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.”