O'Brien Fellowship
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O'Brien Fellowship

Whose Side Are We On?

By Dave Umhoefer

I was pondering that question last week after Marquette President Mike Lovell announced that the Frechette Family Foundation would fully fund a journalism fellowship it founded at Marquette University in 2013.

As the director of that program, the Perry and Alicia O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism, I’m as familiar as anyone with the in-depth, solutions-oriented brand of reporting the fellowship supports.

But I wondered: What is the common thread in the O’Brien catalog? Who are the people at the heart of the stories we support?

To name a few:

Those suffering from mental illness, dying without dignity in America’s local jails…

Construction workers tossed away after workplace injuries…

Family farmers driven into bankruptcy and despair…

Mothers who lost children to unsolved violent crimes…

Families struggling in a recession and trying to ward off eviction.

So, whose side are we on? Can you paint this reporting in a left-right, red-blue box?

Not to my eyes. If reporters pick sides, it’s usually to focus on and favor those on the bottom, not the top; the “losers” instead of the winners; the powerless not the powerful.

2019–20 Fellow James Causey talking with student reporter, Abby Ng.

The Frechette Foundation, to its everlasting credit, has never pushed O’Brien Fellows toward a particular story or angle. The professional journalists who become O’Brien Fellows for nine months bring their own ideas to the table. Peter and Patricia Frechette stepped forward with $8.3 million eight years ago, intending only to fill gaps in American journalism diminished by economic troubles, and to give student interns, who work with Fellows, the skills they need to get hired upon graduation.

But given the welcome announcement of another $5 million, the Frechette family essentially has endorsed O’Brien’s mission to spotlight challenges faced by the underdogs and underprivileged of American society — and reveal ideas that can alleviate their pain.

That is a shot in the arm that will help boost the work done by our Fellows and train up the student journalists who work alongside the professionals. In part due to this fellowship, past O’Brien reporting interns have landed good jobs around the country, at outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, Naples Daily News, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Frontline PBS, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, and more.

It will raise the ambition level of our journalism and allow us to connect more deeply with our audiences and partners.

Kathy Tenhula and Kristy Woolfolk (foreground center), grandaughters of the O’Briens, at the 2017 O’Brien Conference (Photo by Kevin Pauly).

Coming in tandem with Marquette President Lovell’s announcement of a $31 million gift to the university’s College of Nursing, the O’Brien donation provided a silver lining to the many challenges education faces in the COVID-19 era.

To the Frechette family — Kathy Tenhula and Kristy Woolfolk, the granddaughters of the O’Briens — thank you for the sustenance and support at such a challenging moment for journalism and higher education.

Your choice to strengthen the commitment your late parents, Pat and Pete Frechette, made to journalism and Marquette will resonate for decades to come.



Backed by the resources of Marquette University and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, fully funded O'Brien Fellows spend nine months on campus researching, reporting and writing the stories they care most deeply about, while also mentoring the next generation of journalists.

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O'Brien Fellowship

The Perry and Alicia O'Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism @MarquetteU @MUCollegeofComm. Journalism that reveals solutions as it uncovers problems.