PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KANSAS — If you head to the “leadership” page of the website for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting you will see profiles of an impressively large Board of Directors. There are professors and consultants and attorneys, all smiling into camera alongside slabs of striking qualifications. Under the heading “staff,” though, you will find just one name: Mike Sherry.
Sherry, who began the site in July 2010, is the sole employer and employee for the MCIR, a watchdog website that focuses on deep dives into government accountability at the state and local levels in Kansas and Missouri. He has his own impressive credentials—he’s a veteran reporter with twenty years clocked in D.C. and at The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Business Journal. But the demands of being a one-man center are great. Sherry does the fundraising as well as the reporting, and it’s Sherry who works up relationships between MCIR and other nonprofits so that Sherry can collaborate with them on reports.
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He says he’s doing it because no one else is. “We’re all sort of trying to fill the gaps where the legacy media doesn’t have resources any more,” says Sherry, telling a familiar startup story. “Even in the robust days of print journalism, the coverage of state government really amounted to sending a couple of reporters down to the State Capitol when the legislature was in session.” When he worked at the Star, for example, two reporters covered the state legislature when it was in session and only one stayed around when the legislators went home. “Lots of things were happening behind the scenes as these laws got implemented and as the bureaucracy wasn’t doing what it was supposed to be doing.”
The inspiration for MCIR was The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, a leading investigative nonprofit founded by Andy Hall in 2009. Sherry had gotten to know Hall at the University of Missouri, where Hall was on the board of the school’s Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) organization and Sherry was working at IRE’s National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting while studying for his master’s degree. Wisconsin’s model of working with a university but, unlike some investigative outlets, not being completely tied to it, appealed to Sherry, who lives two hours from the University of Missouri campus. The school hasn’t provided a steady stream of interns, but some graduate students have done “yeoman’s work,” helping with research and filing FOIA requests.
Year one can be tough for any business—not to mention a journalism nonprofit—and the MCIR is nowhere near as robust as the Wisconsin site. So far, Sherry’s site features just two stories, both done in collaboration. The first is a report on dangerous chemicals being emitted by oil refineries in three Kansas communities reported with Kansas City public radio; the second is an examination of the state of the nation’s mental health system headed by The Center for Public Integrity, to which Sherry contributed reporting from Kansas. There are at least two more major stories on the way.
Despite that seeming trickle, Sherry is ambitious. He hopes to grow to the point where he can employ an executive editor and a development director, a cadre of paid interns, and some freelancers. And one day he wants MCIR to be an investigative news service for outlets in Missouri and Kansas. “My model is to produce these stories in collaboration with other outlets. As I partner with more outlets around each state that sort of does my marketing for me,” he says. He has taken the Kaufman Foundation’s condensed entrepreneurial course and will start a for-profit business that will hopefully bring in cash enough to get to his goals. The enterprise—a market-consulting firm—would tap into his data skills, mining publicly available databases on behalf of Kansas City businesses.
But Sherry’s model so far is based on grants, and he has yet to land funding for ongoing operations. And that impressive-looking board of directors hasn’t helped. “It should be better, to be honest,” he says. “My board has been lacking in terms of people who can open philanthropic doors. That’s a deficiency on my part in putting the board together and not necessarily these folks.” The time Sherry himself spends going after grants takes away from the time he needs to be writing articles. “My role as executive director is really to be out fundraising, but the grants I’ve applied for and received have been tied to individual stories,” he notes. “Given that I’m a one-man shop, I have to do the work to capture the revenue.”
The many hats are weighing him down. “It’s been an interesting year so far—scary and liberating all at the same time,” he says. “As far as the way it’s drawn up on paper, it’s working like I drew it up. Everything is pretty much how I envisioned it except for the fundraising. I’ve learned a lot so far and I think I need to step back a little bit and make the structural changes that need to be made so I can advance into year two.
Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting Data
Name: Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
City: Prairie City
Principal Staff: Mike Sherry, founder and executive director.
Affiliations: Investigative News Network. Other Institutional Support: Fund for Investigative Journalism; St. Louis Press Club.
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