Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting hones in on agribusiness

Editor's note: Sam Robinson, who regularly writes for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, also attended the workshop. William H. Freivogel, publisher of Gateway Journalism Review, is president of the Midwest Center board.

“Covering agribusiness in the heartland is like covering Apple in Washington or Google in Silicon Valley.”

This was told to more than two dozen journalists who cover agriculture by Craig Gunderson of the University of Illinois. Gunderson was speaking to the group as part of a three-day workshop on agribusiness reporting conducted by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

“The Midwest Center wants to make sure the public understands the scope and impact of large agribusiness on the general public, farmers, and others in the industry,” said Brant Houston, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation chair in investigative and enterprise reporting at the University of Illinois and Midwest board member. “In addition to educating the public, it wants to help current reporters in their work and to create a new generation of journalists to cover the crucial issues involving agribusiness.”

Farm reporters heard industry leaders on topics including the farm bill, crop insurance, biofuels, farm labor, food safety and the environment. The group toured the National Soybean Research lab, of which Gunderson is the executive director.

Fellows came from across the United States and represented traditional print, radio, television and online media. Emily Garnett, with DTN/The Progressive Farmer, was one of 25 fellows who were fully funded to attend the workshop.

“I applied for the Covering Agribusiness in the Heartland because I’m an agricultural journalist just finding my footing in the ag industry,” Garnett said. “Agribusiness is such an enormously influential player in agriculture, and I’ve run into walls trying to cover it in the past. This conference seemed like the perfect opportunity to gain some investigative and reporting tools to help me with that.”

Christopher Weber, a workshop fellow and freelance journalist from the Chicago area, said, “I don't have a newsroom full of colleagues, so these events make it possible for me to meet like-minded reporters who I can learn from and collaborate with.”

Learning more about crop insurance and agriculture economics, as well as the tools available to agriculture reporters, was very helpful, Weber said.

Garnett agreed that she also gained valuable reporting resources.

“I’ve also gained some really impressive and talented friends who are doing great journalism around the Midwest,” Garnett said. “I’m excited to be in touch with everyone about our stories and investigations.”

The workshop also included a session on story development in which journalists were able to share ideas and look for collaborations.

Said Houston: “The workshop is a part of our ongoing educational efforts and also a springboard to collaborations on stories nationally and globally.”

Mark Horvit and Jaimi Dowdell, of Investigative Reporters and Editors, offered hands- on training sessions to attendees on how to better access data online and use software to manage it. In Horvit’s demonstration, he noted how much agriculture data is online, it just needs to be organized and reported.

Both Garnett and Weber said they have many story ideas from the workshop. Both already are working on articles based on information gained from the event.

The InvestigateMidwest.org website noted that the workshop was “primarily funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation in Chicago,” and the Investigative Reporters and Editors group was a co-host. Additional support was received from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation in Oklahoma, and the College of Media at the University of Illinois. The Midwest Center partners with Harvest Public Media and the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium.