united states project

Watch out, watchdogs

GOP-led Wisconsin legislature moves to push investigative journalists off campus
June 5, 2013

DETROIT, MI — At the conclusion of a marathon overnight session, Wisconsin legislators early this morning added a provision to the state budget that would expel the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit investigative journalism institute, from its offices at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The measure also prohibits university employees “from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.”

With the budget now cleared by the Joint Finance Committee and poised for final approval soon, journalists and educators are scrambling to preserve what is widely regarded as a successful collaborative model that both trains emerging reporters and produces high-quality investigations.

The relevant budget language–available in full on the center’s website, WisconsinWatch.org–was part of a package of amendments that was approved by the Republican-led committee 12-4 on party lines. The full spending plan now heads to the Assembly; it must also be passed by the Senate and signed by Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican.

Founded in 2009, the WCIJ is a nonprofit, nonpartisan outlet whose recent projects include an exploration of frac sand mining, an investigation into hormone disrupters in water, a series on nursing home neglect, and a look at the impact of legislation on abortion access. The center–about which CJR has written enthusiastically–receives no direct university funding; its $400,000 budget is supported primarily by foundations.

But the partnership between the center and the university’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication is tight-knit. The center has access to two small offices at the school for use by its four-member professional staff and four UW reporting interns, plus a third room for summer interns. That internship program, which has involved nearly two dozen students to date, is robust: it offers paid opportunities to do public-service journalism, several interns have won awards for their WCIJ work, and many have gone on to professional journalism careers.

The center also hosts special events on campus, and its staff members reportedly teach and guest-lecture at university courses. Though no J-school faculty work at the center, professors say the proximity and collaborations give educators a window into an alternative model of media sustainability. Together, SJMC and WCIJ won The Associated Press’s first-ever Innovator of the Year for College Students award last fall.

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Lucas Graves, an assistant professor at the school (and an occasional CJR contributor), said it was too early to say what effect the legislative language might have on the internship program.

“But I really can’t stress enough what a huge asset it’s been to have a working newsroom operating independently right in the middle of the department, and what a loss it would be to see them go,” Graves added. “They do the kind of investigative work that a lot of career journalists never get the chance to, and which has been so hard hit by the newspaper crisis. That makes them a really unique resource for training journalism students.”

Before last night, there was little sense that this peaceable partnership was in peril. Greg Downey, department chair of the journalism school, did not hear about the motion that targets the collaboration until about twelve hours before it passed, and many staff did not learn about it until this morning

“It took me by surprise,” Downey told me. “We did not know this targeted attack on the center was coming.” He said he does not know who added the legislative language, or why. “We’re still dealing with this in real time.”

Andy Hall, the center’s executive director, could not be immediately reached for comment. But he told Romenesko and the alt-weekly site City Pages, “we were blindsided.”

However, the move wasn’t wholly spontaneous: Charlie Hoslet, executive director of strategic partnerships at UW-Madison, said in a June 4 email obtained by CJR that his office had “received an inquiry last week from the legislature about the arrangement between the university and the Center for Investigative Journalism.” The email continued:

We explained that the Center was not part of the UW but that there is a Facilities Use Agreement in place that provides space for the Center in exchange for various services and educational resources for students provided by the Center. It seemed that the information provided satisfied whatever concerns there might have been.

However, we learned this afternoon that there has been some discussion about introducing an amendment in the Joint Finance Committee that would somehow impact the Center’s use of the space. We have not been provided a copy of the amendment and probably will not be given anything until right before it is introduced (assuming that actually happens). Don Nelson, our Director of State Relations, will continue to monitor and and (sic) try to influence this…

Haslett, in a follow-up email less than an hour later, noted that, “Efforts to restrict the operations of other centers on campus (COWS) are attempted every budget cycle. This is the first known attempt to restrict the Center for Investigative Journalism in the state budget.”

This morning, Downey began circulating an email around the university urging the journalism school and broader university community to oppose both provisions of the budget amendment.

While the ban on WCIJ’s use of university office space would have a greater immediate effect, Downey, in an interview, said the prohibition on university staff working for the center signified a “pretty radical change” in policy.

His email notes that as written, the legislative language “would seem to broadly and recklessly infringe on our academic freedom in terms of research, teaching, and service. Our faculty and staff regularly collaborate with outside organizations on media-related projects in terms of research, teaching, and service.” Currently, no department faculty do paid work for WCIJ, but a J-school professor emeritus serves as secretary on the center’s board of directors, and Andy Hall is a “zero dollar” honorary fellow at the school.

WCIJ, in a posted response to what it called “lawmakers’ early-morning attack,” noted that while the biennial budget must still clear the full Assembly and Senate, leaders in both houses have said they want to make no further changes to the spending plan. “If this holds true, the budget language will pass and become law unless [Gov.] Walker vetoes it,” the post says.

Downey said that he is mobilizing a response from around the university, centered on the academic freedom angle. Meanwhile, the center is asking its allies to contact legislative leaders–particularly Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Assembly speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester)–and “let them know you support the Center’s nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism.”

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Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.