About the Investigative Reporting Workshop
Overview: The Investigative Reporting Workshop, a project of the School of Communication (SOC) at American University, is a nonprofit, professional newsroom. The Workshop publishes in-depth stories at investigativereportingworkshop.org about government and corporate accountability, ranging widely from the environment and health to national security and the economy. The Workshop pairs experienced professional reporters and editors with graduate students, and co-publishes with mainstream media partners and nonprofit newsrooms. We also have an ongoing relationship with the PBS program FRONTLINE — producer Rick Young and his team are based at the School of Communication as well — and with The Washington Post. The Workshop helped develop the American Press Institute's guiding principles for nonprofit newsroom.
In recent years, much of the traditional American media, in a drive to cut costs and maintain profits, has slashed the capacity to do investigative journalism. This has happened as the forces of technology and globalization are combining to make government and powerful private institutions less transparent and less subject to oversight.
The Investigative Reporting Workshop addresses this fundamental issue for democracy by:
• Creating significant, original investigative reporting on subjects of national and international importance. This work is being done by preeminent journalists working closely with graduate students, and is published on the Workshop’s website and in partnership with national news organizations, including PBS FRONTLINE, The Philadelphia Inquirer, msnbc.com and various organizations in the Investigative News Network (INN).
• Analyzing and experimenting with new economic models for creating and delivering investigative reporting. The Workshop’s Investigative Laboratory or iLab, has assisted in the development of several nonprofit ventures. We also tracked emerging news nonprofits through a series of “new journalism ecosystem” stories, interactive tables and a database, presented at the Online News Association conference in 2010 and updated in 2011.
The Workshop began publishing in the spring of 2009. It is modeled on the Children’s Television Workshop, which originally was created to produce “Sesame Street,” but became an incubator and innovator for much of educational television. The Workshop operates under the 501(c)(3) designation of American University. The Dean of the AU School of Communication is Dr. Jeffrey Rutenbeck.
Our core staff:
• Charles Lewis, a national investigative journalist for more than 30 years who founded the Center for Public Integrity in 1989 and its International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 1997, is the founding executive editor of the Workshop. Lewis frequently writes for the Workshop’s site and speaks in the U.S. and around the world. The research for his 2014 book, "935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity," helped lead to Investigating Power, a unique multimedia, oral history website that documents "truth to power" moments in contemporary U.S. history and the journalists behind them. Lewis teaches international investigative reporting at AU, where he is a tenured faculty member.
• John Sullivan, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer, joined the Workshop as a senior editor in May 2013 to spearhead a new partnership between the Workshop and The Washington Post, where he is also a member of the investigations team. He is teaching an investigative practicum at the graduate level, with AU students working alongside Post reporters on their projects. He led a team of five reporters who examined violence in the Philadelphia schools at the Inquirer; the series won the Pulitzer for Public Service in 2012. Sullivan previously was a senior lecturer and assistant director of Medill Watchdog and on the journalism faculty at Northwestern University.
• Jennifer LaFleur joined the Investigative Reporting Workshop as its data editor and the School of Communication at American University as a data journalist-in-residence in September 2017.
LaFleur was previously senior editor for data journalism for the award-winning Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which she joined in 2013, and where she worked as a senior editor, managing news apps developers, data reporters, investigative reporters and fellows. She also contributed to or edited dozens of major projects while at Reveal.
She is also the former director of computer-assisted reporting at ProPublica and has held similar roles at The Dallas Morning News, the San Jose Mercury News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was also the first training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors.
• Lynne Perri, is the managing editor. She oversees and edits Workshop projects and develops visual journalism to accompany our stories.
She is a full-time faculty member at American University, teaching reporting, journalism ethics and news-design classes.
She is a former deputy managing editor for graphics and photography at USA TODAY, where she also wrote features and book reviews. She was a news and features reporter and features editor at several newspapers, including The Tampa Tribune and the Tallahassee Democrat.
• Kris Higgins, with strong management experience in nonprofit organizations, is the operating producer. He oversees business and financial operations, as well as video production.
• Wendell Cochran, a longtime business reporter, editor and journalism faculty member, is a co-founding senior editor. Cochran, who has retired, created our BankTracker project, in which we track the financial health of every bank and credit union in the country, with an emphasis on those receiving TARP money. He also created the Workshops' "Exemption 10" column about the Freedom of Information Act.
General staff: Additionally, the Workshop employs part-time staff, including a website developer and several graphic and design professionals. The Workshop also has trained more than 135 student journalists from both AU and from universities across the country since 2009, hiring them as paid interns in a variety of roles and as graduate and undergraduate researchers/reporters.
