Ensuring Independence

How university journalism centers establish boundaries

An office. Desks, chairs, Internet, phone. Maybe even a printer. More and more, universities are providing these organizational basics to a growing number of journalism startups around the country. Offering stability, institutional prestige, and an atmosphere conducive to innovation, universities are serving as incubators for new outlets that need somewhere safe to hatch. But are these fledgling news outfits able to report the goings-on at their university nests?

There are many advantages to working within a university setting, but the arrangement raises some sticky issues about editorial independence. The line between existing within a university and dealing with a story that concerns that very institution can be difficult to navigate. As it turns out, most university-based news startups have firewalls in place to protect them from conflict-of-interest situations like that in which Diane Carman found herself.

Carman, a newspaper reporter for most of her life, is the director of communication at the School of Public Affairs at University of Colorado, Denver. She set out last year to create a news site focused on health policy, independently raising the funds to create Health Policy Solutions, a nonprofit, independent news organization housed within the School of Public Affairs. The site is funded in large part by a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation. The funding stipulated editorial independence from the school.

It launched in December 2010, with support from university administration. But soon after it started, a new chancellor was hired, and he wasn’t so enthused about the project. “His view has been that university communications should be solely for the purpose of advancing the image of the university,” says Carman. “An independent journalistic project inside the university, outside the control of the university administration, doesn’t fit that idea.”

Six weeks after launch, Solutions covered a meeting at the university’s medical school. CU Denver’s vice chancellor for health affairs wanted to tighten ethical standards around faculty members taking money from pharmaceutical companies, usually in exchange for drug talks or to consult for the companies. Some were defensive about the money they had received from drug companies, and disagreed about how far the university should go in limiting the medical staff’s ability to negotiate these contracts. Solutions wrote about the debate, and its future access to the med school was soon challenged by the medical school administration. Carman says that, after a few months of back and forth, as a gesture of “good will” she agreed to give the university a heads-up when Solutions would be covering a meeting, whenever “possible or practical.” This protected the site from missing out on last minute meetings, or ones they simply weren’t informed about.

Solutions’ independence was protected because the school had signed off on the Colorado Health Foundations grant, which had stipulated that the school would have no editorial influence over the site. She says that what they have negotiated is “an awkward relationship that allows us to continue having editorial independence, but it’s a cloud that looms over our news judgment.”

Many university-based news centers have painstakingly detailed arrangements with the schools that house them. And although Solutions’ funding is completely separate from the university, one of the main problems is that, unlike most other sites like hers, she’s in the school of Public Affairs, not a journalism school. When forming the site’s advisory board, she found herself explaining the tenets of journalistic integrity to administrators. The dean’s office described Solutions’ board members as “stakeholders,” which Carman explained would be an inappropriate name, since it implies a vested interest in how the stories are told. “This came as a stunning revelation to them,” says Carman. “It’s just one of the things that I have had to try and generate understanding around.”

Brant Houston, the former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, says it’s important for any aspiring investigative site to establish itself as its own 501(c)3 nonprofit. Deriving that nonprofit status from association with the university, which is what Solutions does, does not offer as much protection. Houston is currently the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois. He’s running CU-CitizenAccess, a news site that covers poverty issues in the local community. While it employs two full time reporters, the site is a part of the university, and relies on student class work for content. Though CU-CitizenAccess hasn’t yet had any administrative interference, Houston says these types of situations depend heavily on the type of reporting you are doing.

“If you’re doing international work or a fair amount of your work is community engagement, you’re probably not going to have as many of those moments,” he said. “If you’re going to investigate higher education, there is a likelihood at some point you will touch a sensitive nerve.” Without the proper firewalls in place, a site’s editorial independence could easily come into question. “Administrations at universities change,” says Houston. “If you’re going to hit things hard all the time, establishing yourself as completely independent is really the way to go.”

The Common Language Project (CLP) is located inside of the University of Washington’s communications department, but it existed as its own entity before ever becoming affiliated with the school. It is established as its own 501(c)3 organization, and the reporting focuses on international stories. Alex Stonehill, one of the co-creators of CLP, teaches a class in entrepreneurial journalism along with his colleagues, and does some training workshops. While they are officially employees of the school, the reporting they do is completely under their control. “Our employment with them is not contingent upon any of that work, and they’re not paying us for that work,” says Stonehill.

