CHICAGO, IL — Late last year, a local watchdog group called the Better Government Association pieced together an investigative story about something patently Chicago: patronage politics.
The BGA, in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times, combined shoe-leather reporting with a meticulous review of public records to examine the political activities of Michael Madigan, the state’s longest-serving House speaker, whose political clout is so vast that Chicago magazine recently christened him “the king of Illinois.”
The resulting story revealed that Madigan had turned to a tried-and-true political trick: He deployed his patronage foot soldiers, nearly all of whom worked in government, to circulate nominating petitions to get on the 2012 ballot. And, when the time came for Madigan to return the favor, in at least one case, he did: The article identified a transit employee and signature-collector who got a $13,000 raise with Madigan’s help soon after the signatures were gathered.
The article fueled a running controversy over patronage allegations in a regional commuter rail agency. Apparently, it also hit a nerve with Madigan.
In an uncharacteristic move, the normally unflappable politician reacted to the story by firing off an indignant letter to warn his fellow Democrats about the BGA’s “agenda to impugn the Democratic Party” and its scheme to “become a kingmaker in Illinois politics.” (The Sun-Times somehow managed to escape Madigan’s wrath.)
The irony of being called out as a kingmaker by the “king” himself was not lost on Andy Shaw, the BGA’s president and CEO. Neither was the opportunity to promote his organization’s work.
“Mike Madigan is a powerful political leader, and we’re a small watchdog organization, so you decide who’s the bully,” Shaw wrote in the rebuttal he posted on the BGA’s website—which presented Madigan’s reaction as evidence that the BGA’s “watchdog work is having an impact” and ended, of course, with a fundraising appeal.
As Shaw sees it, these conflicts are all part of running a watchdog group. After all, since he took the BGA’s helm five years ago this month, after a long career in local TV news, Shaw has assembled a small army of nine investigators and set them off to uncover waste, fraud, and corruption in government. It’s inevitable that they end up ruffling some feathers in the process, he says. (The BGA’s investigations, for which it always partners with a media organization, are but one of its four functions, or “units,” along with policy advocacy, citizen watchdog training, and citizen education and communication. More on how these functions co-exist later).
Many observers, meanwhile, took the Madigan incident as another sign that the 91-year-old BGA, after years of decline, was rediscovering its touch. And they view it as a welcome development for an ailing media ecosystem.
Jim Kirk, publisher and editor in chief of the Sun-Times, says his paper’s frequent partnership with the BGA “allows us to expand our investigative footprint—more people to help generate ideas, more people going through public documents, and more people helping us report.”
“It’s amazing and absolutely wonderful that [Shaw] has elevated investigative journalism at the time the industry needs it even more,” says Susy Schultz, executive director and president of the Community Media Workshop, a Chicago-based nonprofit. “It’s exactly what the Chicago journalism community needs.”
The right pitchman for a watchdog’s resurgence
In some ways, the BGA’s resurgence came at a surprising time: The Great Recession and its aftermath had taken a toll on nonprofit news startups in Chicago. The Chicago News Cooperative, which produced Chicago pages for The New York Times, closed in 2011 after a two-year run. In 2009, the then-four-year-old Chi-Town Daily News, which had garnered nationwide attention for assembling a cadre of “citizen journalists,” shut down, abandoning the nonprofit model and turning for-profit under a new name.
Founders of both outlets acknowledged at the time that they had struggled to win sufficient backing from philanthropic groups. The slumping economy and funders’ perceptions about the local media market may have both played a rule, observers say.
“Unlike other news markets where there may only be one weakened newspaper, Chicago still has two strong newspaper voices in town,” Kirk, who was the CNC’s managing editor before settling at the Sun-Times, told me. “Because of those factors and others, I think the CNC was a tougher sell to some donors.”
But, at the same time, cutbacks at newspapers amid the slumping economy spurred nationwide interest in nonprofit news outlets that focused on investigative journalism. In Chicago, the BGA, with its investigative pedigree, was well-positioned to capitalize on this trend, and Shaw was the pitchman to make it happen.
By all accounts, Shaw brought visibility—for more than three decades, he had been a constant presence on local ABC and NBC affiliates as their political reporter—as well the confidence and connections to make successful appeals to philanthropic groups, individuals and corporations. Like Evan Smith at The Texas Tribune, he’s built the BGA’s total budget from about $300,000 to $2.6 million by tapping every funding source available; according to the group’s 2012 annual report, 46 percent of funding comes from foundations, 27 percent from events (next month: the “Third Annual Corruption Isn’t Funny”), 22 percent from “major donors,” 3 percent from individual members and donors, and 2 percent from corporations. The list of donors includes 28 foundations large and small, and over 70 law firms and corporations—from Walmart and Comcast to Italian Village Restaurants.