The Investigative Reporting Workshop has an Advisory Board of 13 outstanding journalists from five continents.
Today the Workshop is the largest university-based investigative reporting center in the United States (out of 18), and the only one in the nation’s capital. We have had two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2011-2013 Harvard Fellow under contract for major projects.
Operational and publishing overview
The Workshop began receiving philanthropic support in June 2008, and began publishing major investigative stories in partnership with national media outlets in March 2009.
Among our achievements: the ability to find major philanthropic partners and support despite being a startup enterprise in a difficult economy.
Since June 2008, in the worst economy since the Great Depression, the Workshop has received $9.6 million.
Here is a list of the foundations and individuals that have made grants to the Workshop in the past two years:
• Carnegie Corporation of New York
• Democracy Fund
• Fund for Constitutional Government
• Fund for Investigative Journalism
• Litowitz Family Foundation
• Reva and David Logan Foundation
• John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
• Giles W. and Elise G. Mead Foundation
• National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation
• Park Foundation
• Rockefeller Brothers Fund
• WGBH Educational Foundation
Individual Donors ($250+)
• Jonathan Coopersmith
• Charles Lewis and Pamela Gilbert
• Louise Montgomery
• Mark Thompson
In-kind data contributions:
• Rush Powers Media
Workshop ethics policies
Transparency: The Workshop is committed to operating in a transparent, open fashion that other news organizations can use as a model. We believe transparency will foster more credibility for our journalistic projects and help create confidence on the part of our partners and our funders. To that end, we will provide disclosure of our operations and practices beyond that which is required by law or custom.
Journalistic ethics: High-quality journalism devoted to providing oversight of powerful public and private institutions is vital to a free society. We define “high-quality” to include not only excellent tradecraft, but also excellence in decision-making that reflects the ideals of transparency and accountability to all our stakeholders. To read our ethics policy, click HERE.
Graphic by Benjamin Fall
Financial disclosures: The Workshop does not file a Form 990 because it is part of American University. We do, however, disclose information about our finances, including executive compensation.
Sources of funding: The Workshop is primarily funded by grants from private foundations. As a matter of course, we submit proposals to these funders as a way of seeking their support. We make required narrative and financial reports to funders detailing the use of grant funds. We also accept gifts from individuals. We disclose our donors and do not accept anonymous contributions. All gifts to the Workshop of more than $10,000 a year are disclosed on our website.
We do not seek nor accept contributions from corporations, labor unions, governments, political parties or advocacy organizations, although in limited instances we may accept in-kind corporate contributions of data to support projects and may work with for-profit entities (such as LLCs) to advance journalism, media, democracy and freedom of speech. Workshop editors and staff may attend domestic and international conferences and allow travel expenses to be covered by corporate, government and nonprofit entities (though, no speaker’s fees are ever accepted).
We maintain a strict separation between funding and editorial content and funders are not involved in the editorial decisions we make. We may discuss editorial content with publishing and investigating partners, some of which may be for-profit media entities, such as The Washington Post and documentary producers.
We had more than 1 million unique visitors to the website in the first several years of operation. Over the past year, we've had about 530,000 unique visitors, and about 700,000 total visits, with a little more than 3 million page views, according to Google Analytics. The BankTracker project, published with msnbc.com (now NBCNews.com), continues to draw most of our traffic (more than 75 percent).
We also created a mobile site in July 2012; mobile or tablet users are automatically directed to this new site, and desktop users are directed to a desktop design. We have also enlarged our presence in the social media world, including improving and updating our Facebook and Twitter accounts; adding a new blog on FOIA developments; and creating and producing a monthly e-newsletter and e-postcard outreach.
Significant editorial/web publication 2009-2014
In 2014 to date, we published stories and additional material, including an interactive drought graphic, as companions to the "Years of Living Dangerously" documentary series airing on Showtime. We produced two stories for that series.
We also published stories as part of our partnership with The Washington Post, including one on a nonprofit that has grown wealthy in its humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and another that looked in-depth at problems with school bus drivers' accountability.
In 2013, we published "The Hole," in which Workshop filmmaker-in-residence and reporter Catherine Rentz revealed the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention centers around the country. Rentz co-wrote the story with Ian Urbina of The New York Times, which also published the story and photos in print and online.
We also published "The Koch Club," a project that took more than two years and involved dozens of researchers. One of the sidebars, on a little-known climate pledge that has led to inaction in Congress, was co-published with The New Yorker.
