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June 7, 2013, 11:06 a.m.
Business Models

On, Wisconsin! What happens when you try to kick a nonprofit journalism center off campus?

An attempt by Wisconsin legislators to evict the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the University of Wisconsin has some nonprofit news organizations worried.


And once again there is a nation full of journalists wondering what’s going on in Wisconsin’s state legislature.

This week, a legislative committee approved a measure that would not only evict the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from its offices on the University of Wisconsin campus, but also bar any university staff from working with the center.

The center is like many nonprofit news outlets that have sprung up in recent years to help fill the vacuum left by downsizing at local newspapers. Created in 2009, it is staffed by four full-time journalists and a collection of student interns and focuses on investigative reporting, with a particular interest in the workings of state government. The nonprofit isn’t in immediate danger of being kicked out of their offices at Wisconsin’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The motion to extract the group from campus is part of a larger budget bill that will be voted on by the full legislature.

It’s unclear what may have motivated the proposal, but State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel “he didn’t want taxpayer support going to the investigative center, since he believed it had a bias.”

The center has had no shortage of scoops or analysis originating from the halls of government. In 2011, they were the first organization to report on a physical altercation between members of the state’s supreme court.

The sudden spotlight, and potential eviction, came as a shock, said Andy Hall, the center’s director. “We really don’t know why this happened,” Hall told me Thursday. The why-it-happened is as much a mystery as the who, Hall said: “It does seem a little odd that no one is willing to put their name behind this measure. You would think they would be proud of the idea.”

Though the center operates on campus, it receives no funding from the school or the state. In exchange for using two offices, the center takes on a number of students as staff members. The center also reimburses the university for its utilities bills, Hall said. The organization’s $400,000 annual budget is supplied by foundation funding and donations from individuals.

wisconsinwatch“Could the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism survive if it wasn’t occupying two small offices in Vilas Hall? Yes. We would survive and thrive,” Hall said. But Hall said that would come at the expense of the student journalists who receive training and experience through working at the center. In the event the center relocated, the law would still make it difficult to work with the journalism school.

“If a professor invites the center in to work with students during class hours, that would become illegal under state law,” Hall said. That would also mean that students who are employed as teaching assistants would also be prohibited from working with the organization.

The University of Wisconsin has came out in support of the center. Gary Sandefur, dean of the university’s College of Letters & Science, which is home to the journalism school, said in a statement: “Arbitrarily prohibiting UW-Madison employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism is a direct assault on our academic freedom; simply, it is legislative micromanagement and overreach at its worst.”

At the moment, Hall and his staff are in limbo as the measure heads before the full legislature. Even if the budget bill is passed, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker could use his line-item veto to strike the section regarding the nonprofit.

Though the center has not received its walking papers yet, at the moment it’s hard to see a scenario where they stay on campus, Hall said. “We have heard from some sources that there’s a possibility the legislature will remove this measure from the budget,” he said. “Our sense right now is that it’s not likely to happen. Yes, it’s possible, but it’s not likely.”

Nonprofit news organizations around the country have joined the university and journalists within the state in supporting the investigative center. Many tax-exempt journalism groups are also paying close attention because they, similar to the Wisconsin center, are based on college campuses. The reason for that collaboration is simple, said Kevin Davis, executive director of the Investigative News Network: “Students get real hands-on work on news that actually makes a difference, and these centers get volunteers and interns.”

Most nonprofit news organizations operate on lean budgets, which means looking for beneficial partnerships that can help with their mission. Colleges and universities have long been the home to public radio stations, and newer nonprofit news sites are following in that tradition, Davis said.

But along with that connection comes benefits and drawbacks. While nonprofit organizations receive a home and eager talent in the form of students, operating under a university can bring additional layers of scrutiny. Philantropic groups are sometimes wary of funding news nonprofits attached to universities for fear that their dollars will be swallowed up by the institution. And as the case with the Wisconsin center shows, being attached to a public university can bring extra attention from lawmakers.

Davis points to a law proposed earlier this year in the the Texas state legislature that sought to define who is a journalist and whether they could be covered by shield laws. Under the proposal individuals working for nonprofits would fall outside the laws protecting the work of journalists. “This is not the first time we’ve seen attempts to stop nonprofit newsrooms from doing their job of educating the public,” Davis said.

While the ranks of nonprofit news organizations have grown, most still face a high level of uncertainty, with small staffs and smaller budgets. Funding from philanthropic groups remains competitive, and it’s unclear how sustainable a funding source they can be. And the process for achieving tax-exempt status from the IRS largely remains a problematic mystery.

“The concern is that other legislatures or other government officials don’t take this as inspiration to try to stifle free speech or limit centers ability to work with educators,” said Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois.

Houston, who sits on the boards of both INN and the Wisconsin center, said nonprofit outlets are filling two important needs in journalism at the moment by filling gaps in reporting as well as training for future journalists. Students at Wisconsin’s journalism school would stand to lose the most in a potential breakup between the center and the university, Houston said. While the nonprofit could easily relocate, it would prove more difficult to replicate the working experience the center provided students, Houston said.

“We’ve had a tremendous loss of jobs and internships in the industry,” he said. “These nonprofit centers are providing a lot of opportunities for practical experience.”

Despite all the challenges nonprofit news organizations face, Houston said the number of organizations continues to grow. While some are playing the waiting game with the IRS, others are using groups like the INN as fiscal sponsors to begin operations and start reporting, Houston said. Even though nonprofit journalism has been around for decades, each new test today’s organizations face provides useful lessons for others, Houston said.

“The state of play right now is extraordinarily vibrant, it continues to evolve,” said Houston.

Photo by Adam Fagen used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 7, 2013, 11:06 a.m.
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