The Best Nonprofit Journalism of 2017

Photo credit: City Bureau

Voices raised. Knowledge gained. Accountability. Inspiration.

Come read the stories that we all know about this year thanks to the work of nonprofit newsrooms.

The Institute for Nonprofit News invites you on a tour of the high-impact stories of 2017 from  journalists across  the INN network — 151 news organizations dedicated to providing trusted, high-quality journalism to thousands of diverse communities.

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Public Affairs | Justice and Equity | Health, Science and Environment | Education

Public Affairs

“A Legacy of Debt,” a special report by Connecticut Mirror, explained the consequences of one of America’s richest states failing for generations to adequately save for retirement benefits promised to teachers and state employees. Story »

After Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo checked the official death toll against accounts from hospitals, police reports and social media posts. It found that officials had failed to systematically count bodies piling up in morgues and in remote areas, slowing identification and burial of victims, and affecting public perception of the crisis. Story »

In These Times, in partnership with Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, identified the debt holders attempting to get paid back in Puerto Rico’s $74.8 billion bankruptcy case. The reporting highlights how wealthy investors and mutual fund companies extract profit from Puerto Rico and send it off the island, aided by Puerto Rico’s colonial status and special tax breaks. Story »

Florida Bulldog’s ongoing Freedom of Information litigation seeking FBI records about an apparent Saudi support network for the 9/11 hijackers in Florida led to numerous national news organizations joining a friend-of-the-court brief in support of opening up thousands of pages of records about the secretive 9/11 Review Commission. Story »

Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Miguel Hernandez cleans a barn on his last day of work on a Pepin County dairy farm owned by Doug and Toni Knoepke on May 31, 2017. He was leaving for Mexico with four other dairy workers the following day. He had worked there for 16 years, making $15 an hour by the time he left.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism explored how hostility towards immigrants following the election of President Donald Trump has affected Wisconsin's dairy industry, which is reliant on foreign workers. The story had a companion piece on Wisconsin Public Radio, was turned into a 21-minute video documentary and a story for Reveal by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Story »

An investigation by Pine Tree Watch prompted a legislative inquiry into the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars by Maine PowerOptions, a state-sponsored consortium that helps municipalities and school districts buy electricity. Story »

CALmatters exposed behind-the-scenes deals that made the extension of California’s cap-and-trade program to fight climate change acceptable to both key environmental groups and major polluters. Two days after Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill, the California Air Resources Board overruled its staff and approved a provision that will likely result in benefits worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the oil and agriculture industries. Story »

NJ Spotlight reported how local governments let their employees accumulate so many unused sick days that taxpayers are liable for about $2 billion in payouts, detailed on an interactive map and searchable database. Bills were introduced in the New Jersey legislature to halt the practice. Story »

Oklahoma Watch disclosed campaign donations from oil and gas interests to every state legislator, with searchable data, and every gift and meal purchased for lawmakers during their latest session. The ongoing “Inside Democracy” series has intensified debate about whether corporate lobbying and money are distorting the democratic process in a state facing a severe budget crisis and serious social-welfare issues. Story »

Months of reporting by InvestigateWest showed Washington State’s foster care program under strain and in disarray. The series helped prompt six new laws and $48 million in funding to keep children from being shuttled around to hotels or sleeping on the floors of caseworkers’ offices. Story »

Bridge Magazine followed 11 Michigan people and families throughout 2017 to try to pierce the bubbles in which they, and the rest of us, live. The yearlong project revealed fault lines that go far beyond traditional political divides. Story »

PassBlue started an ongoing series on Nikki Haley’s high-profile tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and how her views on human rights and women’s rights reflect or conflict with Trump administration policy. Story »

Persistent state budget deficits led The Hummel Report to investigate how much the part-time Legislature spends on itself – more than $42 million and rising, compared with $18 million in neighboring New Hampshire. The findings launched a discussion about benefits across state government. Story »

