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Q&A with Andy and Dee J. Hall of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

by WISCAPE Staff | Oct 30, 2017

Andy and Dee J. HallWe asked ​Andy Hall and Dee J. Hall, ​founders of the award-winning Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ), some questions about ​the center, their work with students, and the importance of investigative reporting in advance of their upcoming WISCAPE talk: Training Truth Tellers: An Experiment at UW-Madison Shapes the Future of Investigative Reporting

Please join us for this free, public event on Thursday, November 2, 2017, from 12 - 1:30 pm, in the Wisconsin Idea Room (159 Ed Bldg).

Both of you had distinguished careers before launching the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Why didn’t you stay in “mainstream” media?

In many ways, we actually consider WCIJ to be a mainstream news organization. The stories we produce are deeply researched and fact checked. We are nonpartisan. We do not advocate on behalf of any party or viewpoint. We follow the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics. Those are common standards in the mainstream news business.
But we are different from mainstream news organizations in several ways. Our goal is to increase the quality and quantity of investigative journalism across Wisconsin ​-- whether it's through stories we produce or helping another news organization to produce such stories. We also have a strong mission to train current and future investigative journalists. So, much of our time is spent developing that talent pool. Many mainstream news organizations have cut back or eliminated their investigative reporting and internship programs. We continue to expand ours.

Why did we leave a daily newspaper to launch WCIJ? As we neared age 50, members of our family were experiencing health issues that reminded us how short and fragile life is. And we reflected on the importance of doing things that matter. We had a dream, which developed into an obsession, to pursue our passions for investigative reporting and teaching. Out of that, WCIJ was born.

Before you decided to create the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism as a nonprofit, what models did you investigate and what convinced you to go down the nonprofit path?

The ​center is a model that was pretty new when we launched in 2009. We started one of the first state-based investigative news centers in the country. Most of templates we looked at were national, including the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting and Columbia University’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. Right about the time we launched, ProPublica also hit the scene. Since then, we have become a model for several state-focused investigative centers, including ones in Iowa, Florida, Illinois, California, and elsewhere.

We decided to go the nonprofit route, because we knew that the for-profit model in journalism is failing for most news organizations. Advertisers have many options besides newspapers or news websites to get out their messages, so that revenue has dwindled. We decided that we would rely on funding from foundations, individuals, and businesses that value high-quality, high-impact stories and the future of investigative journalism and its role in a healthy democracy. Being a nonprofit also allows us to collaborate with a variety of nonprofit partners, including Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television.

Likewise, what options did you consider before deciding to house the center at UW-Madison? Is it unusual for centers like yours to be housed in a college or university?

While no official count is available, at least 10 reporting centers are housed in a college or university. For example, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting is based at Boston University; the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism is at Columbia University and the Investigative Reporting Workshop operates at American University. Public universities with investigative centers include the University of Iowa, where the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is housed. That said, one reason we wanted to be based at the UW-Madison ​was to be literally close to the students and faculty for training and collaboration purposes. Vilas Communication Hall also houses Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television, with whom we work closely. So it just made sense for us to be in Vilas, where Andy had previously taught journalism courses.

If it turns out that at some point we need to procure private space for the ​center we can do that, but being on the same floor as the School of Journalism ​and Mass Communication is ideal for us ​-- as well as for the students and faculty.

What is the importance of independent journalism in this day and age, and how can readers know if a source is truly independent?

Independent journalism is more important than ever. We have not seen, in recent history, such a strong effort by the government to control the media. Most of the control is exercised through closely held information, threats to cut off access to officials, and information and public comments by top officials questioning the honesty of journalists and the veracity of factual information. The best way to push back against this campaign to delegitimize the news media is to report independently, fearlessly, and truthfully about what is happening. Readers can judge the independence of a news organization in several ways. Does the organization seek out a variety of competing viewpoints? Is it funded by a group with a particular point of view? Is it willing to write stories that are unpopular with government officials, business leaders, or other powerful interests?

At ​WCIJ, we believe in complete transparency. We list all of our funders, so news consumers can see where our support comes from. We also do not allow funders to direct our news coverage. We are free to write our stories free from ideological constraints, to follow the facts where they go.

How would you address the role of "citizen journalists" as an emergent form of addressing news?

Citizen journalists can become great sources of information. They can even be valuable in collecting information to which a journalist may not have access. That said, journalism is not just about spewing random information. It is about gathering information, figuring out what the information means, putting that information into its proper context, and searching out a variety of viewpoints to help news consumers make sense of the information.

How has training journalists changed most significantly in recent years?

Some of the most significant changes have been technological. Journalists are increasingly expected to master a vast set of skills, including posting stories to the web​ and social media, and gathering and editing high-quality audio and video, photography, data collection, and analysis. Reporters at daily news organizations also are required to obtain, digest, and quickly report stories that in the past they would have had an entire work day to craft. So critical thinking skills ​-- and speed reading ​-- are very important skills.

Can you talk about the role that students play in the work of your center?

​Training students is at the heart of what we do. Our paid interns and other UW-Madison journalism students write most of our stories, with a large amount of assistance from our professional staff. We have the time to spend with them. We help them frame stories and identify relevant sources and information for often complex, and always deeply reported, investigative news stories. We hear from many ​students that working for or with ​WCIJ is a highlight of their college career. These interns and students end up with work samples that help them land jobs in the highly competitive journalism field, including ​with USA Today's investigative team, the Wall Street Journal, newspapers across Wisconsin, and as highly sought after freelancers here and abroad. Turning a student-generated story into a publishable piece often takes months of work by the student and our staff, but the result is important both for their careers and, more importantly, the state of Wisconsin and beyond.

When a student asks you for advice on beginning a career in investigative journalism, what do you recommend?

Do investigative journalism by doing investigative journalism. Many stories and topics lend themselves to an investigative approach. Find those stories and figure out a way to do them. Look for evidence of broken and failing systems. Seek a variety of information ​-- interviews, public records, data -- from diverse sources. Once you do one great investigative story, the tips pour in for additional investigative stories. That said, most news organizations will not hire a reporter as an investigative reporter right out of school. Generally, it's a position a reporter works into after years of experience. The training we offer students gives them a solid foundation and a good head start toward that goal.

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