How we hired that reporter

A newspaper, a university, an investigative center, and donors find a new way

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, 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.

In late 2012, Sullivan reached out to Loeb, his direct supervisor at the Inquirer, who had played a key role in conceiving and guiding the “Assault on Learning” project for more than a year before leaving to join the Post as the Metro editor. Loeb was interested in hiring Sullivan, but with the newspaper editorial staff shrinking and much of the Ford grant already allotted to pay for three earlier hires, it didn’t seem possible.

Separately, at AU last fall, we were looking to hire a new faculty member. As a member of the faculty search committee and generally, I had been hearing great things about Sullivan, but the hiring and tenure process for a new professor takes many months, and Sullivan needed to make a decision fairly quickly. That process and position thus would not exactly fit. Loeb, meanwhile, had taught previously at Temple University, and after returning to Washington proposed a deeper relationship between the Post and the American University School of Communication.

That idea blossomed into a Post-sponsored master’s degree in journalism and public affairs at American University and a new, annual Post Fellowship, in which the grad student and also half a dozen AU student “Dean’s interns” work directly inside the Post newsroom, reporting and writing bylined articles. In the 2011-2012 academic year alone, seven American students wrote and published 200 stories in The Washington Post, which was unprecedented.

Sullivan had enjoyed mentoring journalism students at Northwestern. Was there a fit? Fundamentally, Loeb wanted one more investigative reporter. So did I, as well as an investigative-minded professor. The rather basic problem at the Workshop was that we had no one to actually spearhead the collaboration, day in and day out—shepherding the efforts of our student researchers and reporters, and we also couldn’t quite agree on the best project to do together. Now it looked like an exciting, mutually beneficial idea might be emerging.

Loeb reached out in October: “To have John Sullivan come in as an American University-Washington Post investigative fellow, or whatever we end up calling him, would be a terrific accomplishment,” he wrote in an email, partly because “he would provide the bridge we’ve both wanted between the Post and The Investigative Workshop. Who knows what might ultimately come from that collaboration.”

Who knows, indeed? And it’s my hope that the idea will spread. Dozens of university journalism professors nationwide have a close symbiosis with the newspaper or TV or radio newsrooms from whence they came, or with student researchers doing internships in traditional newsrooms. But to my knowledge, this is the first time a major daily newspaper, a nonprofit publisher, and a university have jointly hired a journalist to do investigative work—or any other kind of reporting—in the US.

And I believe it is a winner for commercial news organizations, universities, and university-based reporting centers nationwide, and for philanthropic foundations and individuals who care about the democracy and news. It is a win-win for the public and society at large as well. This may also be the next iteration of the nonprofit journalism ecosystem.

Correction: Due to an editor’s error, an earlier version of the story said that the John Sullivan hired by the Post is the same John Sullivan who wrote a fine 2011 piece for CJR about the rise of the public relations industry. They are not the same person, and we’re sorry for the mistake.

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Charles Lewis , a former 60 Minutes producer who founded The Center for Public Integrity, is a MacArthur Fellow and the founding executive editor of the new Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication in Washington. Tags: , ,