three, discussing upcoming coverage, possible collaboration and story budgets. He also gets a great deal of help from student interns, whom he prefers to think of as reporters.
“They’re helping the Center produce, at remarkably low-cost, high-quality, high-impact journalistic projects,” Hall says.
They also happen to come up with some of the Center’s best ideas.
The Wisconsin Center’s recent story on the very high rate of Native American suicides was an idea from Allie Tempus, a student who got her idea from her peer, Sara Jerving, who had produced a report earlier in the year about suicide rates in Wisconsin.
Another recent story, about the increased abuse of the prescription stimulant Adderall on college campuses, was born out of one of the school’s reporting classes. The article focused on the ease with which students could get the drug and the dangers of its abuse.
Of course, the collaborative network extends well beyond the University of Wisconsin campus. WisconsinWatch.org is one of over fifty worldwide members of the Investigative News Network, a consortium of nonprofit news organizations throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism also collaborates with fellow news organizations on an ad hoc basis. For example, in the winter of last year, Wisconsin Center was reporting a consumer-affairs story about the problems with electric heaters. Instead of sending one of its own reporters three hours north to see a source in Green Bay, it got the help of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, which shot photographs for them.
Hall cites that as one example of quick, low-level collaboration.
Yet the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is certainly generous itself: it gives its content away for free.
“Our research so far indicates that our best prospects for increasing our revenue in the short run is to make the content readily available to other news media, because that generates a larger audience for the content which increases the value of the content,” Hall says.
The idea is that increasing audience numbers and exposure will make it easier to acquire grants. Thus far, the plan seems to be working. The Wisconsin Center has received major grants from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the McCormick Foundation.
To access the Wisconsin Center’s content, all one has to do is to go to the “media downloads” section on the website, and enter the appropriate password for the story. Then one can choose between two different stories—a full version and a condensed one—photographs, graphics, and a fact sheet. The only catch is that news organizations have to agree to a content embargo, before which the material cannot be published.
That’s a pretty small price to pay for high-quality investigative journalism.
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism Data
Name: Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Revenue Sources, other: Commissioned reports
Principal Staff: Andy Hall, executive director; Kate Golden, reporter and multimedia producer.
Affiliations: Investigative News Network.
CJR on the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism:
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04/26/10: Ethics for the Investigators - A new report seeks standards for nonprofit newsrooms - Alexandra Fenwick