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June 10, 2013, 10 a.m.

Saving “The Wisconsin Idea”: How the battle in Madison threatens a century of innovation

The state legislature’s attack on the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism goes against a long history of public universities playing a role in informing the public — particularly in the Badger State.

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The Wisconsin state legislature’s attempt last week to evict the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the campus on which it operates poses a threat to one hopeful model for the future of journalism, and suggests that a long history of journalistic innovation at American universities may be in trouble.

In case you missed it, the story so far is that a committee of the legislature wrote a provision into the state budget that would remove the center from the University of Wisconsin campus, and prevent university employees from working there as part of their duties. The provision still faces legislative hoops before becoming law. Republicans, who control the state Senate, House of Representatives and governorship, have indicated they intend to pass the budget wholesale; the center and university hope the hue and cry about the provision will change that.

A host of concerns have been raised by the center’s supporters, resting mostly on arguments of academic freedom and the valuable job training the center offers student interns. Those are certainly the issues of the moment. But when the dust clears on this episode, we will be left with the larger question of what all of this means for the future of journalism and of journalistic innovation.

“The Wisconsin Idea”

One of the most exciting things about living in 2013 and imagining what the future of journalism looks like is that there is no single answer. We all know that traditional journalistic enterprises like newspapers are in trouble. This, combined with the ease of experimentation afforded by the Internet, has led to a rich and rapidly evolving media ecology. There’s no telling which of the new experiments will survive to become part of our 21st century media sphere; it is clear, though, that the center is the most recent in a long trajectory of successful journalistic innovation at universities, and in particular at the University of Wisconsin.

Early administrators at the University of Wisconsin came up with the Wisconsin Idea — a notion that the university should reach to the very edges of this largely rural state. That inspired what many argue is the oldest continually operating radio station in the country, run out of the university. The first regular broadcasts began in 1921 and were meant to provide information to isolated farming communities, offering weather forecasts and the news from markets. Soon the station added lectures by university professors, put on the air so that people in farflung corners of the state had access to their state institution. The Great Depression brought with it concerns about a generation of young people who couldn’t afford to go to college — and WHA launched the Wisconsin College of the Air (“The school in your home”). That program offered a robust collection of courses starting in the 1930s, and by the 1960s had begun offering credit for these courses — the MOOCs of their day.

The university was the ideal home for these journalistic experiments. There’s little money to be made in offering high-quality information to the sparsely populated areas at the edges of the state. As a public institution operating for the public good rather than for profit, the university was able to develop the technology and offer content driven by fulfilling the needs of Wisconsinites.

Today, American journalism is full of innovative experiments, any of which may form important planks in the future of journalism. The center comfortably occupies a space in the historic trajectory of university-based journalistic innovation, while testing out an important new model that may yet become a mainstay of an evolving, 21st-century journalistic institution: the so-called teaching hospital model of doing journalism. In this model, students work in vibrant newsrooms within universities and under the direction of skilled journalists. These newsrooms offer important training for students and produce journalism for the communities in which they reside. Ideally, they also interact with the university, benefiting from and inspiring journalistic research. The number of such organizations has grown, and they came to occupy an important space in the conversation about the future of journalism last summer, when the heads of several foundations that fund journalism got together to petition university presidents accommodate this type of journalism on their campuses.

Sharing content around the state

Many incarnations of the teaching hospital model exist; the Wisconsin center is particularly interesting because it addresses many of the critiques of the model. The center operates independently from the university. It maintains its own funding stream, largely from foundations. It employs professional journalists who work intensively with students, often for months on a single story, digging for data and developing the narrative. Concerns that the center would be unable to criticize the university appear unfounded; early on, it collaborated on a project with the national Center for Public Integrity, itself an important experiment in journalism, on a series of stories about the vast underreporting of sexual assaults of college campuses.

At a time when the future of journalism is in flux, and when investigative journalism in particular is in serious trouble, the center’s staff of four permanent employees works with a handful of interns every semester to create the kind of deep-dig, investigative pieces that are increasingly rare in American journalism today. This kind of journalism is essential to the health of our democracy, but as news organizations suffer, it is often the first to go. “The reason investigative journalism isn’t commercially viable is that it takes a lot of money and time to produce it,” center founder and director Andy Hall told me.

The center’s student interns learn more than how to be good journalists — they learn how to be good investigative journalists. One of the hopes is that these students take these skills with them, and advocate for and produce this kind of journalism throughout their careers.

Finally, the center continues the Wisconsin Idea tradition of seeing its boundaries as extending to the edges of the state. From the beginning, the center decided to give its stories away to any news organization that would publish them rather than building its own distribution networks. Hall, the center’s director, runs through the numbers when he talks publicly about their work: the center has produced 90 major stories since 2009, which have been picked up by 230 news organizations and read by 25 million people. This includes the big state newspapers and organizations such as USA Today and The Washington Post.

Perhaps more importantly, though, it also includes publications such as the Chippewa Herald and the Ashland Current, newspapers without the resources to do the kind of reporting the center does. Following a recent story about the systematic failure of nursing homes around the state to report deaths and injuries, for instance, one newspaper editor told the center that while his reporters did cover the local home, they would never have been able to contextualize the problem the way the center did. That particular story was based on state documents the center had to doggedly pursue through freedom of information requests — something small newspapers rarely have the luxury of doing.

In some senses, the center is a small version of ProPublica, producing high-quality content that is published by other news organizations. In other ways, though, the center’s work is not scalable. ProPublica’s stories are typically carried by news organizations whose readers are used to this kind of reporting, though they perhaps see less of it today as newsrooms shrink. The Wisconsin center, though, gets its journalism in front of readers all over the state through newspapers that have never produced this kind of journalism before.

For these reasons — its independence, training and production of investigative journalism, and a model that gets quality journalism to the most sparsely populated corners of this state — the center is a fascinating experiment in the journalism of the future.

And so the state legislature’s affront on the center is more than a problem of academic freedom and student teaching. The center is one hopeful model of the journalistic institution of the future. But journalism needs to be independent, and the state legislature’s desire — and apparent ability — to reach into the university poses a particularly tricky problem for those who have felt hopeful about this model of doing journalism. It also violates a century of innovation and collaboration between journalism and the university, one that helped form the character of both institutions in this state.

The center’s successes, in journalism and in fundraising, suggest that it would survive and thrive off campus. Pushing it out, though, would mean a loss for everyone involved in this particular experiment, and for the future of journalism.

Magda Konieczna is a PhD candidate at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Photo of the Wisconsin capitol in the rain by Clarissa Richardson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 10, 2013, 10 a.m.
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