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The American Journalism Project selects Underscore Media Collaboration for inaugural grant

COURTESY AMERICAN JOURNALISM PROJECT: PHOTO BY CELESTE NOCHE - A new nonprofit, Underscore Media Collaboration, seeks to fill the gaps in Oregon investigative journalism. Pictured are executive director Jackleen de La Harpe (center) and board members (left to right) Sarah Kastelic, Erin Dysart, Sharon Nielson and Bryan Denson.
A fledgling nonprofit Oregon investigative journalism organization has secured funding from a new national initiative.

Underscore Media Collaboration, which formally launched in October, has received startup assistance from the American Journalism Project, itself a new charity that aims to beef up the country's network of nonprofit news.

Underscore already has been reporting on the group Patriot Prayer in Oregon and Washington, publishing its work online and in the Portland Tribune. According to its website, Underscore is geared toward collaboration and intends to focus on "tough-to-fund, important stories that really matter" — including in Indian Country.

Underscore will receive $178,000 over two years — an amount that "is huge" as it will help build fundraising capacity, said executive director Jackleen de La Harpe. "That is going to help us move forward for funding on our reporting side."

In all, 11 nonprofits received a combined $8.5 million from the American Journalism Project. The national group was founded on the principle that "democracy and journalism are interdependent," and as an effort to boost local journalism in an industry that has been battered economically.

"The economics that supported the news industry for most of the 20th century are no longer viable," according to the group. "As a result, the civic function news provides is under threat."

Underscore was formed by the Oregon reporting team of a Seattle-based nonprofit, InvestigateWest, which produced long-term, in-depth projects on racial disparities in Oregon's criminal justice system as well as on high school concussions, often working in partnership with other organizations such as Reveal, the podcast-and-radio arm of the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting –the country's first investigative nonprofit.

Author Bryan Denson, a longtime former Oregonian/OregonLive investigative reporter, serves on the Underscore board. He said he was "blown right out of my shoes" by news of the funding. "The way I figure it, the money was not just an endorsement of the work we do at Underscore, it's a vote for the people of Oregon, a vote for democracy."

In addition to de La Harpe, Underscore also has a reporter, Sergio Olmos, who has been leading its work on Patriot Prayer. It has two investigative journalists serving as advisers, Lee van der Voo — who spearheaded the racial disparities and concussion work and is an award-winning author — and Rebecca Clarren, who has investigated public schools and abandoned oil and gas wells in Indian Country, among other things. Former Oregonian editor Tom Maurer and reporter Dawn Stover also are working with the group.

The nonprofit intends to continue working with contract journalists for now, said de La Harpe. Denson said the group continues to raise money, but "the AJP grant will allow us to build a dream team of journalists – top-shelf writers and editors right here in Oregon – to take Underscore to the next level."

Under the award, the American Journalism Project will work closely with Underscore, providing coaching and other resources to boost funding efforts. Major funders will be listed on the website and be screened for conflicts of interest, according to the group.

The nonprofit is now "taking a hard look at what no longer is covered in Oregon" and how to change that, de La Harpe said.

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