BenitoLink investigated a rural Northern California school board president rumored for years to have mishandled investments for elderly people too embarrassed to report their losses. A community foundation sued the self-styled financial advisor and later won a $1.7 million judgment for his mishandling a charitable trust. Story »

The Georgia News Lab, in partnership with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, revealed how an agency mandated to create affordable housing along one of the nation’s most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ignored a decade of warnings that its practices resulted in runaway housing prices, rising taxes, displaced communities and gentrification. Within weeks of the story, the agency head stepped down. Under new leadership, the agency has significantly increased its affordable housing development efforts. Story » Follow-up »

Youth Radio won unprecedented access to a court hearing for Noel Anaya as he aged out of California’s foster care system at age 21, enabling him to have his statement to the judge about the failures of the system broadcast on NPR. Story »

Voice of Orange County fought city hall in Westminster, California, to win a court ruling to make public a legal claim by a former police chief alleging city council corruption. Story »

Scalawag wrapped up a ten-part series that chronicles the histories, power struggles and victories of historic black places. The art and oral history road trip project portrays people who have long fought to maintain their communities and have built local political power to prevent environmental injustices. Story »

In a two-year investigation of GMO seed-corn production, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found repeated allegations of labor violations over the past decade against Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, other seed companies and the companies’ contractors. The allegations include broken recruiting promises, minimum-wage violations, improperly withheld pay and substandard living conditions. Story »

Southeast Energy News highlighted the procedural abnormalities in what appears to be an ideologically driven effort by a North Carolina state legislator to restrict wind energy development. Story »

MinnPost revealed that a state senator had sexually harassed multiple women, including another lawmaker, and reported on the toxic culture for women at the Minnesota Capitol, coverage that led to the resignation of two legislators. Story »

Maryland Matters produced a powerful portrait of a former state legislator attempting a political comeback after years of wrestling with an opioid addiction. Story »

Hidden City Philadelphia observes the demolition of an African-American landmark with a photo essay that takes a walk inside the brittle bones of the Royal Theater. Story »

The Reporters Inc. rounded up opinions from 14 “everyday” people from 13 countries on four continents to show the wide array of anxious and hopeful international reactions to the Trump presidency. Story »

Madison 365 recounted how political squabbling and racial tension in a Wisconsin community escalated into a personal attack and improper release of confidential police reports. Story »

Justice and Equity

Reporting by Reveal/The Center for Investigative Reporting, showed how under the guise of criminal justice reform, judges and big business have turned people with addiction into a new class of workers. They are forced to slaughter chickens and endure other grueling labor at a work camp for no pay, under the threat of prison. The investigation led to class action lawsuits, government investigations and national companies probing their own supply chains. Story »

The War Horse revealed pandemic online sexual harassment of female Marines and veterans whose naked photos were posted without consent on a private Facebook group called Marines United. The reporting led to federal investigations and changes in military law. Story »

The Lens revealed that prosecutors in New Orleans had sent fake subpoenas to uncooperative witnesses to pressure them to talk. Without legal authority, the documents threatened fines and jail if the recipient didn't come in for an interview. After the story, prosecutors announced they would end the practice. Subsequent investigations found several people were jailed for ignoring the notices, resulting in civil rights lawsuits. Story »

The Investigative Fund in partnership with Reveal performed a comprehensive analysis of nine years of domestic terrorism incidents, showing right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many plots and acts of terrorism as Islamists. The report used data to measure how much counterterror resources focus disproportionately on the Islamist threat. Story »

Reporting by The Center for Responsive Politics revealed a dark money group with ties to a mysterious megadonor of President Trump's inauguration that funded the fall of Supreme Court hopeful Merrick Garland and the rise of a new conservative judiciary. Story »

Food & Environment Reporting Network investigated an obscure legal provision behind a dramatic decline in land ownership by African-American farmers. The provision, only now being addressed, allowed developers and speculators to forcibly buy thousands of acres of farmland owned for generations by rural descendants of slaves. Story »

