Medill Watchdog to end amid lack of funding

Olivia Exstrum, Campus Editor

The investigative journalism initiative Medill Watchdog will cease operations indefinitely following financial issues. Watchdog director Rick Tulsky said he will not hire any Winter Quarter interns this year for the first time since the program launched in 2011.

Medill Dean Brad Hamm voiced concerns this summer about the feasibility of continuing the program, Tulsky said. He chose to wait to announce that the program was having financial trouble until Wednesday via a post on his Facebook page. Hamm had not responded to requests for comment as of Thursday afternoon.

“I’ve known there was a looming danger with the absence of somebody coming in with the money since the summer,” Tulsky told The Daily. “We were in the middle of significant journalism projects, and I guess I was always hopeful we would do the journalism and the money would take care of itself.”

The Robert R. McCormick Foundation initially funded the project through two $230,000 grants. Tulsky said Medill provided additional funding for the program to continue after the grant money ran out.

“I don’t know the dollar figure on what Medill has been putting in,” he said. “I don’t expect Medill to have to carry the burden themselves. The real issue is if there is outside funding that could save the program and sustain it.”

Among Medill Watchdog’s most recent projects is an investigation in partnership with WGN  published in late November about a Cook County judge who sent several people to jail for their appearance and behavior while in court. The program also published a series in partnership with the Chicago Tribune in early December about problems in several residential treatment centers across the country.

Tulsky said he “remains hopeful” the program will continue.

“I’m an optimistic guy and I think that we do really important stuff,” he said. “I hear from a lot of interns, current and former, how important it is to them. You hear that kind of thing and you feel like it’s important to save the program.”

Karen Chen (Medill ’14) interned for Medill Watchdog for six quarters, beginning fall of her sophomore year. Chen, a former Daily staffer, said her time with the program helped her gain experience for a career in investigative reporting.

“It really saddens me that this opportunity won’t be extended to future students,” Chen said. “To me, it’s such a big part of my education and career now. When I do investigative projects, I know what I’m doing more than I would have because I did them at Watchdog.”

A graduate student when he interned for Medill Watchdog, Bryan Lowry (Medill ’13) said the program was the reason he chose to attend Medill.

“For someone who didn’t start out in a journalism background, it was a career changer,” he said. “This is the type of thing you dream about in journalism … I feel like future undergrads and grads are going to be robbed a little bit if this program isn’t there.”

While attending a conference on investigative journalism this year, Lowry said he was struck by how many Medill Watchdog alumni were there.

“It showed that Watchdog was going to be a good cradle for the investigative reporters of our generation,” he said. “It had the opportunity to become this great legacy.”

Lowry said he spoke over the phone with Hamm about a week ago to speak on behalf of the program. He said Hamm said the school plans to use elements of Medill Watchdog in its graduate school curriculum.

With two major investigations published recently, Chen said the program’s successes should be reason for it to continue.

“Our most recent series has already garnered so much attention,” Chen said. “Does that not matter? Does good journalism not make a difference? I don’t understand what the priorities are if that’s not enough to sustain it.”

Tulsky said although the program will not be hiring winter interns, some interns will choose to continue to work on stories. Tulsky’s contract with the University extends through the end of January.

“I think what we’ve been doing is a program that was good for the community and students, and good as a model for how this kind of journalism can survive,” he said. “I remain a hopeful person that we will find a way to keep it alive.”

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