So much work, so much fun


“There is a lot that is more fun here. But there is also a lot that is much more difficult”. This is how my son Mats (8) summed it all up when we were walking home from school, after two months in Washington, DC.

He had started school together with his little sisters Signe (5) and Johanne (2), without much more English vocabulary than “plum” and “red”. But he had also made big eyes when the neighbors closed down the street and placed an enormous moon bounce in front of our house for the yearly block party.

A lot of fun, but also a lot of work, is a good summary of our stay in the U.S. Being a Visiting Scholar at American University, studying at some of the leading university centers in investigative journalism, gave me a unique opportunity to get to know some of the leading journalism communities in the U.S.  But it was also a lot of hard work. Most of the time, I sat at my little desk at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, observing the students and staff at the center. I could observe how the professors worked together with the students on a story, and how they collaborated with different news organizations to get the stories published. If there were things I didn’t understand, I did field interviews with students, faculty and staff. I also did formal in depth interviews at the center and its collaborating newsrooms: everything to try to understand how these centers of investigative journalism work, what the interviewees thought about journalism and journalism values, and to try to understand how quality journalism can best be taught.

During the year I also got to observe and do interviews with newsrooms The Workshop partnered with, like The Washington Post. The Workshop and The Post have co-hired a journalist, Professor John Sullivan, who teaches a group of graduate students inside the Washington Post newsroom, working on stories to be published in The Post. I observed how the class worked with the stories, what difficulties they had, and how they solved the data gathering and reporting.

The collaboration between the university centers and the newsrooms, like the Workshop at American University and The Washington Post, are often presented as a win-win situation: the media industry receives additional resources for demanding journalistic projects, while the journalist students get valuable training and experience. The partnerships, involving known newsrooms as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, have resulted in several prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. During the year I wanted to find out how these new collaborations really worked: were they just the win-win arrangements as presented, or could they also be just another way to make students work for free? Did the students do any of the difficult journalistic work, or were they only given legwork? Is this form of master learning a good way to teach journalism students, and how was the quality of the stories they produced?

During the year, I visited three other centers of investigative journalism at U.S. universities: the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University in New York, the Investigative Reporting program at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, University of California and The New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University. At these centers I did much of the same work that I did at American University, only during a shorter period of time. During the year I did 69 in depth interviews and 100 days of observation altogether. I also analyzed 40 of the stories produced by the centers. A lot of hard work, but at the same time very rewarding.

After returning home, I have started analyzing all the data material I have gathered. During the two years that are left of my PhD period, I hope to figure out if these university-newsroom collaborations can help preserve and develop quality journalism in these economic challenging times. I am also going to discuss how these collaborations work in an educational context, and explore if it is possible to implement similar projects in Norway.

For the children, all the hard work gave them skills that they will undoubtedly benefit from for the rest of their lives. After struggling to understand simple messages, their English became better and better. Soon they started to understand, then they started talking. After a year they were fluent, the youngest using English 70 percent of the time – also at home with us. In addition, they have gotten to know a different country and a different culture, developed strong friendships with children from all over the world and seen early on that there are many ways to do things. Establishing a whole family at a new continent for a year was an enormous amount of work, but we have never doubted that it was worthwhile. We would despair over the American health care system one day, and love getting to know another family from yet another country the next. We would bury our self in misery filling out the twelfth form for the children’s school, and then forget everything screaming with thousands of other basketball fans at night. We have started saying that the year in DC made us 10 years older, but that it was worth every year.

Thank you so much Fulbright for giving us this opportunity!

Gunhild Ring Olsen wrote a feature article which appeared both in a Norwegian regional newspaper called Sunmørsposten and in the Norwegian journalism professions magazine, Journalisten, in January 2015.