Marquette University announced last month that a Minneapolis couple had donated $8.3 million to its Diederich College of Communication, and that the money would be used to fund a fellowship that would allow three journalists each year to work on a public service journalism project at the school.
What it didn't announce was just how fortuitous the venture was.
"The beauty of this project is it is a collaboration among the university, a news organization and generous and open-minded philanthropists," says Lori Bergen, the college's dean. "Sometimes, you kind of have to ask, 'Wow, was there divine intervention here? How did this line up so beautifully?'
About a year-and-a-half ago, George Stanley, managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, approached Marquette with the idea of starting a fellowship program for public service journalism.
"It seems that because of all the tough economic times we are going through, folks feel less comfortable leaving the newsroom for a year to focus on a project they really want to pursue," Stanely says. "I thought that if we could put together the fellowship program, reporters would feel more comfortable leaving for an academic year, and their organizations would get a world-class piece of journalism in return."
Shortly after Stanley approached Marquette, Peter and Patricia Frechette donated $8.3 million to the school in honor of Patricia Frechette's parents, Perry and Alicia O'Brien, who graduated from Marquette in 1936 and 1935 with degrees in journalism and liberal arts.
"Sometimes things just come together," Stanley says. "A donor virtually fell out of the sky."
The end result is the Perry and Alicia O'Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism, an innovative program with multiple components that will begin in the fall.
The three fellows will come to Marquette for one academic year to work on a public service journalism project of their choice. They will have access to the resources of both the Journal Sentinel and Marquette. Students from the Diederich School of Communication will assist the fellows with research and reporting.
The work will be published in the journalists' home news outlets. And at the end of the academic year, the fellows will take a student back to their news organizations for a paid summer internship.
"The donors really cared about doing something to preserve the quality of journalism in America, because of the role it plays in American democracy," Bergen says. "Scholarships are wonderful, but they were really open to funding some sort of a project. That, combined with the focus on public service, which is in Marquette's mission statement, made this fellowship the perfect choice."
Before spending the current academic year at Marquette, Meg Kissinger, a longtime reporter for the Journal Sentinel, wrote an in-depth investigative series about problems at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex.
Now, Kissinger and students at the Diederich College are following up on shortcomings of the Milwaukee County mental health system. Stanley refers to Kissinger's time at Marquette as a "pilot program" for the O'Brien Fellowship.
Kissinger says that the pilot program is going well, both for her and for the students. "Being at Marquette gave me a chance to get out of the newsroom and dive up to my neck into practically all of this data that is informing me about mental health," she says. "Meanwhile, the students are given the opportunity to see what working in the field is really like."
Last semester, Kissinger met regularly with a senior and four graduate students, who helped her with research and interviews. During the current semester, she's working with a multimedia class, and the students are shooting video for the project. Their work will appear in the Journal Sentinel and on JSOnline, the paper's Web site, starting at the end of the month.
Bergen is not entirely sure how the students at Marquette will be involved in the fellowship program. The school might develop a capstone course that would allow students to join forces with the fellows. She's also considering devoting segments of individual classes to student/professional collaboration.
Regardless of the format, Bergen is excited about connecting the students at Marquette to the visiting journalists.
"The O'Brien fellowship is very consistent with a new and innovative approach for doing journalism education," she says. "With this new fellowship, Marquette is now a leader in the teaching hospital model of journalism education, and world-class reporters are given a platform to participate in public service journalism.
"It's a win-win."