Almost half a century ago, the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications began honoring “Alumni of Distinction.” Out of more than 31,000 graduates since then, only 148 have been selected to receive the honor.
One of them is a current Knight Science Journalism fellow: Robert McClure, the cofounder and executive director of the journalism site InvestigateWest. This week, the school announced that Robert (Class of 1982) would be one of four alumni honored at its annual awards banquet on March 31.
He will be in rarefied company. Other Alumni of Distinction from UF’s journalism school include the best-selling novelists Michael Connelly and Carl Hiaasen; David Bianculli, the TV critic on “Fresh Air”; Bob Vila, host of “This Old House”; the late broadcaster Red Barber; Jim McGee, the Washington Post investigative reporter; and Darrell Hammond of “Saturday Night Live” fame.
When KSJ fellows go around the room to introduce themselves at a seminar, Robert invariably identifies himself this way: “Robert McClure, of InvestigateWest, a Seattle-based journalism studio focused on the environment, public health, and government accountability.” It is all of that. IW was founded in 2009, months after the Hearst Corporation announced that it wanted to sell The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where Robert had worked for a decade. “We knew right away what that meant,” he says now. “Amid the late-2000s media meltdown, we immediately realized this was another way of saying that in-depth reporting would have to be done in some other way.”
“In less than three months, with some severance in my bank account and additional funds from refinancing my mortgage, I rented the first office of InvestigateWest,” he went on. “It was April Fool’s Day.” Of the site’s funding and its mission, he says: “We’re a nonprofit because there was no profit to be made in doing the intensive reporting that is the core of our work. Our mission statement: ‘To strengthen communities, engage citizens in civic life and help set the policy agenda in the Pacific Northwest through powerful, independent investigative and explanatory reporting.’
“We file requests for public records under state and federal freedom-of-information laws. We obtain datasets and translate them and make them accessible to the public. We do deep dives into the scientific literature and conduct in-depth interviews. In short, we carry on the traditions of in-depth public-service reporting that are going by the wayside in so many newsrooms.”
Partnering with an array of outlets, from The New York Times to small local websites (“We place stories where they will have the most impact. That’s the whole point”), InvestigateWest has broken major stories and had a lasting impact on public policy. Three state laws in Washington protecting workers’ health and the environment – two the first of their kind in the country – were passed in direct response to its work.
Its reporting on how The Boeing Co. used political muscle to short-circuit a state agency’s plans to tighten pollution rules was cited by environmental groups that filed suit, forcing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in.
Its investigation into toxic road pollution and its effects on children’s health found nearly 30 public schools and more than 120 day-care centers within 500 feet of major roads in Washington. The series prompted the Seattle School District to begin notifying principals of unhealthy air days and advising them to keep children indoors for recess.
Joined by his wife, Sally Deneen, also a journalist, Robert is spending the academic year in Cambridge studying climate change, technology, mindfulness, and journalism innovation.
He grew up in South Florida, reading The Miami Herald when it was headed by the crusading editor John McMullan. From the age of 14, “I grasped that journalism could make a real difference. That was my goal.” As a young reporter at The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, he spent a decade reporting on the need for revitalization of the Everglades. In 1987 he and two colleagues were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.
Moving to The Post-Intelligencer in the late 1990s, shortly after completing a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan, Robert was the backbone of five major projects in 10 years, including two on the health of Puget Sound that played a major role in the State Legislature’s creating a new state agency to restore the sound. Others exposed a major loophole in the Endangered Species Act; deficiencies in the Superfund cleanup of Seattle’s Duwamish River; and how the 1872 Mining Law continues to allow the poisoning of streams across the West.
Now he’s doing the same kind of work in a smaller shop, with big results. “As for why I helped launch and then stuck with IW for so long,” he writes, quoting the author and artist Margaret Shepherd, “‘sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith.’”