The Trace, in partnership with more than a dozen local NBC TV stations, obtained more than 800,000 stolen and recovered gun records from more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. Reporters connected thousands of stolen firearms to crimes, including rapes, robberies, and murders. Despite the public safety threat, most states don't require gun owners to report a gun theft to police, and many have laws that allow owners to bring guns into public places and leave them in vehicles, where they are more vulnerable to theft. Story »

Pulitzer Center grantee Ben Taub, reporting for The New Yorker, charted a Nigerian girl’s journey from desperate poverty to the threat of exploitation and prostitution after she was trafficked to the European Union. Taub has broadened the reach of his story through university visits to Pulitzer Center campus consortium member schools. Story »

Solitary Watch examined the conflicts faced by correctional mental health care workers assigned to treat prisoners in solitary confinement, amid growing evidence of the psychological harms caused by the practice. The article led the National Association of Social Workers to debate revising policy. Story » exposed and editorialized against a Freedom of Information Act exemption in a bill before the House Committee on Homeland Security. It would have granted extraordinary secrecy to Customs and Border Protection activities within 100 miles of the border, including the coasts – an area where two-thirds of the U.S. population lives. The day after the report, an Arizona congresswoman withdrew the provision. Story »

State laws allowed Arizona law enforcement agencies to seize nearly $200 million in personal property during the past five years – almost all of it cash – from people who may never be charged or convicted of a crime. The Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting produced that tally and found systemic gaps in oversight make it difficult to see how authorities spent much of that civil asset forfeiture money. Story »

Reporting in the New Haven (Conn.) Independent on the backstory to a murder outside a methadone clinic, the Online Journalism Project explored deeper issues of balancing the needs of addicts and surrounding urban communities. Story »

The Chronicle of Social Change examined the issue of false criminal confessions by children through the story of a man who spent 21 years in a California prison after being pressured as a teenager to confess to a murder he did not commit. Since the story was published, California became the first state to mandate that children under 15 should be able to consult with a lawyer to explain their Miranda rights before being interrogated. Story »

Iowa Watch used the case of babysitter who was charged with felony child abuse to examine a widely used police interrogation technique that critics blame for false confessions. Story »

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that county jails in Massachusetts had twice as many suicides as the state prison system in recent years though both house roughly the same number of inmates. The investigation for the Boston Globe and WGBH public radio showed state prison suicides have declined while the rate of suicides in the state’s 13 county jails has doubled. Story »

Honolulu Civil Beat reported that police grossly mishandled an investigation in which parents were wrongly suspected of child abuse after a boy was injured in a home day care – operated by a police officer’s wife. After the report, officials reopened that case and three others, police eventually acknowledged their mistakes, but the state attorney general declined to pursue charges after a lengthy review. Story »

The Seattle Globalist, making a case that almost any immigrant can end up behind bars, no matter how hard they try to follow the rules, reported how one teenage asylum-seeker spent two nightmarish months in a privately run detention center. Story »

Sebastian Hidalgo / City Bureau

Members of the North Lawndale Boxing League line up arm-lengths apart before practice on August 9, 2017, in front of Derek Brown's garage. "I've got all the bad kids in the community, the so-called bad kids. Of course everyone want to learn how to fight especially in this environment. Young men have a harder time because of the trash they walk into," Brown said. "But they don't just learn how to fight. They learn how to respect themselves."

City Bureau produced a series of reports and community engagement sessions about the Restorative Justice movement in Chicago, where a new criminal court is trying to help people atone for crimes and reintegrate into the neighborhood rather than be sent off to jail. Story »

Reporting by and The Intercept-Brasil led Brazilian federal prosecutors to reopen a case in which the indigenous Munduruku seek $2.9 million in damages for a 2012 police raid that destroyed their gold-mining barge and killed a native man in the Amazon forest. The violent event came amid indigenous opposition to federal dam building. Story »