Shaw has described his donor list as the cream of the philanthropic crop, and, in conversations about the BGA, his fundraising prowess comes up almost as much as his journalistic achievements. “The reputation he has established as a TV journalist put him in a position and social circle to fundraise effectively,” says Ethan Michaeli, executive director of Chicago-based We The People Media. “There aren’t a lot of people like him with that kind of resume.”
“I say it lovingly that he has a big ego—and thank God that he has a big ego because that’s the only way you can get money for something like this at such a large scale,” Schultz says.
Kirk concurs. Shaw “has been laser-like focused on getting business-community support,” he says. “He’s relentless, like a dog you can’t shake. He is not only not afraid of the word ‘no,’ he refuses to hear it.”
No more Mirages, but a long list of reforms
Beyond Shaw’s relentless energy, another factor in the BGA’s resurgence is its own history. The group’s roots can be traced all the way back to the 1920s, the Prohibition era, when it was formed as part of an effort to drive out Al Capone’s influence from local governments.
A half-century later, the BGA was a partner in one of the more famous, and controversial, investigations in American journalism history: the Mirage sting, an elaborate operation that resulted in a 25-part series in the Sun-Times, led to a flurry of firings and reforms in the city, and was passed over for a Pulitzer, according to CJR’s 1979 story, because the judges decided that it “involved deception bordering on entrapment.”
Despite the Pulitzer snub, the Mirage investigation won many accolades, and the BGA went on to open satellite offices in Washington, DC, and Springfield, IL. Many investigations followed, but the moment didn’t last.
Today, Shaw is not trying to precisely recreate it: The modern BGA is aggressive but hasn’t conducted stings, and he’s talked about needing to mend fences with potential donors put off by perceptions that the group was “too mean-spirited.”
At the same time, given the struggles of some news startups, the group’s history was part of what made funders receptive when Shaw made his pitch. The “heritage of the organization” was one of the factors that attracted support from the McCormick Foundation, says Clark Bell, director of the journalism program there. (Disclosure: McCormick provides support for CJR and is also a longtime funder of The Chicago Reporter, where I used to work. Also, I was part of a team at the Reporter that was nominated this year for a reporting award administered by the BGA; we received “honorable mention.”)
Placed on a firmer financial footing, the BGA was able to crank out one investigation after another. During Shaw’s five years at the helm, the BGA has produced about 290 investigations by his count—almost 90 of them resulting in “tangible reforms,” he says. (In an interview with Chicago magazine last fall, the “tangible changes” count was at 60; for those keeping track at home, the BGA’s website has a prominent “results” tab listing probes launched, pledges made, retirements and resignations.)
In 2011, for instance, the BGA—along with FOX 32 News—discovered that Chicago city employees were using their city credit cards to pay for personal expenses like dinners at fancy restaurants, airline upgrades, or even red-light violation tickets. Mayor Rahm Emanuel eventually ordered the termination of all accounts.
Earlier this year, the BGA and partner NBC 5 found out that a top official at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources missed more than three months of work in 2013—mostly on paid sick leave—though he made three out-of-state trips to attend fishing tournaments during that time. The official was later forced to resign.
And, in 2012, state lawmakers ended the legislative scholarship program, which had an annual price tag of more than $10 million, after the BGA and other news outlets reported that it was being exploited for political, not educational, purposes. In that case, the BGA’s “policy unit advocated a complete dismantling” of the program.
Delivering a ‘return on investment’
That intersection between policy advocacy and investigative reporting, baked into BGA’s structure, is a bit unusual, and Shaw is well aware that it rubs some people the wrong way. But he still embraces it. “If you don’t advocate, where does a change come from? What’s the point of doing these investigations if nothing changes?” he asks.
At the same time, Shaw says, a firewall separates investigative reporters from the advocacy side. “We are not doing our investigations to further our policy agenda,” he says. “We’re doing investigations that need to be done, and we don’t prejudge what our policy initiatives should be.”
Kirk of the Sun-Times says he’s comfortable with the setup. “They have been successful at keeping their advocacy separate from the reporting they do—which is a key component of our relationship,” he says.
From a distance, however, such distinctions could be too subtle to notice. This may explain why Madigan had such a beef with the BGA last year.
But Shaw suspects that what really gets Madigan upset is that the BGA has investigated many more Democrats than Republicans in recent years. He has a ready-made explanation, of course: Democrats are the more likely target because they rule the roost in both Chicago and Illinois, occupying the governor’s mansion, both legislative chambers, and many key local elected posts throughout the state.
For the time being, though, Shaw won’t be spending much time fretting over how politicians perceive the BGA. Now that he has hit the five-year mark, Shaw says he is focused on putting the BGA on solid financial footing for the next five years.
To do that, no matter how good a salesman he is, Shaw and his team will have to keep turning out investigations that move the needle—and move that reforms count steadily upward.
“We have to keep achieving results,” he says. “Foundations, individual donors, investors—everybody wants a ‘return on investment.’ And what is the return on investment from a nonprofit watchdog organization? It’s results.”