New director for Chicago Innocence Project

After extensive work in social justice reporting, Pamela Cytrynbaum is named the new director of the Chicago Innocence Project by David Protess.

Courtesy of Pam Cytrynbaum

After extensive work in social justice reporting, Pamela Cytrynbaum is named the new director of the Chicago Innocence Project by David Protess.

Michele Corriston, Print Managing Editor

After a nationwide search, one of Medill’s most famed former professors landed right back in Evanston, choosing Pamela Cytrynbaum — a Medill lecturer, Northwestern alumna and his own student in the 1980s — to lead the investigative journalism nonprofit he founded last year.

David Protess announced last week that Cytrynbaum (Medill ’88) will serve as executive director of The Chicago Innocence Project, which uses reporting to expose evidence and exonerate wrongfully convicted felons.

Protess will continue to serve full-time as president of ChIP, teaching the program’s reporting seminar, selecting the cases, fundraising and writing articles about the project’s work for The Huffington Post. Cytrynbaum will take over day-to-day operations and supervise the students that volunteer and intern with ChIP.

The two have known each other for more than 25 years: first as teacher-student in Protess’ investigative journalism class, then as colleagues at the Medill Innocence Project and finally as friends in the Windy City’s media hub.

“I believe so strongly in the long history of the excellent work that he’s done,” Cytrynbaum said. “I knew we had a great working relationship and I knew I could make a real difference in the organization. It was incredibly exciting to me to have the chance to help build something, something that already has a long tradition, but to really build it in Chicago, my beloved hometown, and in Chicago journalism, which is where I came up and where I’m so deeply rooted.”

Cytrynbaum, a former Daily staffer, has a resume steeped in social justice reporting. She worked as Protess’ program assistant at the Medill Innocence Project after writing for the Chicago Tribune. She then left Chicago for Brandeis University, where she helped found the Justice Brandeis Innocence Project. She returned to Medill two years ago to teach.

Unlike the projects at Medill and Brandeis, ChIP is an autonomous organization. The six students that will intern with ChIP in the fall come from four different schools: Medill, Loyola University, Roosevelt University and Knox College, Protess said. Four more will work as volunteers. Additionally, the program is enlisting the aid of community organizations and pioneering the training of exonerated prisoners to help overturn the wrongful convictions of others in what Protess calls a “grassroots” strategy.

Although Cytrynbaum has only been employed at university projects, Protess said her experience will help bring ChIP more reporting clout.

“The Chicago Innocence Project is incorporated as a nonprofit investigative reporting group, so we are not affiliated with any one university and no one can dispute our journalistic credentials,” he explained. “Pam only adds to that with her own history as a prominent journalist in our country.”

Protess has long been considered a powerful force in the field. According to the ChIP website, he worked for the Better Government Association and Chicago Lawyer magazine before beginning an expansive career at Northwestern in 1981. His investigative journalism class, he said, freed seven prisoners even before he started the Medill Innocence Project in 1999.

Perhaps most famously, students in his class helped overturn the conviction of death row prisoner Anthony Porter, prompting then-Illinois governor George Ryan to issue a moratorium on executions.

The Medill Innocence Project’s model, Protess said, is similar to the model ChIP uses — and it’s one that can be successful anywhere.

“You take a bunch of journalism students and you partner them with news organizations and you get lawyers and private investigators involved, and magical things happen,” Protess said. “And that can happen whether or not it started at Medill or it started at the Chicago Innocence Project, and it can happen whether or not I’m involved. It’s the work that’s important, not me.”

But Protess’ work was not without controversy. Outgoing Medill Dean John Lavine abruptly replaced Protess as professor of the investigative reporting class in March 2011 following a legal battle between the University and Cook County prosecutors, who accused students of ethical violations while researching a case.

NU officials first stood behind Protess’ refusal to comply with subpoenas of class documents, but withdrew their support after discovering Protess had tweaked emails about the relationship between students and the defense. Protess announced he was leaving Medill that spring to form ChIP.

Despite the drama, Cytrynbaum said she was far from shocked by the outpouring of support for ChIP and Protess within the journalism community.

“If you’re going to get out there and do big things, you’re going to run the risk of challenging assumptions and making some people mad,” she said. “But I am not surprised by the incredible welcome and the success because it’s essential, important work that’s being done lawfully and very well. And that’s the proof.”

Students working for the project helped exonerate a police torture case in February and have brought forth new evidence in others. In May, Protess won the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism for his Huffington Post blog. And the reason behind Cytrynbaum’s hiring, Protess said, was to better manage the caseload that floods ChIP’s office.

But Cytrynbaum has her own goals. First on her list is revamping the ChIP website and pushing the project on social media, which she said appeals to young people and could spark an interest in social justice at the high school level.

Protess seems content to let her take the technological reins.

“I am clueless when it comes to social media. My students still think it’s incredibly funny that I receive email from an iPhone and blog for the Huffington Post,” he joked. “That’s why I hired her, to handle issues like that.”

Freshmen hoping to learn Cytrynbaum’s social media skills will have to wait. Because directing ChIP is a full-time job, she will not teach classes in the fall. Cytrynbaum, who won the 2012 Medill Student’s Choice Award, is still a member of the faculty and said she would love to return to teaching at some point.
ChIP’s first volunteers were five Medill students who followed Protess when he left NU. Since then, Medill students have served as interns. Cytrynbaum’s appointment would appear to tie the autonomous project even closer to the longtime home of its founder. But Protess said his relationship with Medill never broke.

“I’m certainly not going to allow the unwise decisions by a former dean to affect my longstanding ties with Medill and Northwestern,” he said. “I taught at Medill and Northwestern for 29 years. You don’t walk away from that.”