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting reported that Louisville police officers were helping federal agents serve local warrants, make traffic stops and knock on the doors of non-violent offenders wanted for immigration offenses. These activities ran counter to pledges from city leaders, and in the wake of the report, the city passed a law prohibiting employees from enforcing immigration laws. Story »

Injustice Watch showed how remarkably flawed justice put a Kansas man in prison for 23 years: Questionable identifications taken by a corrupt policeman; a prosecutor who withheld from the defense key evidence of innocence; a trial judge who had an undisclosed prior affair with the prosecutor; and lawyers appointed both for trial and the post-conviction hearing who failed to take key steps. Story »

Reporting by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism helped exonerate a Massachusetts man who was wrongfully convicted based on flawed FBI forensic science. He had served 30 years of a life sentence for a rape the victim said he didn't commit. Story »

Northern Kentucky Tribune reported on the remarkable resolve of a student whose rape was covered up by Northern Kentucky University. Her attacher remained on campus and became president of a fraternity and heralded for his “leadership.” The young woman’s courage in filing the suit uncovered other instances of sexual misconduct coverup involving basketball players, as the university was entering Division 1. The victim sued, reached a settlement, and is now a student at Oxford University. Story »

New Mexico In Depth reported how a controversial undercover operation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) led to conspiracy charges against a woman who fell in love with an informant who lured her into helping him set up methamphetamine busts. Story »

FairWarning profiled an attorney who has become known for performing a sort of magic trick. Representing California farmers and labor contractors who rely heavily on undocumented workers, he can sometimes make legal complaints against his clients – and the people who file them – disappear. Story »

The Austin Bulldog, as part of an ongoing investigation of problems in family law courts involving child custody cases and domestic abuse, recounted how it came to intervene in one case. It opposed the county attorney’s attempts to have a closed hearing and sealed records hide a deferred prosecution agreement from the victim. Story »

Health, Science, Environment

Original research by Orb Media revealed how microscopic plastic fibers have contaminated tap water around the world. Orb looked at plastic’s deep penetration into human life and what that might mean for human health. The reporting was published in partnership with 14 leading media brands and was eventually picked up by more than a 100 publishers catalyzing global conversation around the topic among citizens, scientists and governments. The story has led to additional research in at least 10 countries. Story »

The Center for Public Integrity reported that technicians at Los Alamos National Laboratory placed plutonium rods so close together in 2011 they nearly caused a deadly runaway nuclear chain reaction. Engineers who had warned the lab to take better precautions departed, prompting a nearly four-year shutdown of key plutonium operations. In the wake of this story and others in a "Nuclear Negligence" series, the lab director announced he would retire early. Story »

Ensia explored how toxic vapors are seeping into buildings around the country, a problem attracting increased scrutiny from environmental health experts, advocates and agencies, but little public attention. Contaminants, most notoriously chlorinated solvents and benzene, enter the earth from a leak or spill and migrate through soil and groundwater. Story »

The Connecticut Health I-Team reported that 29 companies violated state pollution limits in discharging wastewater into Connecticut’s rivers, brooks or other bodies of water in recent years, but only two of the companies were fined. Story »

Teflon Town: ChemFab's Toxic Legacy is a five-part series by VTDigger about the impact of chemical contamination from a Teflon fabric coating plant in North Bennington, Vermont. The series examined the history of the plant, the state's unwillingness to require proper air emissions controls, and the impact on residents who have been sickened and can't sell their homes. Story »

An InsideClimate News investigation found a history of safety and environmental troubles at Hilcorp, a company that plans to be the first to drill on the Arctic's Outer Continental Shelf as President Donald Trump pushes to open up more of the federally owned Arctic to oil and gas development. Story »

The Intercept exposed how mercenary forces hired by the firm behind the Dakota Access pipeline used tactics imported from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan against the indigenous-led water protector movement. The report kicked off an ongoing investigative series that has shined a light on the fusion of private security, public law enforcement, and corporate money in the fight over fossil fuel development. Story »

