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Michael Healey, best known as the amiable spokesman for former Attorney General Patrick Lynch, has nicknamed independent investigative reporter Jim Hummel's stories the "Hummel Pummel."

And little wonder.

Since he launched his non-profit, TV-on-the-web venture in October 2009, the veteran reporter has hit the region's mayors and police chiefs hard. But now, something unexpected: Hummel's gone soft.

Well, at least once per month.

His new segment is called the "Hummel Spotlight." And the first official installment featured no ambush interviews, no incriminating documents floating across the screen — just six minutes of homage to the St. Edward's Food and Wellness Center, a Providence food pantry with a broader mission.

The venture is not entirely out of character. Hummel did some of these features when he was with ABC6 — a break from his hard-hitting "You Paid for It" stories. And, a couple of years ago, after the launch of his non-profit effort, he did one soft piece on the Amos House social services agency at Christmastime.

"It confused everyone," he says, with a chuckle.

But if Hummel has launched his "spotlight" series, in part, because he thinks the stories of hometown heroes are stories worth telling, he's also got another motive in mind.

Over the last three years, he's had trouble attracting corporate sponsorship for his flagship "Hummel Report." Businesses, he says, have been leery of underwriting a segment that frequently embarrasses local politicians.

Instead, he's been forced to rely on the largess of two big-name conservative businessmen: John Hazen White, Jr., president of hydronics company Taco, and Alan Hassenfeld, former CEO of Hasbro.

The gentler Hummel Spotlight, he figured, would be a way to draw in more sponsors — helping to underwrite his investigative work and make the whole Hummel effort more sustainable.

That's what he told me a year ago, when I first wrote about the Spotlight idea on the Phoenix's "Not for Nothing" blog. But since then, he says, a possible sponsorship — designed like the long-running corporate sponsorships you see on public television — has fallen through.

He kicked off the Spotlight series anyway — timing the first story to coincide with the launch of a revamped web site, hummelreport.com — and says he is confident that it will attract sponsorship down the line.

But for now, it is a reminder of the challenges facing an emergent non-profit journalism, which aims to fill in some of the gaps left by a receding mainstream media.

The potential for the model is enormous; Hummel, for his part, says it has given him the gift of time, even as reporters at stripped-down, for-profit media outlets find themselves ever-more squeezed. "There is no way, unless I'd set up this model, that I'd be doing long-form pieces once a week," he says.

And Hummel's partnerships with talk-radio station WPRO (where he makes a weekly appearance) and newspaper Motif (which publishes print versions of his stories every other week) point to the role more traditional media can play in amplifying the work of non-profits.

But if Rhode Island's non-profit media sector is to move beyond a single TV reporter and a handful of lesser-known bloggers — if it is to do the sort of deep, systemic investigative reporting that could make a real impact — donors will need to step up.

Perhaps the "Hummel Spotlight" can be the first of many lures.

  Topics: This Just In , Patrick Lynch, Jim Hummel, Alan Hassenfeld,  More more >
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