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.”