Inching along in the market: The genesis of this story
Few stories start in a vacuum. At some point, quite often outside of work, a reporter or editor will come across information that is worth examining. That’s how I began this look at the endowment fund run by the University of Massachusetts Foundation.
I am on the board of a small, South Shore charity, the Julie Rodick Scholarship Foundation, which was started more than 20 years ago to fund grants for graduate students at UMass Boston. It is that involvement that troubled UMass officials when I first began asking questions about the school’s foundation.
During the course of a meeting between several Rodick board members and a representative from UMass to present our annual check to the school and receive information about the performance of the fund, it struck me how little information was available even to donors. The school’s representative was fully aware of me being a reporter and I told him I intended to look into the matter more as a reporter.
I talked with CommonWealth editor Bruce Mohl, explaining what I planned on looking into as well as how I first became interested. He knows, and I repeated to him, my involvement as a board member on the scholarship fund. We agreed, as long as all parties were aware of my background, we were on safe ground.
I called Robert Connolly, the school’s vice president for communications and former colleague from the Boston Herald, and explained my interest in looking into the endowment. He arranged interviews with Charles Pagnam, the vice president of advancement, and Judith Murphy, an associate vice president and controller.
After a second interview and requests for information, both Connolly and Ann Scales, a university spokeswoman, emailed CommonWealth with concerns that I had a conflict of interest, given my association with the Rodick foundation.
“I see nothing wrong with personal experiences driving a reporter to dig,” Scales, a former Boston Globe reporter wrote. “But I think journalists have to tread very carefully when their stories affect their financial self-interest. You have a dog in this race and that dog is and has been impacted by the foundation’s investment strategy, and that’s the part of your reporting on it that I find so unsettling.”
Connolly said he did not think I was intending to write a story despite his asking initially what the story would be and what my interest was.“You said you weren’t sure that this was for a story but that you just had this interest and would like to speak to senior people at UMass in order to get something of a primer on the subject,” Connolly wrote. “As a courtesy, I immediately set the wheels in motion of arranging a briefing for you. I say as a courtesy in the sense that maybe we don’t do this for John Q. Public, who you would have been if this ended up being just for the purpose of satisfying your personal interest.”
My story grew out of a personal interest that quickly morphed into a professional interest. Everyone who was interviewed and quoted for this story was well aware they were talking to a reporter.