How a Wisconsin couple grew an idea from a basement office into an investigative institution
Before the furloughs and the layoffs, before the buyouts and the nationwide shift to digital news, before the shrinking of local American newsrooms, Andy and Dee J. Hall both had an idea.
Neither is sure who had it first.
Andy had been an investigative journalist at the Wisconsin State Journal, where he and Dee both worked back in 2006. But he, nearing 50 at the time, he was reassigned to cover education.
"It was a time at which I took a deep breath and considered what really mattered to me," he said.
He wanted to be an investigative reporter again. He wanted to teach new generations of investigative reporters. And he and Dee wanted to stay in Madison.
Related Training: Introduction to Investigative Reporting
A job like that didn't exist back then. Now, a decade later, what the Halls built from that early idea is a newsroom that keeps watch over the state of Wisconsin and a symbol of how local journalism is evolving.
'This was a huge leap of faith'
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is now a fixture in the state.
Since launching in 2009, WCIJ has produced 300 major projects, which have been published, broadcast or cited by more than 500 news organizations, including state radio, print and TV outlets and The New York Times. On Monday, WCIJ announced it won a Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society for Professional Journalists.
Andy is now the executive director, and Dee is the managing editor. They’ve hired an associate director and a digital and multimedia director in addition to two part-time developers, a paid Wisconsin Public Radio investigative reporting fellow and four paid interns from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. They also rely on skilled volunteer help.
In 2009, when Andy took a buyout from the State Journal and launched WCIJ from a wooden desk in his basement with a nice view of the woods, he wasn't really thinking of the future of local investigative journalism.
"I was simply trying to create a job that I would love to do everyday," he said. "But as the dream began to take shape, of course, we had to come up with a business model."
That business model looks pretty familiar today for the sea of online investigative nonprofits around the country. Nationally, the Center for Investigative Reporting launched in 1977, and ProPublica started in 2008. But in 2009, the Halls were doing something fairly new at the local level.
"This was a huge leap of faith," said Mark Horvit, formerly the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors and currently director of the state government reporting program at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
"Andy was one of the first journalists in the country to take the plunge and embark on trying to create a regional investigative center with a nonprofit model," Horvit said.
The university's faculty invited him to set up an office in an empty 120-square-foot space. He started with three guiding values he and Dee decided on together:
- Protect the vulnerable.
- Expose wrongdoing.
- Seek solutions.
WCIJ's reporting projects can take weeks, months, "some of them have even taken years," said Lauren Fuhrmann, associate director.
They will do quick daily stories if there's an important update to something they've covered in the past, she said. But really, they're not going after stories that other news organizations are covering and covering well.
"Our work is more complementary than competitive," she said.
State Journal Editor John Smalley said WCIJ's work is a net-plus.
"It certainly isn't a replacement for our own staff investigations and our own staff work," he said. "I look at it as a supplemental."
Andy was the newspaper’s last full-time investigative reporter, and now everyone has to look for opportunities for investigative work on their own beats now, Smalley said.
Often, local investigative nonprofit journalism is simply work being done in a different place, Horvit said.
"That transfer is vitally important,” Horvit said. “In a lot of places, traditional media doesn't have the bandwidth or the budget to do that work at all or in the way they'd been doing it."
'...A lot of idealism but little knowledge about how to run a business'
Andy and Dee had to think, from the beginning, about how to deliver investigative work in what was then a new way.
That approach, from reaching existing audiences by making their work widely available to staffing up for social media and marketing, has never stopped.
"I think in the beginning, most of us who launched nonprofit investigative journalism centers, myself included, came in with significant investigative skills and a lot of idealism but little knowledge about how to run a business," Andy said.
But they've grown as a staff thanks to their flexibility. Andy cited Fuhrmann, for example, who began as an intern but eventually grew into a job that didn’t exist when she arrived.
Her work includes community engagement, tracking where their journalism is published, broadcast and cited and what impact it's having.
They're also presenting their work in different ways, from multimedia projects to accompanying gifs to an art project they took on the road.
"We still need to put out good solid stories," Dee said, "it can’t all be whizbang, ‘whoo, look at this.’"
Dee is the backbone of the newsroom, said Tara Golshan, now a reporter at Vox.
Golshan interned at WCIJ for three months after graduating. Her work at WCIJ covering Gov. Scott Walker’s bid for president helped launch her into journalism nationally, she said.
“To be able to jump into the investigative journalism world right after graduating from college is something that’s truly a luxury,” she said.
WCIJ started with a $100,000 grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. This year's operating budget is nearly $500,000.
About 75 percent of WCIJ's revenue now comes from foundations. Those foundations include local and regional organizations and as well as national ones (including the Knight Foundation, which funds my position devoted to covering innovation in local news.)
About 20 percent of WCIJ's money comes from donations from individuals and businesses, and another five percent from a combination of earned income, sponsorship and training revenue.
WCIJ also holds an annual open government and investigative reporting celebration that brings in about $10,000 after expenses.
Next, they want to diversify their sources of income to bring in more money and grow their staff.
WCIJ may have been a trendsetter when it started, but in this way it's like a lot of nonprofit organizations right now.
Foundation money is still essential to many, Horvit said, but there are other ways of diversifying that seem to be working: holding events, building subscribership, partnerships with traditional media and training.
In addition to growing, there's another challenge that Smalley can see. The State Journal sometimes struggles with how to package WCIJ's work. It’s available it in full-length and trimmed-down versions, but the trimmed-down versions are still very long.
His and hers
Andy and Dee Hall's idea of creating sustainable, impactful local investigative journalism has become more than an idea.
In 2015, WCIJ felt solid enough that Dee was able to leave the State Journal, her steady paycheck and insurance and join WCIJ full time. Her latest investigation, on microscopic hair analysis' contribution to wrongful convictions, went live today.
Marty Kaiser, former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, recently joined the board of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
"A lot of people think 'oh, all of the innovations and all the things that happen first happen only on the coasts,'" Kaiser said.
But that's not true. It happened in Wisconsin before waves of change began crashing into the industry.
Some people start their own things out of desperation, Kaiser said.
But the Halls got an early start not because things were bad, but because they figured they could make them even better.