When teaching investigative journalism classes over the last 16 years, Professor Charles Lewis would remind students over and over to “peel the onion.” He wanted them to explore the multiple layers of their story ideas, to report deeply so they could write authoritatively.
When he and former faculty colleague Wendell Cochran co-created the Investigative Reporting Workshop (IRW) 14 years ago, he told reporters, interns, freelancers and colleagues the same thing: Peel the onion. Dig deeper.
Lewis, known around campus and throughout the nonprofit newsroom world as “Chuck,” will retire from his American University School of Communication (AU SOC) faculty position on Dec. 31. He also is now serving as emeritus executive editor at IRW, where Senior Editor John Sullivan is in an interim role as executive editor. A national search is underway for Lewis’ replacement.
Last month, the university hosted a celebration to honor Lewis’ 45-year career, and many former students said they found it hard to believe that Chuck was stepping down.
“I will forever feel privileged to have learned from you,” wrote Mandy McLaren, an IRW alum now at The Louisville Courier-Journal. “Your dogged pursuit for the truth is something that inspires me every day.” McLaren is a former educator who came back to school to pursue a master’s in investigative work and went on to win awards for her education coverage.
Like McLaren, Manuel Bewarder earned a master’s in journalism at SOC and worked for IRW. He is now an investigative reporter in Berlin for WDR Investigativ and NDR Recherche. “[Y]our class went beyond the basics every week,” he wrote. “You made us feel journalism.”
Before joining AU and creating IRW, Lewis founded the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — both Pulitzer prize-winning newsrooms. He is a former ABC News and CBS News “60 Minutes” producer and a best-selling author, most recently writing “935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity” (PublicAffairs, 2014). In 1998 he received a MacArthur Fellowship — a “Genius” award — and was given the 2018 I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence. Lewis has been called the “godfather of nonprofit news,” and received a lifetime achievement award last year from the Institute for Nonprofit News, which he co-founded. There are now more than 400 independent, nonprofit newsrooms nationwide.
At his retirement celebration, Provost Peter Starr said Lewis will be named professor emeritus at AU upon his retirement. And the Center for Public Integrity announced a renaming of its graduate fellowship to the Charles Lewis American University Fellowship.
IRW has trained and mentored more than 220 interns and established the school’s Washington Post practicum. SOC Dean Sam Fulwood III echoed Lewis’ influence on the next generation:
Chuck consistently demonstrated integrity and insisted on seeking the truth wherever it took him. He brought that focus to his work at AU.
And Starr said that IRW’s interns “had the privilege of learning ethical, substantive and in-depth investigative reporting from one of the foremost leaders in the field. Today, you’ll find Chuck’s students in major market legacy newsrooms, in new startups, or in focused nonprofits throughout the country and beyond our borders.”
Gifts to the Investigative Reporting Workshop made in Lewis’ honor will carry on his legacy of developing the next generation of investigative journalists. Donate at bit.ly/DonateIRW and click on “in honor of" to direct a gift in Lewis’s name to support IRW interns and fellows to continue his legacy of independent, investigative reporting.