IOWA CITY, IOWA — Stephen Berry worked for over thirty years as an investigative journalist, a tenure that included a seven year stint as an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times and a 1993 Pulitzer for Investigative Journalism while working at the Orlando Sentinel. In 2003, Berry opted to enter the world of academia, becoming a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa. While the University of Iowa is known among the literati for its storied Writers’ Workshop, Berry hopes to make waves of his own with his Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism and its online presence IowaWatch.org.
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Inspired in part by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s WisconsinWatch.org, IowaWatch.org was launched in February of 2010 with the help of co-founder Robert Gutsche, a doctoral student in journalism who also helped in the launching of WisconsinWatch.org in 2009. IowaWatch.org’s self-proclaimed mission “is to maintain an independent, non-partisan journalistic program dedicated to producing and encouraging explanatory and investigative journalism in Iowa, engaging in collaborative reporting efforts with Iowa news organizations and educating journalism students.”
The site’s content is produced solely by journalism students seeking to gain real-world experience in investigations. As Berry explains, “I had been thinking about wanting to do something to give my students the venue to publish the stories that they write in my classes. We have limited internships available here in Iowa, but in my classes I would get fairly decent work that with a little more work I could make publication ready.”
Students are given the opportunity to develop long-form investigative news stories with Berry acting as an editorial mentor. For Berry’s students, the editing process can be rigorous. “In order to make student work credible, I designed an editing process that requires line by line fact checks, and I have to have a foot noted version so I can do a largely detailed spot check of the story,” Berry says. This rigor has yielded favorable results, as the site has already partnered with the Center for Public Integrity on three projects, including a hard-hitting piece on shortfalls of the mental health system in Iowa.
The quality of such work has garnered the site national attention, resulting in IowaWatch.org representing the state of Iowa in the State Accountability Project, a project funded by the Omidyar Network that partners the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International, and Global Integrity in an effort to evaluate the risk and likelihood of government corruption in all fifty states. The site has also partnered with local outlets, including a collaboration with the Iowa City Press-Citizen on affordable housing that was a Gannett Service Award Finalist in 2010.
One of Berry’s chief hopes is to augment his relationship with local news outlets. About a week in advance of a story’s publication, Berry will send out what he calls a “news advisory” to every news organization in the state. Outlets can make a decision on whether or not they want to run the story, and are encouraged to develop the story themselves through a more local lens.
Berry also hopes to help develop investigative journalism statewide by creating a database that would allow Iowa news outlets access to statistical breakdowns of various data points, organized by county. Berry explains, “We can gather statistics say on boating accidents or on unsafe bridges and then have a county by county breakdown. So when we write our statewide story, we will have a database that any county in the state can go to, grab the statistics and write their own local story based on our data.” While the site began as a mentoring tool for his students, Berry is earnest in his desire to have IowaWatch.org act as a means to enhance the quality of journalism for the entire state. “Iowa Watch is not becoming hyperlocal, but what we’re trying to do is to serve the hyperlocal interests of the news organizations of this state,” he says.
The site operates as a 501(c)3 nonprofit and up until recently has been funded primarily by individual donations. A fellowship from the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates, a division of the University of Iowa Honors Program, was awarded to one of Berry’s students, Lauren Mills, and pays for her work as an assistant editor for the site. Much of the site’s work is done by students who are not financially compensated, but Berry stresses that the unpaid nature of the work does not diminish his demands on the students. “I almost always require a substantial amount of additional reporting and several additional rewrites. But they always give me whatever time I need to make their stories publication ready,” he says.
Berry notes that when he was preparing to launch the site, fundraising was more of an afterthought. “Our strategy was different than most other nonprofits. I decided that before I would seriously go looking for money, I’d establish our journalistic track record,” he says. “I wanted to become a journalistic force in the state of Iowa, so I decided I would spend the first year focusing almost entirely on that: building up a credible, solid, regular journalistic organization”.
This strategy has paid dividends: The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation recently announced a $100,000 commitment to Iowa Watch. This is big news for the fledgling site, as Berry is well aware. “[This] is major breakthrough for us and guarantees us a solid chance to establish a permanent and solid financial foundation. We can now hire someone to implement our plans for obtaining self-sustaining revenue streams while we continue seeking individual donations and additional grant money,” he says.
One thing that assures the continuation of IowaWatch.org is its constantly renewable source of content: undergraduate and graduate journalism students. “I know it sounds cliché, but you see these kids, and their enthusiasm is infectious, it really rubs off on you,” Berry says. “To see their excitement makes working for an organization like Iowa Watch worth everything”.
The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism
Name: The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism
City: Iowa City