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Wisconsin lawmakers take aim at nonprofit news organization

The Legislature amended the state’s proposed budget to ban Wisconsin Watch from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus.

In the four years since its founding, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has had an impact far beyond what one might expect from a nonprofit news-gathering operation that operates out of two closet-sized rooms. 

A novel collaboration between commercial news outlets, public broadcasting journalists and journalism students, it has exposed questionable tactics on the part of a for-profit college, drawn regulators’ attention to the risks associated with frac sand mining and crafted an analysis of Gov. Scott Walker’s e-mails that was circulated worldwide. 

The list goes on, but suffice to say its small but mighty efforts have afflicted the comfortable. So much so they appear to be striking back. 

Last week a committee of the Wisconsin Legislature amended the state’s proposed budget to ban the center from maintaining its offices on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus and forbid university employees, including journalism school instructors, from working with it. 

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The budgetary hook: The center’s two diminutive offices, which the university’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication provides in return for the center’s willingness to hire at least five student interns a year and provide educational services. 

“Not only do we not know what the motivation was, we don’t know who put it forward,” said Executive Director Andy Hall. “This came out of the blue in the dark of night. There was no public warning that this measure was under consideration.” 

No official explanation

The joint finance committee voted 12-4 along party lines. While no official explanation has been given, GOP lawmakers who approved the measure have said they were concerned that the agreement between the center and a state university gave resources to one news organization and not others, and that it blurred the line between government and media.  

To be sure, a number of Wisconsin’s conservative politicians and pundits have decried the effort as “petty, vindictive and dumb.” 

More predictably the move has drawn fire from journalism groups nationwide, including Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), which called on Wisconsin lawmakers to reconsider. (Full disclosure: The author is a longtime IRE member.) 

“Beyond the impact of the stories it tells, the center stands as a unique training ground for a new generation of young reporters learning the skills of investigative journalism under the guidance of executive director and former IRE Board member, Andy Hall,” IRE’s statement read. “Targeting such work is indefensible. 

Wisconsin Watch“The center’s mission is to facilitate a vibrant democracy, to educate readers and viewers on matters of public policy and to inspire engagement in the very political process — principles that legislators should instinctively share and defend.” 

The move also has aroused fears about the vulnerability of nonprofit newsgathering organizations. Like the center, all 60 members of the four-year-old Investigative News Network (INN) are nonpartisan nonprofits; many have relationships with universities or colleges in their communities that are similar to the Wisconsin arrangement. 

MinnPost is a member of INN and has worked with the Wisconsin center in several capacities, including a past agreement under which MinnPost was allowed to publish the program’s content. 

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More recently, the two news organizations are joint recipients of a grant from the Joyce Foundation. MinnPost’s portion of the grant underwrites reporting on public affairs and policy that focuses on democracy reform. 

On to Walker’s desk

If, as seems likely, according to center’s Hall, the bill is eventually forwarded to Walker’s desk, the fledgling effort will find new office space and will survive. But students will lose a valuable experience and Wisconsinites will be more dependent on the for-profit news sources that are paring public affairs coverage. 

And if the gambit is successful, political bodies in other states are more likely to try to pass similar legislation. 

“It concerns me to have legislative bodies making it harder for nonprofit media to succeed, especially if they do so because they are concerned about the coverage,” said MinnPost CEO and Editor Joel Kramer. “Obviously, that has a chilling effect that’s not good for our democracy.” 

Although MinnPost has an entirely different nonprofit business model, it works with students in a class at the University of Minnesota journalism program, Kramer added. An effort to legislate that relationship out of existence would rob students. 

There is a chance the Wisconsin Senate could attempt to rewrite the joint committee budget to eliminate the provision, but Hall said that seems unlikely.