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.
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.