November 4, 2010

Q&A: Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism Executive Director Andy Hall

In 2009, Andy Hall ended a 26-year-long career as an award-winning daily newspaper reporter in Arizona and Wisconsin to establish a nonprofit investigative journalism center.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism was launched with a $100,000 grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation to begin its work of producing journalism in the public interest.  Hall, WCIJ’s Executive Director, is still reporting and has become an expert on launching a nonprofit news organization.

Cater:  Let’s start out talking about the online tutorial that you and INN’s Chair Brant Houston recently launched on the J-Lab website.  It is the big question in our industry right now – how do you start a nonprofit news organization and how do you make it sustainable?

Andy:  Certainly the nonprofit news model is one of the directions journalism is heading these days, and we hope the online tutorial at J-Lab will help people get started as they first hatch a dream of some sort, for the creation of a nonprofit news organization.  We hope to provide common sense advice as well as quite a few caveats about the challenges inherent in forming these organizations.

Cater: Andy, this week you and Brant hosted a live chat where you talked about your findings in creating the online tutorial for J-Lab.  What were the biggest questions posed from people both practicing nonprofit investigative journalism and from those considering it?

Andy:  The live chat certainly re-emphasized the strong interest that exists all across the country in creating nonprofit news organizations…and it reinforced how complicated these ventures really are, how many details are involved.  We received questions about how to form a Board of Directors, how to develop that board in a manner that ultimately helps strengthen of the organization and makes it more sustainable.  We received questions about identifying the mission of the organization, how to identify precisely what the need is for this organization and why it ought to be created as opposed to building on the activities of existing organizations.  All of these are questions that confront the founders of organizations.

All of us need to go out and identify and recruit board members.  We need to form organizations that are effective, where everybody understands their roles.  We also need to understand what we are not good at…probably most journalists are not expert bookkeepers, for example.  Most of us are not experts in the legal world, so it’s important to acquire access to legal expertise, preferably through a pro bono arrangement.  It’s important to have that legal expertise not just for vetting stories before they’re published, pre-publication review and open records issues, but also for the nuts and bolts of running a business.  You’ll be signing contracts, insurance policies, rental agreements, all of these arrangements need review by legal counsel.

Cater:  You had a long, distinguished career yourself just practicing print journalism.  As you have transitioned into life as both a journalist and an entrepreneur, can you talk about your journey?

Andy:  I came into this with more than 26 years background as a reporter.  That’s where my expertise has been, identifying and producing stories for readers.  I try to think of launching and running a news organization that feels somewhat familiar to me, and that is that many of the skills involved in producing journalism actually, as it turns out, do come in quite handy as we try to move into the entrepreneurial world.  We need to identify issues, we need to identify through research, the people, documents and data that can help us understand those issues.  And then we need to finally figure out the story, the coherent narrative that we hope will help others to understand our vision for these news organizations and inspire individuals and foundations to support the creation and sustenance of these organizations.

Andy Hall is a founding member of the Investigative News Network.  He was part of the conference in Pocantico, New York in July of 2009, when INN was created.

Cater:  As one of the founding members of the Investigative News Network, how do you see INN’s role in advancing that vision?

Andy:  The spirit at that conference was quite exhilarating.  All of us knew we were on the verge of creating something special.  It was something we couldn’t completely visualize sitting in that conference room, but we all understood the need for us to act together.   Ultimately, we will be stronger working together, sharing resources, sharing ideas, sharing expertise, we will make ourselves stronger journalistically and financially.

Cater:  You have formed many partnerships with mainstream media in your community.  How important are those partnerships to sustainability?

Andy:  Certainly our partnerships are really our lifeblood.  We have partnerships with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication here at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, also with Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio.  In addition, we strike up ad hoc, collaborative relationships with a wide range of mainstream and ethnic media here in Wisconsin and across the country.  It’s really through those relationships that we’re able to greatly expand our access to resources, expand the reach of our coverage, and increase the efficiency of our operations.

At the other end of the continuum we’re talking about side-by-side collaborations with for-profit and non-profit news media organizations across our state and across the country.  These are, again, not as simple as they might appear right on the surface.  When you have print, online and broadcast reporters working together, how do you iron out the mechanics of doing an interview?  There’s a lot of give and take that requires a lot of patience, but ultimately if successful, the collaboration results in better journalism that reaches more people and that’s really what we’re here for.