We also published an award-winning report on the impact of nonprofit news.
In the first three years of publishing, the Workshop produced the ongoing BankTracker project, and also more than 40 stories and packages on:
• Stimulus money for green energy going overseas
• Obama's health-care czar
• The problems with moving to electronic medical records
• The nuclear-energy lobby’s growing influence during the Obama adminstration
• Gunrunning into Mexico
The Workshop also devoted substantial resources and a team, led by veteran journalists Don Barlett and Jim Steele, to our What Went Wrong project, which continued to document the hardships of the middle class at the hands of Wall Street and Washington. The project culminated in a new book by Barlett and Steele, “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” published by PublicAffairs on Aug. 1, 2012, and was on The New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists. We are working with two-time Academy Award-winning director Barbara Kopple to co-produce a documentary film on this subject.
BankTracker: Cochran, in partnership with msnbc.com, developed and released BankTracker, the first online tool to track the FDIC financial performance and troubled-asset ratio of every bank and credit union in the United States.
Since its launch, BankTracker has received 12.5 million page views. And in March 2010, this project won the “Creative Use of Online” media award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, the Workshop’s first national journalism award. As of June 2013, it continued to be our most popular project with readers..
Connected: The Media and Broadband Project: One of our most significant achievements, made possible with grants from the Ford and Knight foundations, was the publication of a series of stories published as Connected: The Media and Broadband Project.
The stories were written by veteran journalist John Dunbar, who created and directed the award-winning Well-Connected watchdog project at the Center for Public Integrity in 2003. Dunbar later joined the Washington bureau of The Associated Press and continued his work as one of the nation’s most respected reporters tracking the telecommunications and media industries’ attempts to influence federal regulators and lawmakers.
After joining the Workshop, in March 2010, Dunbar wrote the first Connected report, which revealed that the largest broadband and wireless companies have spent $873 million in lobbying since 1999 to, among other things, stifle federal government efforts to collect and make public data that could help the nation determine whether a “digital divide” truly exists in America. In June of that year, in partnership with Politico, Dunbar reported that just in the preceding months, Comcast had hired 78 lobbyists working in Washington to make sure the Obama administration approved their takeover of NBC Universal. In July, the Workshop released a national investigative report and interactive map on the precise state of the digital radio industry, with profiles of other media industries on deck.
Dunbar subsequently authored a major article analyzing the Comcast takeover of NBC in the January/February 2011 issue of CJR. And in February 2011, he and his team presented a detailed broadband map of Washington and the surrounding metro area, the eighth-largest in the country, complete with searchable data revealing the speed and price of broadband services. The principal finding — covered by The Washington Post, WAMU-FM, the New Republic and others — was that “people who live in low-income areas of the District of Columbia on average get less for their broadband dollar than those who live in the wealthy suburbs — and subscribers in rural areas get the worst deals of all.”
In July 2011, Dunbar and his team went deeper, closely scrutinizing precisely where broadband adoption is unusually low, and why. Incorporating data from the Federal Communications Commission, the newly released Commerce Department National Broadband Map and U.S. Census (2010) data, the Workshop analyzed the “broadband divide” down to the census tract level (“Culture, income, location affect broadband adoption in Washington region”), which was again covered by WAMU-FM and disseminated widely on local and national websites.
We then took the methodology we used in the D.C. metro area pilot project — in which we combined two federal data sets, analyzed and searchable down to the census-tract level — and we applied it to all 50 states and major metropolitan areas. It was the first time this invaluable citizen/consumer information was easily available and searchable on a national scale.
In the Washington metropolitan area, the “digital divide” is less about access to broadband and more about affordability and income. We found this was also true throughout the nation. Reporter and web developer Jacob Fenton, working with Dunbar (who later rejoined the Center for Public Integrity staff), completed this unprecedented journalistic investigation into which parts of the United States still do not have high-speed Internet access in the 21st century, and why.
The package we produced and published in March 2012 looked at the 100 top metropolitan areas around the country and found that income continued to be the great digital divider. Through mapping searchable databases, stories and sidebars, we brought readers into the reality of poverty and low-income areas in which people cannot find jobs, talk to their children’s teachers or apply for basic government services without computers and high-speed connections. We customized maps for seven organizational members of the INN, who then produced additional local stories. NPR wrote about the project on its website, which we co-published with:
• City Limits
• Tucson Sentinel
• The Lens NOLA
• The Center for Public Integrity
The Philadelphia Inquirer and Computer World also followed up, and Dunbar was interviewed for television stories highlighting regional trends in Dayton, Ohio; Johnstown, Pa.; and El Paso, Texas.