At the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication, executive director Andy Hall spent two years working out exactly what the center’s relationship would be with the school. He says even referring to it as a “partnership” or “affiliation” was frowned upon by lawyers when they were drawing up the facilities use agreement. With their own 501(c)3 status, they are their own nonprofit entity, completely separate from the University. In exchange for office space, Internet access, and use of the libraries, Hall guest lectures, occasionally collaborates with journalism classes, and offers exclusive paid internships for students at the school.

The university has not interfered with the Center’s editorial operations. In fact, university officials cooperated fully with the site’s investigation into sexual assault on University of Wisconsin campus. The report, called, “Suffering in Silence: Sexual Assaults at the University of Wisconsin” delved into the underreporting of sexual assaults on campus, and the problems women were having getting help and pressing charges. The university responded by building a webpage to make information about campus sexual assaults more easily accessible, and released a statement about their commitment to fair treatment for victims of sexual assault.

Coming from the public broadcasting world, Micheline Boudreau knew that working within an institution of higher education had great advantages. After raising $15,000, she and her colleagues started shopping their idea, Delaware First Media News, to area universities. Boudreau says they found the perfect match at the University of Delaware, because both sides saw the partnership in terms of a “strict business arrangement.”

Their deal is explicit, down to the last detail. The two parties assigned a monetary value to every single thing that would be exchanged between the center and the school, down to the banner space where Delaware First Media would feature the university’s emblem. Editorial independence was written into the agreement, and the public display of this independence was also a big part of their discussions. While brainstorming with administration about where the site’s offices would be housed, it was mentioned that there was open space in the school’s marketing department. The idea was quickly shot down. “They were savvy enough to understand it was in their interest for us to be perceived as independent,” says Boudreau. “They didn’t want it to seem like this was going to serve as a mouthpiece for them.”

The credibility a university affiliation confers can be both a journalistic and a financial godsend to a young news site. Housed at Boston University, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting raises serious cash from the investigative training seminars it runs out of the school in the summer: $125,000 this year alone. Joe Bergantino, director and senior investigator for the center, says the university association lends the site a level of credibility that has no doubt added to the popularity of the workshops—one aimed at high school students and one at international reporters.

The New England Center is not its own 501(c)3, and while most of its funds are raised independently, the center does have monetary tie-ins with the school. BU pays $40,000 total for the salaries of Bergantino and co-creator Maggie Mulvihill, as well as providing some money for travel, postage and printing, office supplies, and technical support. Bergantino says that being run out of a private school, rather than a public one, allows them a bit more breathing room when it comes to using school funds, and their editorial independence has never been challenged. Their reporting is focused on government accountability, and Bergantino says this would be much more complicated to do at a state school, “If it was UMass Amherst, and we’re doing stories about the state house, that would present some interesting challenges,” he says. “In fact, I’ve recommended to people over the years to not set up centers at public universities. It’s too much potential conflict.”

Lorie Hearn, founder and executive director of Investigative Newsource, housed at San Diego State, says that being at a state university requires that her monetary relationship with the school be extremely limited. “I teach for free in exchange for the space. I don’t pay money, and they don’t pay me,” says Hearn. “All the other ancillary things that go along with operating the business, Internet, phone, parking, we pay for.” All of the funding is raised outside of the university. The relationship is set up to be as neutral as possible.

“Some of the investigative centers are at private universities, and they may feel like they have more latitude to negotiate things, as opposed to a public university where you have to contemplate the use of tax payer funds,” says Hearn. While Investigative Newsource has not done an investigation into the university, she says if something came to the center’s attention, they would be comfortable doing the story. “I would hope the university would understand that that is our mission,” says Hearn. “That is our public service job.”

Editor’s note: Readers of this piece about journalism organizations housed within colleges and universities may note that the Columbia Journalism Review is such an organization, and wonder what our situation is. CJR is part of Columbia University, a 501c3 nonprofit. It is published under the auspices of Columbia’s Graduate School Of Journalism. CJR has its own independent budget, but we are housed and receive services such as computer support and more from the J-school, along with intellectual and spiritual ties. Are there tensions between the interests of the journalism school and CJR’s mission? Occasionally, yes. CJR’s mission of journalism criticism requires it to critique friends and funders of the school, not to mention CJR’s own friends and funders. There is no written firewall guaranteeing editorial independence, and whether there should be is a good discussion. But we believe in editorial independence and in practice, in ten years as editor here, I have never seen any serious effort to interfere with any story. -Mike Hoyt

To read more about these university journalism centers, click on the following links:
Health Policy Solutions


Common Language Project

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Delaware First Media News

New England Center for Investigative Reporting

Investigative Newsource

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , , ,