Nonprofit Investigative Outlets Serve News Needs in Midwest

Last in a Series on Medill Students’ Innovation Tour

As many legacy news organizations downsize, it increasingly falls on nonprofits to do the deep dives that have long been a central function of American journalism.

In a new video reporting project at Northwestern University, students profiled seven innovative organizations in the Midwest, including two that conduct investigations to shed light on the biggest stories of our time.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Journalism, an Illinois-based outfit, tracked how the COVID-19 pandemic affected workers in the food industry. Wisconsin Watch revealed how people who were punished for curfew violations amid last year’s social justice protests were overwhelmingly Black.

The video project was part of a program called Medill Explores at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Professor Craig Duff’s class of 14 students worked in pairs to visit the seven Midwest news operations. The students were assisted by Jesse Hardman and Fernando Diaz of the Listening Post Collective, which helps journalists and nonprofits connect with communities.

In past weeks, we highlighted the students’ videos about projects in Ohio, Iowa, Kansas and Indiana. Today, in the final part of our three-part series, we feature their videos about the two investigative outlets.

Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

When COVID-19 swept across the country, it hit meatpacking plants particularly hard, and it was important to get the facts out about how many workers were affected.

As a Medill student video explains: “This is a story that might have gone unreported if there wasn’t an investigative watchdog holding people accountable in the rural and agriculture areas of the country.”

That watchdog is the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, based in Champaign, Illinois, since 2012 and focused on the food industry. Its nonprofit reporting would not be possible without strong support from foundations.

“I would say 80-85% of our funding comes from traditional journalism foundations or other foundations that want to support a project,” said the center’s executive director, Pam Dempsey.

At a time of widespread newsroom cutbacks, nonprofit investigative outlets like the center serve a significant purpose, said journalism consultant Sheila Solomon.

I hear from students all the time: ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be an investigative reporter.’

Sheila Solomon, journalism consultant

“I hear from students all the time: ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be an investigative reporter,’” said Solomon. “And we know we need that because our larger newsrooms are collapsing.”

Agribusinesses, often far removed from the urban centers where big news outlets are based, might get little coverage without the Midwest Center.

Medill student Saeed Ba Abdullah, who produced the video about the center with Debbie-Marie Brown, found their project eye-opening.

“Honestly, I had never thought about agriculture reporting until I went there,” he said.

Wisconsin Watch

Amid protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, Milwaukee imposed a curfew and ticketed violators. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, also known as Wisconsin Watch, followed up with a story about who got those tickets, and how.

They found that two-thirds of those ticketed were Black even though the city was less than half Black. They also discovered that many had received tickets based on their social media posts, raising First Amendment concerns.

The nonprofit was founded in 2009 by Andy and Dee Hall. Its stories run on a variety of news websites, and they partner with other journalism outlets on reporting.

“That’s how we see our role – bringing to light information that people don’t necessarily know or placing it in a context that they didn’t fully understand, so then at some point they can make a better decision either politically or a better decision personally about how to address that issue,” said Dee Hall.

That’s how we see our role – bringing to light information that people don’t necessarily know or placing it in a context that they didn’t fully understand.

Dee Hall, Co-founder, Wisconsin Watch

“They’re a small but mighty organization, and they’re able to really be innovative in their ways of outreach,” said Medill student Alex Perry, who produced the video with Daisy Kershaw.

The diminution of major legacy newspapers has inspired the creation of this type of independent investigative outlet.

“Wisconsin Watch is one of the great examples of a statewide investigative news outlet that is booming,” said Tim Franklin, Medill Senior Associate Dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News.

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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