June 5, 2014

Out of the darkness, a happy first anniversary

Eviction Attempt budget language

Dear Readers,

Exactly a year ago, the Wisconsin Legislature caught us sleeping.

In a secret predawn move on June 5, 2013, legislators anonymously inserted a measure into the state budget.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jason Stein broke the news in a tweet at 5:19 a.m. — the moment we’re posting this update, as we reflect on the first anniversary.

The entire Legislature soon approved the two-sentence provision, titled “Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.” It would have evicted WCIJ from offices we share with our student interns on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, and would have made it illegal for UW employees to collaborate with WCIJ.

With your help, our darkest hour became our finest hour.

Please know how deeply we appreciate all that you’ve done and, as you’ll see below, how important you remain to WCIJ’s future.

We were overwhelmed by the support — across the entire ideological spectrum — that poured in from across Wisconsin and the nation for our privately funded collaboration with the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

On June 30, Gov. Scott Walker deleted the ill-conceived measure from the budget.

As we declared in thanking the governor, the effort by an unnamed lawmaker or lawmakers to end WCIJ’s award-winning relationship with the University of Wisconsin told us that our reporting is making a difference.

It proved that some in power were unhappy with our nonpartisan efforts, which aim to protect the vulnerable, expose wrongdoing and seek solutions.

Their actions told us we were doing something right and need to do more of it.

We said we were more determined than ever to dig into important issues facing our state while training the next generation of investigative journalists.

That’s exactly what we did.

In the past year alone, the Center produced 30 major reports and our veteran staffer Bill Lueders wrote 50 Money & Politics columns, reaching an estimated audience well in excess of two million.

Since release of our first stories in July 2009, the Center has produced more than more than 155 major news reports and 140 Money & Politics columns that have been cited, published or broadcast by more than 230 newspapers, radio and TV stations and news websites in Wisconsin and nationwide. (We make our content available for free and rely on philanthropic support.) The estimated audience of the Center’s reports exceeds 32 million people.

WCIJ received eight awards from the Milwaukee Press Club’s annual contest for work produced in 2013. Seven of the eight involved significant contributions by student journalists — affirmation of the effectiveness of our model.

The six gold awards marked the Center’s best showing ever. It received eight awards in 2013, four in 2012 and five in 2011 — a remarkable 25 in all.

A few recent examples of our high-impact journalism:

  • A groundbreaking report by intern Tegan Wendland examining problems with long waiting lists at the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which helps people with disabilities find work. WCIJ found that the agency had declined to ask for full federal funding that would allow it to eliminate the backlog over the next two years, helping more jobseekers with disabilities enter the workforce. Advocates credited our report with helping to change Gov. Walker’s stance, as he later signed legislation to request more federal money.

  • The launch of Water Watch Wisconsin, a major collaborative project with our partners at Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio. We’re examining the quality and supply of water in Wisconsin. Coverage by reporter Kate Golden and former intern Kate Prengaman so far has included the hormone-disrupting chemicals found in Wisconsin waters, concerns about high-capacity wells’ impact in the Central Sands region of the state, and the troubling discovery of hormonal well water in the karst region near large dairy farms. Ron Seely probed the health and environmental controversies over the spraying of manure onto farm fields. And we collaborated with The Capital Times on a four-part series examining efforts to save Madison’s spectacular lakes. Upcoming: An exciting collaboration, called The Confluence, with multiple journalism classes at UW-Madison.
  • A disturbing examination by intern Mario Koran of Wisconsin’s GPS tracking of offenders. In response to our report,  the head of the Assembly Committee on Corrections called a legislative hearing to question the Department of Corrections. At the hearing, a legislator read aloud portions of WCIJ’s story when questioning the DOC’s director of sex offender programs. Citing WCIJ’s reporting as a factor, the state Legislature’s budget committee scaled back a planned expansion of the GPS monitoring program for offenders — and called for a study of the system’s reliability. Koran followed up that report with another searing look at Wisconsin’s justice system, in which he probed the lack of state standards regulating the use of informants, or “snitches,” and revealed their role in wrongful convictions.

So, as we mark the first anniversary, we celebrate the great journalism and training that continues to energize our small offices in Vilas Communication Hall.

We commemorate the tireless efforts that helped save our relationship with the journalism school — the 700 signatures gathered on a petition headed by distinguished journalism school alum and broadcast journalist Lea Thompson; the effort led by then-SJMC Director Greg Downey (recently promoted to a higher position on campus) to inform the public, lawmakers, faculty on campus and nationwide, students and others about the successes of the innovative model; expressions of support from faculty and journalism groups nationwide; editorials and columns produced by news organizations; and even a powerful letter spontaneously written by former WCIJ interns. We received multiple, generous offers of free office space in several areas of the state, including, we’re revealing for the first time, from television station WKOW in Madison — gestures that demonstrated how much you value WCIJ’s mission.

And we ask, again, for your support.

As we celebrated the end of the crisis last year, we announced the creation of the WCIJ Education Fund, to support our internship program in which students pursue investigative stories important to the people of Wisconsin. It costs about $25,000 to fully support an internship for one year.

Support in any amount is appreciated and last year, more than two dozen donors responded with gifts to the WCIJ Education Fund or to support WCIJ’s operations.

We’re asking individual donors to contribute nearly $50,000 to this year’s $406,000 budget — a level of support that will keep our journalism and our training of current and future investigative journalists strong.

For details on how to donate by credit card or check, please click here.

All donors are publicly acknowledged, as provided in our Policy on Financial Support, a nationally emulated model for protecting the integrity of the journalism.

If your name already appears on that page, thank you! We would appreciate your help again this year, as we continue producing important coverage of the upcoming elections and major quality of life issues facing the state.

And if you’re not yet listed, it takes just a few moments to show that you support high-quality nonpartisan investigative journalism that informs citizens and strengthens our democracy while teaching critical interviewing, public records and data analysis skills to students and working journalists.

With your help, WCIJ will continue to shine a light on important issues!

With deep gratitude,

Andy Hall, executive director, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, ahall@wisconsinwatch.org