The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism celebrated its 10th anniversary at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Union Thursday with food, music and a critical look at the future of local and state investigative reporting.
More than 150 guests attended the event, which included a panel featuring David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize-winning associate editor at The Washington Post; Cara Lombardo, Wall Street Journal reporter and former WCIJ intern; and Michael Wagner, UW-Madison associate professor of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Maraniss said at a time when people tweet or form opinions without regard to the facts, journalists’ responsibility to find the truth “has never been more important than right now.”
Local journalists reporting on the ground are needed “to find out what’s really going on,” Maraniss said. He noted that even the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee that sparked the Watergate scandal and brought down President Richard Nixon started as a local story.
“I think there is a public that is yearning for the stories we have to tell and the work that WCIJ has to do,” said Jessica Arp, assistant news director at WISC-TV News 3, who served as master of ceremonies. She noted that local journalists inform the public of major stories such as explosions, elections and floods — and that residents sometimes go out of their way to express their gratitude for the hard work.
Wagner said research shows that news organizations owned by large chains tend to cover politics more negatively and with more emotional language, focusing on who is winning and who is losing. Independently owned state and local news outlets, on the other hand, tend to cover politics by examining issues and using more local voices, he said.
“I think it highlights the importance of a place like WCIJ,” Wagner said. “The nonprofits tend to do the best journalism.”
WCIJ is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit news organization housed in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison. It produces investigative reports, which are published on its website, WisconsinWatch.org, and are made available at no charge to news organizations across Wisconsin and the nation. It also trains students and professionals in investigative reporting techniques.
Wagner acknowledged the challenge of reporting the truth when about half of the audience will reject a story as false if it conflicts with their political views. He asked how journalists should approach their stories as the credibility of news organizations across the country is increasingly challenged.
“We’re living in an irrational world,” Maraniss said. “The role of a journalist is to be rational, and thoughtful and investigative, and search for the truth, and that’s it — period.”
Lombardo agreed, saying reporters should keep doing what they have been doing all along — write “accurate stories about things that matter to people.”
She added that the only difference today is that as more stories are disputed, journalists must understand that “every word will be challenged” and be ready to push back with the facts. She pointed to the Center’s “very thorough, hours long, extremely tedious fact-checking process” as an important way to maintain the public’s trust.
More than 750 news outlets across the nation have published, broadcast or cited the Center’s 340 major reports since its founding in 2009 by veteran Wisconsin State Journal reporters Andy Hall and Dee J. Hall. Those stories have reached an estimated audience of 72 million people.
“Through their vision and their hard work, they turned a startup organization into the most visible and successful nonprofit journalism center in the country,” said board President Karen Lincoln Michel, interim publisher and editor of Madison Magazine.
Currently, about 65 percent of the Center’s $500,000 in revenue comes from foundations, about 20 percent from individual donors, and the rest from earned income received for collaborating with students on investigative projects, producing stories with other news outlets, and from events. More than 400 people have contributed to the Center with the understanding that under its Policy on Financial Support, they have no influence on its journalistic decisions, and they will be publicly identified to protect the integrity of its journalism, Executive Director Andy Hall said.
What started in the Halls’ basement has turned into a decade of keeping the powerful accountable, protecting vulnerable populations, exploring solutions to problems — and training young journalists to do the same. Its mission is “to increase the quality, quantity and understanding of investigative journalism to foster an informed citizenry and strengthen democracy.”
The two highlighted some of the most important stories produced by these young reporters, including the Failure at the Faucet series, a national award-winning exploration of the multiple risks facing Wisconsin’s drinking water; Broken Whistle, a series that exposed the poor treatment of whistleblowers who report waste, fraud and abuse; and the Center’s ongoing series, Undemocratic: Secrecy and Power vs. the People, exploring trends threatening the health of Wisconsin’s democracy. The Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment supports the Center’s work with UW journalism students.
At the event, WCIJ also unveiled a video featuring reflections from many of its 41 former interns and fellows.
Lombardo said having the chance to work as an investigative reporter so early in her career set her up to use those skills for many years to come. She recounted a piece of advice Managing Editor Dee J. Hall gave her: Find out how systems should work, then find instances in which those systems do not work as they are supposed to.
“I feel like that investigative mindset … I wouldn’t have had that if I didn’t get to be at the Center as such a young reporter,” Lombardo said. “And that’s what makes me so excited about the Center, is the people that it’s putting out into the world, into the journalism industry.”
Andy Hall said donors and supporters can help the Center meet its goal of doubling in size in the next decade and becoming an “an even more potent journalistic force and more financially resilient institution that will serve the interests of the people of Wisconsin for many more years.”
He thanked numerous people for making the event, and the Center, so successful, including: “In Crew” for producing a video of the celebration; past and current Center staff and interns, including Associate Director Lauren Fuhrmann and Digital and Multimedia Director Coburn Dukehart; board members Michel, Brant Houston, Jack Mitchell, Keith Baumgartner, Herman Baumann, Malcolm Brett, Marty Kaiser, Charles Lewis, Hemant Shah and Ralph Weber; legal counsel Christa Westerberg of the Pines Bach law firm; Jim Cricchi and Susan Peters of Twelve Letter Films for collaborating on the documentary “Los Lecheros (Dairy Farmers).”
Hall also thanked faculty from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication for allowing the Center to share space with the school; journalistic partners Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television; Dave Umhoefer, director of the O’Brien Fellowships in Public Service at Marquette University, with whom WCIJ has begun to collaborate; volunteers who report and fact-check stories and help with fundraising; and the hundreds of news outlets that have published or broadcast the Center’s work.
Additionally, he thanked individual donors, including Watchdog Club members, and foundation supporters, which have included The Evjue Foundation, Sally Mead Hands Foundation, Peters Family Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Open Society Foundations, The Reva and David Logan Foundation and The Joyce Foundation.
Just as these many donors and supporters have helped the Center, board member Malcolm Brett said everyone has a responsibility to support journalism. News organizations such as the Center are necessary for a healthy democracy, he added. To conclude the celebration, Brett offered a toast to the future of the Center.
“Here’s to getting it done, getting it right and getting it everywhere the first decade and the next 10 years,” Brett said.