I never expect to see the words “fry bread” in a news story. So when I saw Ron Seely’s in-depth story last July about an Ojibwe encampment to protest the proposed mine in northern Wisconsin, I was impressed.
Setting a scene, Seely wrote: “think fry bread, wild onions and birch bark baskets …”
His storytelling not only made me hungry for fry bread, but for good journalism — the kind with impact.
The piece Seely wrote was for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization focused on increasing the quality and quantity of investigative reporting in Wisconsin. I am proud to serve on the board of directors of WCIJ, whose mission also is to foster an informed citizenry and strengthen democracy, while training college students to become investigative journalists.
In its fifth year, WCIJ has grown to be a leader in this relatively new brand of journalism startups. The center and others like it across the nation fill a void left by newspapers, which have downsized in recent years. Their work is vitally important because it keeps a watchful eye on government and digs deep into a wide variety of issues.
Their work also has the power to change public policy.
In 2013, WCIJ examined Wisconsin’s GPS tracking of offenders. In response to the report, the head of the state Assembly Committee on Corrections called a legislative hearing to question the Department of Corrections. Citing the center’s reporting as a factor, the state Legislature’s budget committee scaled back a planned expansion of the GPS monitoring program for offenders — and called for a study of the system’s reliability. A follow-up story probed Wisconsin’s justice system and revealed the lack of state standards regulating the use of informants, or “snitches,” and their role in wrongful convictions.
The center last year produced other hard-hitting journalism that made a difference. In a story that looked into problems with long waiting lists at the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, WCIJ found that the agency had declined to ask for full federal funding that would allow it to reduce the backlog of jobseekers-with-disabilities requesting assistance. Advocates credited the center’s report with helping to change Gov. Scott Walker’s position, as he later signed legislation to request more federal money.
WCIJ’s investigation into a change in state law regarding nursing homes showed that it diminished families’ abilities to hold potentially negligent nursing facilities accountable by barring records of abuse and neglect from use in the courts. Some legislators now are attempting to abolish that measure. The center’s investigation also showed that some long-term care facilities are failing to report deaths and injuries, as required by law. In response to the center’s inquiries into an accident involving an 88-year-old woman at a Milwaukee nursing home, the state reformed its intake procedures to ensure that complaints against nursing homes are triaged appropriately and investigated in a timely fashion.
Andy Hall, WCIJ executive director, says the center had “a remarkable year” and I concur.
Hall said the center broke high-impact stories, won eight Milwaukee Press Club Awards, added award-winning science and environmental reporter Ron Seely to the staff and survived an attempt by the state Legislature to “kick us off campus” and bar University of Wisconsin-Madison employees from working with the center.
Andy and his hard-working team have covered a lot of ground. Since launching in 2009, WCIJ has produced more than 145 news reports and 130 Money & Politics columns. Its work has been cited, published or broadcast by media in Wisconsin and across the nation, reaching an estimated audience of 32 million people.
The work of WCIJ is valuable. Consider making a donation to support impactful journalism with strong storytelling – the kind that has the power to make you hunger for more.
Follow me on Twitter @karenmichel.