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In Milwaukee, fellowships fuel investigative reporting

by: George Stanley |

As news organizations young and old look for ways to fund journalism - especially costly investigative work - the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee has developed innovative fellowship programs in partnership with Marquette University. We asked George Stanley, editor and senior vice president at the Journal Sentinel, to describe the fellowships and what they have accomplished.

As the Journal Sentinel has cut costs in line with falling revenue, we’ve asked hard questions of ourselves: What do we stand for? What is the most important work we do? How can we best serve our community?

In doing so, we’ve increased our commitment to in-depth investigative and explanatory reporting that we can do like no one else in our region. But how do we keep doing the work that matters most when it’s also the most expensive work we do?

One way has been to initiate two new fellowship programs, with hope for a third one soon. In the depths of the Great Recession, when we lost a third of our work force overnight, I approached Marquette with the idea for a new kind of fellowship program – one  where a seasoned reporter could plumb a great story idea for nine months alongside students, then bring that project home. 

The reporter would gain the time necessary to dig to a big story’s bones and lift them into the light. The students could bring fresh digital skills to the project and learn what goes into a world-class report – something they might not otherwise get a chance to do until many years into a successful career.  

Lori Bergen, then dean of the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette, proposed we pool our resources on a pilot project to show donors the kinds of projects we could do with a fellowship program. 

Enter, at that moment, Peter and Patricia Frechette. The Frechettes were looking for ways to support democracy and education while honoring their loved ones. Pat's parents had graduated from Marquette, her mother with a degree in liberal arts, her father in journalism. Perry O'Brien then worked for years as a reporter at the Daily Gazette in Janesville, where Pat and Pete grew up.

In our pilot project, "Chronic Crisis," reporter Meg Kissinger set out to discover why Milwaukee County's mental health system, like most of its patients, never got better — despite decades of scandals. She exposed the roadblocks to reform. She and her students found far more successful programs for treating sick people as nearby as Madison, WI, and as far away as Geel, Belgium, presenting a best-practices roadmap. Her reporting led to a dramatic restructuring of the county's mental health system that continues today. 

The Frechettes liked what they saw and The Perry and Alicia O'Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism came to be, thanks to their generous $8.3 million permanent endowment. 

The great success of this first fellowship project helped spawn a second one, this time through Marquette Law School, with the help of Dean Joseph Kearney. The Law School had an endowed fund available, for use at the dean’s discretion, for projects that promote public policy research addressing serious community issues. Our first six-month Lubar Fellowship with the Law School examined how Milwaukee needed to return to its entrepreneurial roots in order to thrive. 

Both fellowship programs have continued to yield great in-depth reporting projects. The O’Brien program has expanded to include at least two other fellows from newsrooms across the country. Our next O'Brien Fellowship project was Dan Egan's masterful "A Watershed Moment," on urgent threats facing the Great Lakes. A second 2014 O'Brien series was published by both the Journal Sentinel and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, as Lillian Thomas revealed in "Poor Health" how hospital companies, which began as charities dedicated to the poor, have been leaving poor areas across the United States and following privately insured patients to affluent suburbs. Readers of The Seattle Times also benefited from a 2014 O'Brien Fellowship, as Hal Bernton's "Losing Ground" showed how China has become the world's leading carbon burner and has been increasing CO2 emissions faster than western nations can cut them.

Our next Law School fellowship project was Craig Gilbert’s “Dividing Lines”, on how southeastern Wisconsin has become the most politically polarized place in swing-state America.

In 2015, the work of three O'Brien fellows has appeared in the Arizona Republic, Washington Post and Journal Sentinel. Brandon Loomis is examining the southwest water crisis for the Republic; Marjorie Valbrun is looking at the legacy of 1990s welfare reforms for the Post. And Raquel Rutledge has found in "Gasping for Action" that chemicals known for destroying lungs of popcorn factory workers are being inhaled daily by workers in coffee grinding and roasting facilities, and are also prevalent in e-cigarette smoke juices.

A new crop of O’Brien Fellows has just started their projects for this academic year, including reporters from the Journal Sentinel, Baltimore Sun and Pittsburgh Post-Gazettte.  Another of our reporters is working on a new six-month Lubar Fellowship through the Law School. 

Thanks to success of these two fellowships, we have a proposal for a third program now under consideration by a local foundation whose goals include civic engagement, building healthy neighborhoods, creating economic opportunity, addressing injustice and improving education. In all cases, our independent reporting and editing process remains the same as with non-fellowship projects. We would only work with programs under those conditions, which all our fellowship partners have supported.