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.
I began teaching investigative reporting at AU in the fall of 2006, and in late 2007 proposed and in 2008 the University approved the Workshop—the name was inspired by the Children’s Television Workshop, which incubated much of children’s television on public broadcasting decades ago. I am proud to say that today the workshop is the largest (out of 18) university-based investigative reporting centers in the US. Working with major media is part of our culture. We partner with great reporters—from the heralded business and economics reporting duo, Donald Barlett and James Steele, to former Washington Post reporter and author George Lardner, a scholar-in-residence at the workshop, to Sheila Kaplan, a Harvard Safra Center fellow and prize-winning investigative reporter, and others—in such media outlets as NBC.com, ABC World News Tonight, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Financial Times, Politico, McClatchy newspapers, etc., and produce our own multimedia investigative projects, which over the last four years have won six national awards and involved 35 grad students and seven professors in partnership with leading news organizations. We exist almost entirely on external funding, and the Workshop has complete editorial independence. Meanwhile, American University—where the first journalism course was taught in 1929 and where the broadcast program was founded by one of Edward R. Murrow’s writers, Ed Bliss—has been developing a reputation for journalistic innovation.