Illustration by Leslie Herman
Chaotic newsrooms have little in common with the staid halls of academia, where deadlines arrive semester by semester, not minute by minute. But a growing cadre of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters is trading the crazy pace of daily news for a contemplative setting – across the highway at Marquette University.
Both the Marquette Law School and the Diederich College of Communication are courting journalists in bids to raise their profiles and make wonky scholarship more relevant.
In 2013, the Diederich College announced the $8.3 million O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism. Pro journalists spend nine months working with students on in-depth stories. Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Egan, for instance, is settled in at Marquette, researching invasive species in the ballast water of Great Lakes ships.
The collaboration, says Diederich College Dean Lori Bergen, supports quality reporting that could disappear without a new business model. “It’s a way to think creatively as leaders and innovators and champions for journalism,” she says.
The concept is grand, but the deal goes straight to the bottom line. Marquette’s journalism program gets front-line reporting experience to help attract students, while the MJS, in a time of cutbacks, gets big money for travel and research. Marquette funded trips to California and Belgium for reporter Meg Kissinger’s “Chronic Crisis: A System that Doesn’t Heal,” a landmark series about mental health care in Milwaukee County.
At the law school, Journal Sentinel Washington Bureau Chief Craig Gilbert is wrapping up a fellowship researching political polarization. He’ll write a series of related articles this spring. Gilbert follows MJS reporter Rick Romell, who did a series on economic growth in Wisconsin last April.
“If you went back even 10 years, you would never hear of such a relationship,” says Alan Borsuk, a former Journal Sentinel reporter who’s now at the law school. “It is a changed world.” Marquette pays Borsuk, who writes a weekly education column for the paper for a freelance fee.
Committed to this partnership, can the paper critically cover Marquette, a heavy hitter in town?
Editor Martin Kaiser says the Journal Sentinel is transparent, clearly labeling stories resulting from the MU partnership. “We’re going to cover Marquette as aggressively as we’ve ever done,” he says, citing reporting on controversies in the athletic department and the sudden resignation of the Rev. Scott R. Pilarz as president.
Although Marquette offers valuable research and data, it never has tried to impose a point of view, says Gilbert. “It’s that sweet spot between journalism and scholarship,” he says.
Meanwhile, cub reporters at MU are getting boots-on-the-ground experience. For “Chronic Crisis,” graduate student Edgar Mendez worked with Kissinger, analyzing budgets of caregivers.
“These are issues that impact thousands of people,” Mendez says. “It was a great learning experience.”