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March 1, 2017, 11:35 a.m.
Reporting & Production

With its new editor on board, ProPublica Illinois’ ambitions are starting to take shape

“I think the keys to making this kind of small operation work are collegiality, responsiveness, and flexibility.”

Reporters who depart journalism for the greener pastures of other industries rarely make a return trip. But when ProPublica asked Louise Kiernan to help launch its first state-level expansion, ProPublica Illinois, she couldn’t say no.

“I always thought that if the perfect opportunity came along, I would consider going back into a newsroom because it’s a wonderful life,” said Kiernan, who spent 18 years at the Chicago Tribune and the last six teaching at the Northwestern’s Medill School. (She’s also a past Nieman Fellow and past editor of Nieman Storyboard.) “And as much as I love my job here [at Medill], I miss that life, too. I don’t know that there would have been any other opportunity beyond this one that would have lured me back.”

As editor-in-chief of ProPublica’s Illinois unit, Kiernan will be charged with building up a newsroom (the site has already advertised 10 job openings), creating a local fundraising operation, and helping the operation forge partnerships with other news organizations. It’s an important time for the launch, as the cultural and economic rifts between the middle of the country and the coasts have forced news organizations to think differently about how to cover the issues that matter to states like Illinois.

I spoke to Kiernan about her new role, its importance today, and why she’s optimistic about the future of the business.

Ricardo Bilton: How do you articulate the mission of ProPublica Illinois?

Louise Kiernan: It’s not too complicated: Our mission is to find and report great stories that are going to inform people and surprise them and move them to action.

Bilton: This is the first time ProPublica has opened up a regional operation. Why start with Illinois?

Kiernan: I think there is a great opportunity here to tell stories. There are more stories here than there are reporters to tell them — and not because the reporters here aren’t doing terrific work, because they are. Chicago and Illinois are both complex places that face a lot of challenging issues and many of those issues, while they’re local in origin, are national in implication and scope. I also think Chicago and Illinois are great places to find journalists. There’s already a very rich and thriving landscape of investigative journalism here to build upon.

Bilton: What are the general topics or stories that you think are you’ll focus on? Are there stories that you can only cover — or cover in a much better way — in the Midwest?

Kiernan: I’ll frame it this way. I think as we’re looking to bring in reporters, I’m not thinking about creating rigid beats and looking for people to fill them. I think the goal to bring in the best possible group of reporters who bring a range and diversity of experiences and backgrounds and areas of expertise. And I think those areas of expertise that they bring to us will be where we start. But I would imagine that those issues would include criminal justice, race, equality, government and politics, education, and environment.

Bilton: What about the role of partnerships? ProPublica is known for creating these big ambitious investigative partnerships with other organizations. Do you see a similar role for that on the local and regional level?

Kiernan: Absolutely. As you pointed out, ProPublica has worked on a model of collaboration since its inception, even when that was nowhere near as common as it is now. I think the rest of the profession has caught up to that model, so I think that very much we will be looking for ways to partner with media organizations here. I think that’s one of the really exciting things that lie ahead.

Bilton: What do you imagine will the biggest challenge you face early on?

Kiernan: I think right now the biggest challenge is going to be picking from an amazing array of journalists who have already expressed interest in working for us. I expected there to be a lot of interest in the jobs here, but I’ve been surprised just by the absolute volume of interest and by the quality of people who want to work for ProPublica.

Bilton: One of the other interesting notes in the announcement in December is that the Illinois operation will be in charge of its own local fundraising. What’s the vision of what that will look like? What does the local outreach look like?

Kiernan: That is something we’re just starting up. But there is a whole team at ProPublica working with us on development. Also, I think already here in Chicago there is a lot of support for journalism, both from foundations and from individual donors. So I think that will be where we look.

Bilton: Are you optimistic about your ability to raise money? You saw after the election that organizations like ProPublica were flooded with donations from people looking to help fund their work.

Kiernan: I think that there is no better time to be doing investigative journalism than now. I couldn’t think of a better time to be starting this endeavor. It’s really exciting. I think people who didn’t think very much about journalism at all before now understand the important role that it plays in a democracy and they’re seeking out ways to support it.

Bilton: Regional and local news organizations both face some big economic challenges that have had major effects on their coverage and ability to serve their communities. Do you see yourself filling in a gap left by these organizations or more building on top of what’s there now?

Kiernan: I think because I’ve lived and worked in Chicago for so long, I very much see this as a landscape where people are doing great work already. I think our role is to help support that work and make it even stronger.

Bilton: You were at the Tribune for 18 years before becoming a college professor. Now you’re back in journalism, but at a very different kind of organization. How do you connect those dots?

Kiernan: I wasn’t trying to flee the newsroom. I always thought that I would come to teach at some point in my career. My experience at Medill was really meaningful for me when I was here as a student, and I always thought I would like to do that at some point. My work at the Tribune and elsewhere became more and more about teaching — I was the paper’s writing coach for a while. I was doing a fair amount of speaking and training at other news organizations or at conferences, and I found I really like that element of the work. And it was an opportunity that came to me and it seemed like a fun thing to do.

Bilton: How does your tenure as a professor change your perspective on the new job?

Kiernan: Because I worked in a legacy newsroom for a long time, I think I understand that world. But also as part of my role here we created and built the Social Justice News Nexus, where we worked primarily with independent journalists and smaller journalism organizations in the city. So I had an opportunity to learn more about that role of journalism here and see how vital and innovative it is. So I think one of the benefits of having been at Northwestern is getting a sense of the broader landscape of journalism here in Chicago and some of the thinking about journalism in general.

I also think I have a sense of optimism about the future of journalism because I’m surrounded by smart, young, talented people who want to do this. I see them every day, and they make me feel really great about the future.

Bilton: So why leave your academic job — which I imagine is pretty cushy — to get back into journalism? Was it just the magnitude of the opportunity here to build something new?

Kiernan: First, I should say that the cushiness of academia is highly overrated.

It’s not often that someone comes to you and gives you a chance to build something totally brand new and start from scratch and create an organization that you think works. That’s an amazing opportunity.

Bilton: What do you think are going to be the keys to making the ProPublica Illinois operation a success?

Kiernan: I think the keys to making this kind of small operation work are collegiality, responsiveness, and flexibility. It’s going to be a small team and people will need to work together really well and bring a sense of energy and optimism to the enterprise.

Bilton: You have to believe that things are going to get better. If you’re not optimistic about the future, you should probably be doing some thing else.

Kiernan: Yeah, I agree. I think you want to be excited about the opportunity and the ability to build something.

Photo of Louise Kiernan by Sally Ryan.

POSTED     March 1, 2017, 11:35 a.m.
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