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.

Rui Kaneya is CJR's correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. A former investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter, Kaneya was a recipient of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Minority Fellowship and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Minority Fellowship in Urban Journalism. He has received numerous journalism awards, among them the Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence National Media Award. Follow him on Twitter @ruikaneya.