How Wisconsin’s watchdogs kept their home

Investigative newsroom drew on a network of allies in successful bid for governor's veto

DETROIT, MI — The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism scored a big win over the weekend, as Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, vetoed a budget provision approved by GOP legislators that would have expelled the nonprofit newsroom from its offices at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The measure, passed in early June at the conclusion of a marathon overnight session, also would have prohibited university employees from doing any work related to the WCIJ.

Policies about shared agreements at the university “should be set by the regents and… shouldn’t be set specific to just this particular program,” Walker said, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Walker’s decision comes after a sustained advocacy push by the center. But rather than simply sighing with relief, WCIJ is now launching a drive for its new Education Fund, which will support an existing paid internship program—one of the hallmarks of the center’s collaboration with the university’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The center is also sharing lessons from the episode that other young investigative newsrooms might take to heart. The first of these is the importance of building a network of allies. This might seem tricky for a team of journalists that specializes in aggressive accountability journalism—not necessarily the friend-making business. But Andy Hall, WCIJ executive director, said that the center’s network is effectively what stayed its eviction.

In an email to me, Hall wrote that “the Wisconsin Legislature did a huge favor for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.” He continued:

By acting in secret in the dark of night, legislators galvanized public attention and generated support for the Center from conservatives and liberals alike. We didn’t—and still don’t—know which legislator or legislators came up with this measure, or why. But the end result is that the Center now has more allies, and a strengthened resolve to dig into important issues facing the state while training the next generation of investigative journalists.

Hall said that the attack forced the center to forge “tighter bonds with our existing supporters while also creating new friends among the public, journalistic, and educational worlds who care about a strong press, free speech, academic freedom, journalism education, democracy and the Wisconsin Idea—the century-old concept that the resources of the university should extend to the borders of Wisconsin and beyond.”

This wasn’t a nebulous coalition. Hall said that more than 700 people, “most of them friends we didn’t know we had,” signed a petition supporting the WCIJ collaboration with the university’s journalism school. “Prior to issuing the veto, the governor remarked that he was hearing a lot about this issue,” Hall wrote.

Indeed, the anti-WCIJ motion led to a wave of media coverage: a lengthy log of news stories (including our CJR story), opinion pieces, wire reprints, and organizational statements of support, is chronicled on WCIJ’s website. Hall noted that “two potent Wisconsin voices”—conservative Milwaukee radio host Charlie Sykes and liberal John Nichols at the progressive Capital Times—found common ground in support of WCIJ.

Those in academia, including administrators and faculty across the UW system, viewed the measure as an attack on academic freedom and took a strong stand in support of the center’s collaboration with the school. Greg Downey, director of the journalism school, was especially active in reaching out to faculty, alumni, and campus leaders, often through widely circulated emails and posts (like this and this) on the department’s website. Hall said that Downey’s “leadership, and passion for preserving the journalism school’s relationship with WCIJ, was inspiring.” (Downey’s own take on lessons learned from the episode is here.)

“Also important were legislators—Democrats and some Republicans—who spoke out against the budget measure,” Hall added. “To me, the voices of students who have worked with [WCIJ], and our young colleagues in Madison at the [teen newspaper] Simpson Street Free Press, carried a special resonance. They wrote passionately of the value of the Center’s work in their own educations and preparations for professional success. They stood with us. I still become choked up when I read those words.”

At the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in San Antonio in late June, Hall participated in a “hastily arranged panel” that focused on what other investigative centers should do if they find themselves targeted by lawmakers. Hall and Lauren Fuhrmann, the center’s public engagement director, drew up a checklist detailing how other investigative outlets can “prepare and respond” to an attack.

Before the fact, much of the advice boils down to telling your newsroom’s story, accurately but assertively: develop a values statement, make 990s and other financial forms publicly available, tout the impact of your stories and the success of former interns, and put it all on a high-quality website. They also suggest that centers “nurture personal relationships” with their journalistic partners—editors, station managers, and others who use their work—by generously sharing credit and participating in conferences, parties, and ceremonies.

Should a legislative attack happen, centers must shift into red-alert emergency: “Drop everything else. This is your new life, at least for awhile,” Hall and Fuhrmann attest. They advise moving swiftly to post a statement, even if it has to be revised later, and assigning an employee to handle media requests on the issue. They recommend telling your story to anyone who will listen, including those who may seem “hostile to your newsroom—you may find that by speaking with them, you may develop some surprising allies.” To that point, they link to the Wisconsin Reporter, published by the conservative Franklin Center for Public Integrity, which posted a lengthy article that was sympathetic to WCIJ’s fight.

The fact that the four-year-old WCIJ could activate a diverse network of allies to respond to an unexpected and time-sensitive crisis attests to the respect it has earned. That support may have been pivotal in winning Walker’s veto—and it wasn’t conditional. Had the provision gone through, and WCIJ been homeless, its allies would have come through all the same: about 10 days ago, Hall told Capital Times that he had received “multiple generous offers” from across the state to house the center’s staff. Now, that won’t be necessary.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit. Tags: , ,