This project showed our commitment to using sophisticated data analysis and computer-assisted journalism to create interactive tools, as well as our commitment to collaboration.
How we develop print and online partners
Our co-publishers and distribution partners have included msnbc.com, PBS FRONTLINE, the leading Washington D.C. NPR station, WAMU-FM, the Financial Times, ABC World News Tonight, The Washington Post, Politico, the Philadelphia Inquirer, McClatchy newspapers, Mother Jones magazine, New America Media and Columbia Journalism Review (CJR).
Sometimes we partner for distribution, such as with msnbc.com. Other times, we share the reporting process, such as our summer 2011 partnership with San Francisco-based New America Media on the ongoing foreclosure crisis, which looked at particularly hard-hit ethnic communities in northern California and in Maryland’s Prince George’s county, the country’s largest majority-minority county. Our stories were translated into three languages and distributed to ethnic press outlets in print as well as online.
Our March 2012 final story in a series on the continuing income disparity in broadband usage nationwide led us to a partnership with INN members. For this, we customized maps and data for smaller sites with fewer staff and resources, including The Lens in New Orleans.
Click HERE for a list of our media partners.
Significant television work 2009-2014
We forged a formal working relationship with the respected PBS documentary program FRONTLINE, making the Workshop only the second university-based production hub for FRONTLINE in the U.S.
The first co-production was broadcast nationwide on Feb. 9, 2010. “Flying Cheap” received glowing reviews on NPR, in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Pegged to the one-year anniversary of the Continental Connection Flight 3407 crash in Buffalo, one of the season’s most watched documentaries exposed the abysmal working conditions inside regional air carriers. Six months after it was broadcast, the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 was signed into law by President Barack Obama, including new flight safety requirements regarding pilot fatigue, pilot qualifications and flight training. Also because of the new law, all airline ticket sales (whether online, phone, etc.) must now include who is actually operating the plane.
On Feb. 5, 2011, “Flying Cheap,” which was written by the Workshop’s Rick Young, who was then on staff full time, won the first-prize award from the Writers Guild of America in the “documentary – current events” category, and also the Society of Professional Journalists documentary award, the second and third national prizes earned by the Workshop.
As a follow-up, in February 2011, the Workshop co-produced “Flying Cheaper,” which focused on aircraft maintenance and how the airlines are farming out more and more critical safety repair work to third-party facilities. Today, the major airlines are outsourcing more than 70 percent of their maintenance, with nearly half of that work going overseas to low-cost operators in countries like China and El Salvador.
And on Oct. 18, 2011, after three years of research and one year of filming, the Workshop and FRONTLINE and Univision co-produced “Lost in Detention,” an investigation into President Obama’s immigration enforcement efforts and the shadowy world of immigration detention. It won the “Best National Informational Documentary Award” from the Imagen Foundation.
The Workshop website features several additional online video segments about migrants crossing to and from Mexico, shot and edited by SOC professors Carolyn Brown and Larry Engel, as well as an interactive U.S. map revealing the dramatic growth in detention facilities over the last 30 years.
Our collaboration has made extensive use of our respective websites, where we have published multiple stories on the day a program aired, continued to update a topic with new events and stories and added features such as publishing the documents used in our research — and annotating them — via DocumentCloud (an open source cataloging tool for journalists).
FRONTLINE producers created two election-focused programs we were associated with in October 2012: "Big Sky, Big Money," for which we also partnered with Marketplace, and "The Digital Campaign," which was also broadcast by the PBC NewsHour.
FRONTLINE producer-writer Rick Young and reporter and correspondent David Hoffman, formerly of The Washington Post, also produced the documentary "Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria," which aired in the fall of 2013 on PBS, and they are working on follow-up stories related to antibiotics and food.
And Senior Producer and Editor Margaret Ebrahim developed stories for more than a year with Associate Producer Jolie Lee on "Years of Living Dangerously," a new series on climate change for Showtime, which began airing in the spring of 2014.
We have been training a new generation of investigative journalists. Many of our published investigative news stories have been researched, reported and/or written by current students or recent graduates of the American University master’s program in journalism and public affairs.
Lewis, Perri and Sullivan teach journalism courses within the American University School of Communication, recruiting the best young reporters and researchers for Workshop projects — more than 120 since 2010.
The Workshop also benefits from the expertise and wisdom of other participating professors with specialties in journalism, film and public communication.
