LION: Wisconsin lawmakers should take clear-eyed look at journalism center

The Board of Directors of Local Independent Online News Publishers expresses concern over a vote by Wisconsin legislators to evict

June 7, 2013 by Dylan Smith

The Board of Directors of Local Independent Online News Publishers expresses concern over a vote by Wisconsin legislators to evict a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism organization from the University of Wisconsin campus.

In the dark of the night, Wisconsin legislators voted Wednesday to evict the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the UW-Madison campus.

The 12-4 party-line vote in the Joint Finance Committee was led by the Legislature's Republicans, who added a provision to a state budget proposal that would boot the nonprofit investigative news service from the Madison campus, and prohibit any university employees from working for the center as part of their official duties.

The WCIJ runs, producing independent nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative journalism. The Center is a member of the national Investigative News Network and its executive director, Andy Hall, is one of the more than 100 members of Local Independent Online News Publishers.

The Board of Directors of LION Publishers calls upon Wisconsin legislators to assess all of the facts involved before making a final decision on evicting the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and ending the successful collaboration between the Center and the university.

The more than 100 members of LION Publishers are dedicated, as is the staff of WCIJ, to reporting local news with integrity and accuracy. Solid, comprehensive information such as is reported by the Center is key to an informed society and wise choices.

We believe that a little bit of daylight always leads to better decisions:

The LION Board points out that WCIJ not only produces professional investigative reporting of the highest quality, but receives no direct funding from the State of Wisconsin.

Rather, the $400,000 budget of the 501c3 educational organization is supported by private foundations, individual donors and other news outlets.

The Center operates from two small offices on the University of Wisconsin campus, which are used by its four-person staff and four UW-Madison reporting interns. An agreement with the university requires the Center to provide paid internships, classroom collaborations, guest lectures and other educational services in return for the use of the offices.

If the proposal to evict the Center from campus remains in the budget, the nonprofit will continue its reporting work — it is the UW-Madison students who will be harmed by the ending of their opportunity to work closely with experienced professionals on real-world projects.

"The Center doesn't take sides or play favorites. Its articles have provided in-depth coverage of government institutions, including the University of Wisconsin System, which houses it," WCIJ said in responding to the legislative move.

"I'm overwhelmed by messages of support from journalists and journalism educators, here and across the nation," said Hall. "They're concerned that the Joint Finance Committee's action could have a ripple effect, limiting the public's access to critical information that holds the government accountable, threatening the operations of other campus-based nonprofit journalism centers across the nation, and unreasonably restricting academic freedoms of educators to draw upon the best resources for educating students."

LION Publishers considers Hall and his team to be an exemplar of a beneficial collaboration between a journalism school and an independent news organization.

"We're proud to count Andy Hall as a colleague," said LION Board Chairman Dylan Smith. "The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is widely known for the depth and breadth of its reporting. The state legislature's Joint Finance Committee itself has relied on WCIJ's reporting on the reliability of GPS tracking in its decision to curtail an expansion of a program tracking offenders."

"The Center provides its interns with valuable professional experience in solid investigative reporting, and works with the University of Wisconsin journalism school to expand its capabilities in return for the use of two modest offices," Smith said.

One of Wisconsin's leading conservative columnists pointed out the Center's "quite valuable" reporting on issues such as a proposed commuter rail line.

"The fact is, the Center for Investigative Journalism does good work. Part of its job is to harass and annoy those in power and ask difficult questions and that makes political enemies on both sides of the aisle. That's what a free press does," wrote Charlie Sykes of Right Wisconsin.

The director of the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication called the collaboration with WCIJ an innovative resource for the university.

"In only three short years, this award-winning collaboration has resulted in a dramatic increase in the quality and quantity of both investigative reporting and public-interest data that is available to the people and businesses of Wisconsin," wrote Gregory Downey in response to the vote. "More importantly, this valuable information is made available not only through a central website, but through the free distribution of high-quality investigative news reports to private for-profit and non-profit news outlets across both the state of Wisconsin and the country at large."

Other university officials had strong reactions to the move.

"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," said Gary Sandefur, dean of the College of Letters & Science.

The center is asking those who are concerned about this action to contact legislative leaders:

Donations to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism may be made at

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