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Jones family foundation, Ed Hart funding WFPL’s ambitious Investigative Reporting Center

by Rick Redding

Donavan Reynolds, Louisville Public Media general manager

(Editor’s note Insider Louisville executives approached David Jones, Jr. as a potential investor, but Jones declined.)

Media-watchers have been lamenting the downfall of local investigative reporting for some time, wondering if the days of watchdog journalism are over; if lengthy illuminating investigative pieces have gone the way of typewriters and disc jockeys.

But there may be an investigative reporting revival afoot, and it’s coming from an unlikely source – public radio.

Let’s face it. The local newspaper ain’t what it used to be.

TV stations may have amped up their investigative work, but how much is really accomplished in two-minute segments during sweeps months?

Other local newspapers seem to have lost the ambition to shake things up. Independent news operations, like this one, are doing their best but don’t have piles of cash to fund reporting.

This month, that all might change.

Louisville Public Media will launch its Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, buoyed by $500,000 in private funding.

That funding includes $250,000 from Ed Hart and his wife Gaylee Gillim and $190,000 from the C.E. and S. Foundation, Humana co-founder David Jones’ family foundation, said Louisville Public Media General Manager Donovan Reynolds.

Hart has a long history of pushing back against media coverage. In 1998, Hart’s company successfully sued WHAS TV for libel after the station incorrectly reported safety inspectors deemed a Kentucky Kingdom roller coaster “unsafe” prior to a serious accident.

According to Kentucky Secretary of State filings, C. E. & S. Foundation officers are David Jones, David Jones, Jr. and Louisville attorney Bryan K. Johnson. The foundation has the same address as Chrysalis Ventures, the Louisville-based venture capital firm where David Jones, Jr. is chairman.

The new initiative has raised a total of $600,000, Reynolds said.

He added that it’s a bold step for his organization, considering no for-profit funding model has proven successful in today’s media environment.

Reynolds’ strategy is this: Raise enough money to finance the hiring of talented reporters for at least a year, get them in the building, and then figure out what to cover and how to distribute it.

Long-term, Reynolds said, the $1 million per year LPM raises through its pledge drives won’t sustain this kind of news-gathering operation.

On June 17, two hires with strong reporting credentials show up for work at Louisville Public Media’s Fourth Street headquarters, though Reynolds is not sure how long it will be before anything they’ve investigated will be available for the public.

Investigative reporting projects could take the form of online packages, videos, radio pieces or even a partnership with an existing media organization, Reynolds said.

Brendan McCarthy

Brendan McCarthy, who’s finishing up a year at WWL-TV in New Orleans, will direct the new initiative. LPM has also hired former Courier-Journal reporter R.G. Dunlop, who starts the same day as McCarthy.

The organization is advertising now for a reporter adept at mining data for stories, and has two other spots to fill in the coming months.

“We need to make decisions when he (McCarthy) gets here. We need to decide the scope of what we’ll cover, because you just can’t do everything,” Reynolds said.

For starters, he said, both McCarthy and Dunlop will get some radio training and attend the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference this month in San Antonio.

McCarthy earned plenty of accolades for his stories on politicians and crime in scandal-soaked Louisiana working for the Times-Picayune newspaper before going to TV in 2012.

Reynolds wants Louisvillians to treat investigative reporting as a local point-of-pride in the same way it boasts about the arts and other good things in the community. For example, if generous citizens are supporting Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Speed Art Museum, they should set aside just as much of their charitable piece of the pie for investigative reporting.

“We’ve been asking for support from people at $50, now we need to ask them for $50,000,” he said. “We think it is important enough that our supporters will value us in the same way as those others. We think we can do it. When we ask about it, we’re very encouraged. We have to fill the gap.”

The participation of C. E. & S. Foundation in the Investigative Reporting Center has not been previously reported. But the terms of Hart’s $250,000 original pledge last October was that WFPL raise at least an equal amount.

David Jones, Jr., referred questions to Bruce Mazar, executive director of the fund. Mazar’s voice mail states that he is out of town this week. He did not respond to voicemail requests for an interview.

On the fund’s website, it states C. E. & S. Foundation typically makes donations to a variety of categories including higher education, international cooperation, urban environment improvement, disaster relief and foundation-initiated grants. In addition to his work as a venture capitalist, David Jones, Jr. also is the District 2 representative on the Jefferson County Board of Education.

Reynolds said planning is underway for a new fund-raising campaign with a lofty goal – $7 million over three years.

In addition to further funding for the Investigative Reporting Center, the money would be used for facilities and programs Reynolds says are overdue for upgrades.

Will investigative journalism, financed through donations from the community, really work?

As a business model, will it replace the failing advertiser-supported enterprises that Americans have counted on for decades?

Will it really be unencumbered and independent, free to investigate anything and everything, including those who make their jobs possible?

Those are big questions.

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