It was something like a triple bank shot in billiards, but quite a lot more valuable and satisfying. For the first time, to my knowledge, an iconic daily newspaper, a major university journalism program, and its nonprofit newsroom are jointly hiring an investigative journalist, a respected veteran who will report and write while teaching young journalists his craft.
As announced late last week, John Sullivan will become a reporter on The Washington Post investigative team, a member of the journalism faculty with the title of “Investigative Journalist in Residence” at the American University School of Communication, and a senior editor at the Investigative Reporting Workshop in Washington, which is a self-sustaining center within the university. I am not exactly a disinterested observer here, since I am a tenured professor at AU and the founder of the workshop, where my title is executive editor. But I am trumpeting this not for our glory, but in the hopes that this journalism school/newsroom collaboration can be widely replicated. I can’t for the life of me see why it can’t be.
Sullivan’s hiring is possible because of a renewable $500,000 grant by the Ford Foundation to the Post, to help the important, financially beleaguered newspaper bolster local and national enterprise reporting. Since 2008, the legendary newspaper has been necessarily downsizing its newsroom staff, from 900 reporters and editors to fewer than 550 professionals today.
The unusual funding to a for-profit newspaper (a similar Ford Foundation grant was also made last year to the troubled Tribune Media Company for additional reporters at the Los Angeles Times) has enabled the Post to hire Sullivan and three other enterprise reporters, who will work closely with the metropolitan editor, Vernon Loeb, and the investigative projects editor, Jeff Leen. In the joint announcement by the newspaper and American University, Post managing editor Kevin Merida said, “This model enables us to add a highly respected investigative journalist to our ranks. Holding the government accountable is core to what readers expect from The Washington Post.”
Sullivan led a team of five reporters at The Philadelphia Inquirer who uncovered how students endure, in the words of the Pulitzer committee, “pervasive violence in the city schools, using powerful narratives and videos committed by children against children and to stir reforms to improve safety for teachers and students.” In 2009, Sullivan and two other Inquirer reporters were Pulitzer finalists for their four-part series about how “political interests have eroded the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency and placed the nation’s environment in greater jeopardy.” Sullivan was at the Inquirer for roughly nine years, after four years at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. But when the Inquirer faltered financially in 2011, as so many other papers have in recent years, Sullivan left and joined the faculty at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and also became assistant director of its McCormick Foundation-funded Medill Watchdog program.
What happened next and why is a story of shared values and new synergies. And it could be a harbinger of a new dimension in journalism collaboration, as well as a marker in the continuing evolution of the nonprofit journalism model.