Grist obtained documents showing how the private security firm TigerSwan was helping its client Energy Transfer Partners, the company constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline, discredit, infiltrate and undermine protesters. Grist’s reporting, published in various outlets in partnership with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, questioned the legality of the tactics, and threatened the ability of TigerSwan to obtain business licenses. Story »

Investigative Post reported on the years-long effort by inner city residents of Buffalo, New York, to get the state to order a clean up of toxins at a former General Motors plant. Less than a month after the report, the state added a portion of the property to its Superfund program, making it eligible for state funds for remediation. The state also hired a consultant to begin an investigation. Story »

Anthropocene Magazine explained the troubling issues raised by solar geoengineering, which is looking for ways to slightly reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the surface of the Earth to lessen the effects of global warming. Story »

WFYI’s Side Effects Public Media reported that pharmaceutical company Alkermes was aggressively lobbying for state and federal legislation that would steer addiction treatment toward its medication Vivitrol, often at the expense of other proven treatment methods. Story »

Highlands Current examined the effect of the opioid crisis in the upstate New York communities it covers, to point readers toward solutions. Story »

Civil Eats

June Husted qualifies for and uses Veggie RX (medical doctors "prescribe" this for patients). With vouchers, Veggie RX folks recieve free vegetables from places like farmers markets.

During a year in which healthcare stood front-and-center in political debates and in people's lives, Civil Eats' reporting offered an early look at one surprising effect of repealing the Affordable Care Act: One of its provisions has helped some states and cities reduce food insecurity, in turn improving their residents' health. Story »

Aspen Journalism revealed details of an experimental program to pay irrigating ranchers and farmers to fallow fields and leave water in the Colorado River system. The yearlong effort in collaboration with High Country News, requiring interviews with ranchers in two states and public records requests, illustrated the possible future of water management in the West. Story »

BirminghamWatch reported that President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate change agreement particularly alarmed Alabama environmentalists. They say the state has not acted or even prepared strategies to handle the effects of a warming planet. Story »

A San Francisco Public Press review of documents showed the real estate and construction industries pursued a legal strategy that has undermined the California Environmental Quality Act of 1970. Courts ruled that cities could no longer require developers to take into account the effects of climate change on their projects, meaning taxpayers could be on the hook to protect waterfronts from rising seas. Story »

Midwest Energy News showed how an Indiana utility’s decision to delay its plan to install wastewater pollution controls at its largest coal plant exposes how Trump administration environmental rollbacks are already affecting public health. Story »

Carolina Public Press has been examining how North Carolina houses mentally ill adults. The “Questionable Care” series found lawsuits and fines against adult care homes, and a secretive settlement with one home that had particularly shocking problems. The reporting received wide attention, and state policy is under review. Story » showed New Hampshire is the only state that locks up mentally ill people who haven't committed a crime only because they are too dangerous to themselves or others to be housed at the state mental hospital. Reporting was made possible by a grant from the Fund For Investigative Journalism. Story »

A California Health Report investigation revealed doctor directories for low-income patients remain highly inaccurate. A 2014 story confirmed by a state audit had led to a California law requiring insurers to update their lists of doctors weekly, but directories remain error-ridden, a significant barrier to care. Story »

Rocky Mountain PBS highlighted one difficulty in opioid addiction treatment by telling the story of the only doctor within at least 50 miles of her rural Colorado community with training and proper certification to offer a certain medication.
She legally can treat only 30 patients, so she focuses on pregnant women and parents, turning many others away. The dire situation attracted national attention. Story »

The New Food Economy explained how it was a decisive moment in the organic food movement when a sharply divided national standards board voted to allow hydroponic and aquaponic farms to continue to market their product as certified organic. Story »

After the discovery of chemical contamination of drinking water, wells and river water by a former DuPont chemical plant, North Carolina Health News was the first to show DuPont had the ability to make greener chemicals at the plant but did not. Instead it obtained an exclusive license for the greener technology, which allowed no one else to make it either. Story »

