A selection of Wisconsin Watch staff are seen in Madison Wis., on July 20, 2021. From left to right: Dana Brandt, Will Cioci, Mario Koran, Jim Malewitz, Zhen Wang, Phoebe Petrovic, Dee J. Hall, Andy Hall, Coburn Dukehart, Diana Butsko, Lauren Fuhrmann, Jay Burseth, Bevin Christie, Emily Neinfeldt and Isaac Wasserman. Narayan Mahon / Wisconsin Watch
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The American Journalism Project has jointly awarded the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (NNS) $1.4 million over three years to support their efforts to reshape the local news ecosystem in Milwaukee and across Wisconsin. 

The grant will build revenue and operations teams at both nonprofit newsrooms to support the expansion of journalism that represents, informs and engages local communities. It will also strengthen the newsrooms’ already close partnership, which last year involved launching News414 —  a project that uses text messages, social media, events and other tools to provide critical information to underserved audiences.  

Since launching News414 in spring 2020, the Center and NNS have learned that “we complete, we don’t compete,” says NNS Editor Ron Smith — with each newsroom benefiting from their complementary skills.

The $1.4 million will dramatically expand each organization, beginning with business and audience development. The grant will fund salaries at the Center for an audience growth director, grants manager, operations administrator and development assistant. It also will support a full-time News414 project director and an NNS staffer fully dedicated to bringing in new streams of revenue. 

“This is a giant boost for journalism that matters in Wisconsin,” says Andy Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and its news outlet, Wisconsin Watch. “This rare investment underscores the value in collaboration, and we believe other newsrooms across our state and country can replicate our approach and ensure that even more communities get the vital information they need at a time when newsrooms are shrinking.”

Hall expressed gratitude to the hundreds of donors whose generosity make the Center’s work possible. He noted that donor pledges in the grant application exceeded $700,000, dramatizing the level of local support for expansion and sustainability of the Wisconsin Watch and NNS operations to benefit state residents.

The American Journalism Project (AJP), a national venture philanthropy fund, will work closely with the Center and NNS to support their joint goal: To build a replicable model of journalism that plugs information and accountability gaps resulting from Wisconsin’s broken systems and staggering racial inequity — engaging residents in identifying problems and exploring solutions.

The newsrooms aim to build upon their success and lessons learned through News414.

Using a model pioneered by Detroit’s Outlier Media, News414 serves residents in Black- and Latino-majority Milwaukee ZIP codes, where research and surveys show wide information gaps. 

The project invites residents to shape coverage by engaging them before stories are published. Text messages, social media and in-person engagement connect residents directly with reporters who answer questions about housing, food access, jobs, health and other information residents say they need. News414’s texting tool has delivered information to more than 2,400 people since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. 

Those conversations have inspired in-depth stories that seek solutions to problems ranging from racial disparities in policing to Milwaukee’s housing crisis, food access challenges and high funeral costs.

“This transformational gift will allow our newsrooms the breathing room needed to focus on creating a strong business operation to sustain and support the great journalism we produce,” Smith says. “We are grateful AJP recognizes the value we bring to our communities but we, like all nonprofit newsrooms, still need the financial support of our readers to stay afloat in these turbulent times.”

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Milwaukee NNS partnership is one of three grants announced by AJP on Thursday. The others went to El Paso Matters and Mountain State Spotlight

“El Paso Matters, Mountain State Spotlight, Wisconsin Watch and Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service are part of a new generation of organizations that is leading us to reimagine local news in service of communities,” says Sarabeth Berman, CEO of AJP. “El Paso Matters is doing vital reporting on a region with national and international importance, but with a nuanced local lens for a local audience. The remarkable partnership between Wisconsin Watch and Neighborhood News Service is demonstrating how accountability reporting and community news work together to deliver crucial information to residents, and Mountain State Spotlight is making sure that West Virginians have the reporting they need to shape the future of their state.”

The AJP announcement also highlighted an emerging partnership between AJP and Microsoft that is supporting two of the new AJP grantees.

Microsoft is providing funding, technology, legal and business services to local news collaboratives in five locations nationwide, including in El Paso and Northeast Wisconsin, where the collaboratives are being coordinated by El Paso Matters and Wisconsin Watch, respectively.

“Healthy democracies require healthy journalism,” says Mary Snapp, vice president of Strategic Initiatives at Microsoft. “We’re determined to help support newsrooms with digital tools, technology and funding. With this exciting partnership with the American Journalism Project, we aim to help ensure journalism’s vitality for years to come.”

The Wisconsin news collaborative is known as the Northeast Wisconsin (NEW) News Lab. It is made up of six news organizations: Fox Valley 365The Post-CrescentGreen Bay Press GazetteThe Press TimesWisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch, that are advancing in-depth local reporting on topics such as racism as a public health crisis, lack of affordable housing, funding of local schools, and coverage of local judicial systems.

The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Journalism Department is an educational partner. Microsoft is providing financial support to the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region to fund the initiative, and efforts are under way to nurture additional support for the local news ecosystem. The news organizations retain full independence over their news coverage decisions.

About the American Journalism Project

The American Journalism Project is a venture philanthropy organization dedicated to local news. Its work is grounded in an understanding of the severity, urgency and scope of the crisis as communities across the U.S. lose their newspapers and call for a new approach to local news. By providing transformative investments and close support to nonprofit, nonpartisan news organizations, it is building a new public service media that is governed by, sustained by and looks like the public it serves.

About the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is a nonpartisan, independent nonprofit based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin and other news organizations nationwide. Its mission is “to increase the quality, quantity and understanding of investigative journalism to foster an informed citizenry and strengthen democracy.” Its news outlet, Wisconsin Watch, digs into undercovered issues, documents broken and failing systems, puts findings into regional and national contexts and explores potential solutions. It also trains current and future investigative journalists through workshops, internships and fellowships, mentoring and collaborations with journalism classes and news organizations.

About the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service: 

The nonprofit Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service covers the people and the issues that affect Milwaukee’s communities of color. Through evidence-based reporting, NNS intentionally celebrates ordinary people who do extraordinary things but also serves as a fierce watchdog for neighborhoods that often go uncovered by other media. Housed in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University, NNS employs a mix of paid professionals, community members and interns from schools across Milwaukee to deliver a daily news multimedia report. 

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The byline "Wisconsin Watch" represents members of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism's editorial and public engagement and marketing staff.