Marquette College of Communication announces 2016-17 class of journalists for O'Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism

March 29, 2016

MILWAUKEE — The J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication announced today that Pulitzer Prize winners from regional newsrooms in the Midwest, and an investigative reporter from the Southwest, will join the Perry and Alicia O'Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism in August.

The 2016-17 O'Brien Fellows are Jackie Crosby, a business reporter at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis; Mark Johnson, a health and science reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Christine Steele, who covers U.S. border issues for the Sierra Vista Herald in Sierra Vista, Arizona.

Crosby, then a young sports reporter at The Telegraph in Macon, Georgia, co-authored a series of stories on athletics and academics that earned the 1985 Pulitzer for specialized reporting. Twice otherwise a Pulitzer finalist, Johnson co-authored a series – examining efforts to use genetic technology to save a boy imperiled by a mysterious disease – that won the award for explanatory reporting in 2011. Steele has been an editor and reporter at small- to medium-sized newspapers across the U.S. for the past 13 years.

Begun in 2012-13, the O'Brien Fellowship has already enabled 11 journalists to produce in-depth public service journalism projects ready for publication by their home or other news organizations. Many of the prior works by O'Brien Fellows have earned significant national awards and or changed public policies.

During their nine months at Marquette University, O'Brien Fellows integrate students into their projects as reporting interns and research assistants. This gives them first-hand experience alongside a veteran journalist, and the potential of a university-sponsored summer internship at one of the newsrooms.

"The O'Brien Fellowship this year received its highest number of applications – and the best collection of potential projects – to date," said Ana Garner, interim dean of the College of Communication. "We are excited that more and more journalists, from newsrooms of all sizes, recognize the benefit of becoming immersed in the Marquette community, including having access to university faculty and scholars. The collaborations and resulting work are a win-win for everybody, most especially the public at large."

The O'Brien Fellowship resulted from an $8.3 million gift announced in 2013.

The inaugural O'Brien Fellow was Meg Kissinger of the Journal Sentinel, who along with several students and faculty members examined Milwaukee County's troubled mental health system during the 2012-13 academic year. Kissinger's series, "Chronic Crisis: A System That Doesn't Heal," earned a George A. Polk Award, one of journalism's most respected honors. The reports led to many reforms, including several bills signed by Gov. Scott Walker and particularly one aimed at creating a new governing body to oversee mental health care in the county.

The 2013-14 O'Brien Fellows also earned accolades for their work while at Marquette. Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Egan's "A Watershed Moment: Great Lakes at a Crossroads," which focused on the destruction caused by invasive species entering the Great Lakes, earned a prestigious Alfred I. DuPont Award from Columbia University. Lillian Thomas of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won an award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) for "Poor Health: Poverty and Scarce Resources in U.S. Cities." Besides having "Losing Ground: The Struggle to Reduce CO2," published by The Seattle Times, Hal Bernton helped the newspaper winning the 2015 Pulitzer for breaking news, after briefly returning mid-fellowship to help cover the aftermath of a mudslide in Washington.

2014-15 O'Brien Fellow Raquel Rutledge of the Journal Sentinel recently earned two awards from SABEW, and a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism from Hunter College of the City University of New York, for her series, "Gasping for Action." The series detailed the hazards that the flavoring chemical diacetyl presents for people who work in coffee-roasting facilities or smoke e-cigarettes. It led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to issue warnings about the dangers of diacetyl.

The Arizona Republic's Brandon Loomis, another 2014-15 fellow, used O'Brien Fellowship funding to finance travel to Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and the Navajo Nation, all to produce "As the River Runs Dry: The Southwest's Water Crisis." The third member of that cohort, independent journalist Marjorie Valbrun, is expected to have her fellowship work published soon.

The 2015-16 O'Brien Fellows – Justin George, a crime reporter at The Baltimore Sun; Liz Navratil, a crime and courts reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Dave Umhoefer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the Journal Sentinel; and Miranda Spivack, a former editor and reporter at The Washington Post and a nonresidential fellow – aim to have their work published in the months to come.

Nearly 50 graduate and undergraduate students have spent at least one semester helping O'Brien Fellows. A few have either earned newspaper bylines or produced Web-based videos related to the projects. Several have traveled on reporting and research trips with fellows across Milwaukee and Wisconsin; to states such as California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada and Texas; and to Belgium, China and Peru.

O'Brien Fellowship director Herbert Lowe said the program has helped to raise the bar for students.

"The fellows are not only attracting journalism majors, but also those who enjoy research or want to adapt class lessons to critical matters affecting real people," said Lowe, who is also the Diederich College's journalism professional in residence. "Sitting regularly with someone who is gracious yet tenacious, flexible yet precise, always thinking big picture but cares for the smallest details – it all goes a long way toward showing what it takes to be successful in whatever workplaces await our graduates."