Bringing Prize-winning Journalism to the Classroom

John Sullivan, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, didn’t dream of becoming a journalist when he was the youngest of eight children growing up in the north suburbs of Chicago. He says he had trouble finding his place. With the help of an internship at the Chicago Reporter, which covers race and poverty issues, and the example of his older brother, Drew, and a few good teachers and mentors along the way, that all changed—setting him on a path to where he is today—co-winner of a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Sullivan and four colleagues at The Philadelphia Inquirer — Susan Snyder, Kristen A. Graham, Dylan Purcell, and Jeff Gammage — spent a year examining violence in Philadelphia public schools following high-profile racialized attacks at South Philadelphia High School in 2009. They conducted more than 300 interviews with teachers, administrators, students and their families, district officials, police officers, court officials, and school-violence experts and dug through reams of records for the seven-part series.

The project, “Assault on Learning,” also produced a searchable online database and has led to major reforms in the school system. It has also led to the ultimate prize for the beleaguered newspaper, which had not won a Pulitzer since 1997.

“This is a story that I wanted to do because it was a really important story, “ said Sullivan, who left the newspaper in 2011 and is now assistant director of Medill Watchdog—an initiative that puts student interns to work on in-depth investigations. “[The Pulitzer] sends a strong message for reporters to work on these issues, even if they don’t think they’re going to have the kind of results that are going to satisfy their peers.”

Sullivan, who has been a journalist for 17 years, including 10 with The Philadelphia Inquirer, has now joined a long tradition in journalism education—seasoned professional journalists working side-by-side with students to create meaningful work. That’s what Medill Watchdog is all about. The initiative, whose tag line is “journalism for public accountability,” is run by director Rick Tulsky and Sullivan.

On April 16, the day the Pulitzer winners were announced, Watchdog interns gathered in a room at Medill to find out if their mentor had won. Cheers and applause broke out when they got the news, says Medill senior Katherine Driessen of Columbia, Md.

“I wasn’t entirely surprised because John is incredible,” says Driessen, who says Tulsky and Sullivan run Watchdog like a newsroom—with ideas flowing and failing, hard work and questions—many questions.

“John is the type of reporter who, when you bring an idea to him, he’s skeptical,” says Driessen, who will graduate in June. “That’s the way good journalism works. … It’s really about that journalistic rigor and ethics that you learn in a classroom but you do at Watchdog.”

Driessen says that Sullivan is more like a mentor than a professor, which was at least part of Sullivan’s goal all along.

“I saw at the Inquirer that a lot of the young reporters were not getting the same kind of experience and mentoring in investigative reporting that I got in other places,” says Sullivan, who earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. “And I thought it was important to continue that.”

Sullivan says that joining the Medill faculty and assisting with the Watchdog was a chance for him to continue to report and write about issues that concern the public without the same financial pressures that the journalism industry continues to face.

“I think it’s a natural transition for John,” says Snyder, who co-led the Inquirer’s investigative team with Sullivan and learned a lot from him along the way. “He’s still involved with investigative journalism. What a great way for students to learn.”