Additionally, since 2010, we have offered paid internships to students from other universities, resulting in undergraduate and graduate participation from students at Arizona State University, Brooklyn College/CUNY, Brown University, Duke University, Georgetown University, Howard University, Ithaca College, New York University, Northwestern University, Princeton University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, University of Missouri, and Vanderbilt University.
We have encouraged and carefully chronicled the state of nonprofit investigative journalism and aided in the creation of new publishing entities. Lewis has written three detailed analyses of the still evolving landscape of nonprofit news sites around the world. Intended to be a “living resource,” continually updated on the Investigative Reporting Workshop’s iLab site, it is the most systematic attempt by anyone to assess the history, mission, size, extent of editorial oversight, news standards and practices, peer recognition and transparency of this important, growing nonprofit space for serious public-service journalism.
Lewis, dubbed “the godfather of nonprofit investigative journalism” by Mark Glaser of the PBS MediaShift (Thought Leader Q & A) blog in 2008, the following year, co-founded the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), drafting the original version of the “Pocantico Declaration” before it was collectively edited; he also formally proposed at the July 1, 2009, meeting of 20 nonprofit news publishers the actual name and concept of an “Investigative News Network." The group is now called the Institute for Nonprofit News.
Previously, there had never been an attempt in the United States to organize and disseminate the best investigative reporting content of respected news organizations and their journalists. Lewis, one of the four original Board members when INN was incorporated, currently serves as treasurer.
Today, INN has more than 100 member organizations and has obtained its Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax exempt status. In 2011, the Workshop expanded its role with the INN, including pre-publication telephone conference calls with reporters around the country and sharing our data, our analysis and our stories before publication to allow other outlets to localize or expand upon our work.
In addition, the Workshop helped nurture FairWarning — News of Safety, Health and Corporate Conduct, founded and led by former Los Angeles Times reporter Myron Levin. The organization, with Lewis’s advice and encouragement, received its 501 (c)(3) status and some of its earliest funding. The site launched in March 2010 with a mission to arm consumers and workers with valuable health and safety information, while spotlighting dubious business practices and lax oversight by government regulators. Lewis was a founding member of its Board.
Our staff has participated in numerous national and international conferences.
Lewis' sixth book, "935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity," was published June 24, 2014, by PublicAffairs (a member of the Perseus Books group, based in New York). Between 1996 and 2004, Lewis co-authored five books with his Center for Public Integrity reporters/writers, and the last book, "The Buying of the President 2004," was a nationwide bestseller. Three of his co-authored Center books were finalists for the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) book award. He has taken a national and international leadership role in helping to develop what he calls “the new journalism ecosystem” of nonprofit news organizations. Since 2007, he has written 20 articles about the condition and future of nonprofit journalism, some of them in national publications, such as CJR (he is a contributing editor there), Harvard University’s Nieman Watchdog and the IRE Journal, and he has served on 13 nonprofit boards and advisory boards.
In July 2012, he was invited and agreed to serve on the George Polk Award panel of advisors. Since 2007, he also has spoken publicly in the U.S. and abroad on more than 30 occasions at national and international journalism conferences throughout the United States and in Australia, Germany, Argentina, Egypt, England (Oxford University), Italy, Japan, Jordan, Norway and Ukraine.
In 2010, he addressed the national conferences of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) and the Online News Association (ONA), where he presented The New Journalism Ecosystem, the first major report, detailed roster and national interactive map and database profiling 60 of “the most interesting and credible nonprofit, online publishers in the United States.” In late November 2011, Lewis, Kate Musselwhite and Brittney Butts updated and extended it to 75 nonprofit news publishers.
In June 2012, at the national IRE conference in Boston, Lewis moderated the most heavily attended panel (out of more than 100) there, entitled “Investigating Power.” His project by this name is an ongoing work in progress thus far involving 23 producers, researchers and web designers and 100 hours of high definition interview material shot and edited over the past five years.
Lewis, Perri and Sullivan have all led panel discussions, given presentations and workshops and participated at the national meetings of the Investigative Reporters and Editors; the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting; the Online News Association; J-Lab; Google; the University of California (Berkeley) Logan Symposium and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. We also co-created and sponsored a ScraperWiki conference in Washington, D.C., and in the spring of 2014, we co-sponsored an IRE advanced statistics workshop at the School of Communication.
How to give to the Workshop
The Investigative Reporting Workshop is funded entirely by foundation grants and gifts from individuals.
You can support our efforts with a tax-deductible gift online or by sending a check to:
Investigative Reporting Workshop
4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20016-8017
Attention: Kris Higgins