WyoFile discovered billionaire coal magnate Chris Cline was building a cabin on the scenic Green River in the only federally recognized terrestrial wildlife migration route in the country, the Path of the Pronghorn. Cline was working out a deal with the nonprofit Jackson Hole Land Trust to overlook his violations of conservation rules. The deal quietly fell apart and the cabin was dismantled after the report. Story »

Mountain Independent illustrated the difficulty of “building green” by following one couple’s quest to find eco-friendly lumber for a home in rural southwestern Colorado. Story »

Wausau Pilot and Review documented how a planned major road reconstruction could pose significant health risks due to soil contamination, and it was approved based on erroneous traffic data and safety information. The reporting led to a grassroots effort to halt the already unpopular project. Story »

Voices of Monterey Bay recounted a prominent resident’s decision to use California's End-of-Life Option Act to hasten his death. Story »

The Economic Hardship Reporting Project spotlighted the occupation with the highest suicide death rate in America. Farmers and other people working in agriculture, including fishing, ranching and lumber harvesting, kill themselves at more than double the rate of military veterans. Story »

ProPublica, in partnership with NPR, examined why the U.S. has the highest maternal death rate in the affluent world. The series told how a neonatal nurse died hours after childbirth in the New Jersey hospital where she worked and how poorly hospitals in general handle obstetric emergencies. After the story, New Jersey lawmakers introduced legislation to tighten requirements to report maternal deaths, investigate their causes and identify ways to prevent them. Story »


The Marshall Project recounted how New York University decided, when Harvard wavered, to admit Michelle Jones to a PhD program upon her release from an Indiana prison after serving more than two decades for the murder of her four-year-old son. The remarkable rehabilitation story, also published on the front page of The New York Times, inspired conversations about forgiveness and a prison higher education movement. Story »

Chalkbeat investigated an Indiana online charter school getting millions of dollars in state funds and found few students graduating, contracts that raise ethics questions, and a 222-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. For skeptics of the move to allow private organizations to run publicly funded schools, the school amounts to a worst-case scenario of poor performance, opaque accounting, and ineffective oversight. In response, the Indiana governor vowed to tighten regulations on the school in 2018. Story »

The Hechinger Report produced a groundbreaking story on the re-segregation of American schools. Published in The Nation, it focused on an Alabama county creating school districts for white students, hoarding resources and depriving black and Hispanic children an equal education, as federal judges and the Justice Department look the other way. An analysis of federal and state data showed segregation increasing in the 176 school districts that have been under court supervision since the Civil Rights Era. Story »

A San Diego charter school renowned for sending minority, low-income and disadvantaged students on to college, often on full scholarships, pressured its teachers to inflate grades, an inewsource investigation found. Once in college,
Gompers Preparatory Academy graduates often struggle, the reporting showed. Story »

PublicSource examined how eight Pittsburgh-area universities treat student self-injury, and all handled it as a mental health issue except Chatham University, which penalized students for being in crisis. After the story, the university changed its policy. Story »

A Better Government Association investigation found that soaring graduation rates were a false measure of the success of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reforms of the seven-campus community college system. The reporting found City Colleges watered down its curriculum, violated its own rules on what constitutes a degree, changed the way it counts statistics and bestowed thousands of degrees – sometimes in multiples to the same person – to current and former students who in many cases neither requested nor wanted them. Story »

EdSource examined the state of homeless children in California. Since 2014, the number of children in California living in cars, motels, shelters, on the street or in crowded homes shared with other families has jumped 20 percent. Story »

The Philadelphia Public School Notebook examined the obstacles that the city’s more than 8,000 foster children face in obtaining a high-quality education. More teens are coming into the system for reasons such as behavior problems that are unrelated to maltreatment, and they tend to move from placement to placement and from school to school. Story »

The Investigative Reporting Workshop examined how San Diego schools are helping to educate the children of refugees and helping their families assimilate. This collaboration with inewsource San Diego and KPBS focused on the county that took in the most refugees in California, which takes more refugees than any other state. Story »


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