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Oct. 26, 2023, 2:45 p.m.
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For the Chicago-based Investigative Project on Race and Equity, training the next generation matters as much as the reporting

“We’re growing and learning, but the core of what we do is this really supported experiential learning.”

In the past decade alone, Chicago has proven itself to be a crucible for digital media innovation among American cities.

Between City Bureau (which established Documenters, a program that trains citizen journalists to cover public meetings, and has exported its model to several other cities), and Block Club Chicago, the pioneering hyperlocal outlet, the city has produced two celebrated digital-first local newsrooms. And it’s still served by outlets like its legacy newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, and NPR affiliate WBEZ Chicago (both the Sun-Times and WBEZ are owned by Chicago Public Media, which purchased the private newspaper in an unusual, wave-making media deal last year).

The reporters behind one of the newest additions to this landscape, the Investigative Project on Race and Equity, believe that there is a gap in that media ecosystem that they can help fill: rigorous, equity-focused investigative reporting. This new nonprofit outlet aims to “[add] capacity to newsrooms in the area to do deep investigative reporting on issues of racial equity,” partnering with existing local media organizations to publish its reporting, project director Angela Caputo told me in an interview.

The organization officially launched last month and published its first two stories, both tracing systemic failures resulting in a staggering number of traffic stops of Black drivers across Illinois, in partnership with WBEZ.

Just as important as the reporting itself are the people producing it — the Investigative Project pays young, part-time “apprentices” that it partners with seasoned reporters and editors to work on each of its stories, with the goal of helping train the next generation of investigative reporters.

The story of the reporters and editors who banded together to establish the Investigative Project starts at another publication: The Chicago Reporter, where many of the Investigative Project’s founding journalists, including Caputo, cut their teeth. Established in 1972, “a time when Chicago, as the rest of the nation, struggled to come to terms with the gains of the civil rights era and the resistance that followed,” the Reporter “set on a mission of documenting the city’s, and later the whole metropolitan area’s, struggles with the burning issues of race and poverty.” Its investigations repeatedly led to concrete action — the Reporter’s work in 1982 led to a successful ACLU lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department for unconstitutional disorderly conduct arrests, while reporting in 2007 about racial disparities in mortgage lending led state attorney general Lisa Madigan to sue the mortgage lender giant Countrywide Financial, leading to an $8.7 billion settlement, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Almost 50 years later, though, the publication’s ownership, in the eyes of many of its alumni, put the Reporter’s mission in jeopardy. In 2020, the Community Renewal Society, the local faith-based social justice organization that owns the Reporter, put the publication on hiatus, fired its editor and publisher, and announced a restructuring, prompting more than 130 alarmed former staffers to unite as Friends of the Chicago Reporter and launch a campaign to “restore [the Reporter’s] independent editorial control.” In 2021, Laura Washington, the Reporter’s former publisher and editor, wrote in The Nation, “If the city’s civic leaders don’t start asking tough questions about recent managerial decisions, the Reporter could face extinction — just when its unique voice is most needed.”

The Chicago Reporter ultimately hired a new editor and is still publishing today (the Reporter did not respond to a request for comment by press time). But Friends of the Chicago Reporter evolved into the foundation for a new, entirely separate reporting venture. In October 2021, the group — mostly Reporter alumni, but also a few civic leaders — incorporated as a nonprofit, and a volunteer advisory council focused on laying groundwork through fundraising, grant-writing, and writing bylaws. (Disclosure: I worked with one of these advisory council members, Sharon McGowan, in a previous job.) Washington now serves as the Investigative Project’s board president.

Prior to its public launch last month, the Investigative Project raised $205,000 from four foundations — the Chicago Community Trust, the Joyce Foundation, the Field Foundation of Illinois, and the Chicago Headline Club Foundation — as well as about $50,000 from individual donors.

“This organization is a group of people who were like, this is just too important to let go — and so how do we impart this on the next generation of investigative reporters?” Caputo said.

“We realized it wasn’t the Chicago Reporter that made what we did great; it was the community around it,” she added. “It was the group of people who were doing the work. It was this collaborative model where we worked together to train each other and to teach each other — that’s how we became investigative reporters and learned data journalism. We changed our focus to ‘How do we save this tradition and this community that’s been built over 50 years?’ And that’s how we came to be the Investigative Project on Race and Equity.”

Caputo said it’s important to understand that the Investigative Project’s focus on race and equity does not mean it is an advocacy organization. “We see it as reporting on issues that impact people who live in our city,” she said.

A collaborative approach, and an emphasis on training and mentorship, are defining elements the Investigative Project traces back to its Reporter roots, Caputo said. But the Investigative Project is structured differently from the Reporter. For instance, “we’re not trying to create a newsroom where we have a news hole to fill,” Caputo said. At the Reporter, she recalled that (as at many, or most, publications) staff had to think about generating enough content, both for the website and for a regularly published magazine. But the Investigative Project aims to have short, medium, and long-term projects in the works that will be published at different times — without aiming for a concrete publishing cadence — and does not face pressure to fill news holes for the sake of generating content.

As a training organization, the Investigative Project aims to supplement other local opportunities for aspiring young reporters. Caputo brought up City Bureau as one key component of the local media ecosystem that is “prolific in training journalists”; an apprenticeship at the Investigative Project, she said, “can be a step two, where you work on a team on a deeply reported project.”

Most of the first apprentices were contracted to work five hours per week over five months, but sometimes worked more based on reporting needs, Caputo told me. In the future, apprentices will be contracted to work up to 10 hours per week, and the organization may extend apprenticeships “because we think it would be beneficial for apprentices to work on multiple projects and participate in more training,” she added in a follow-up email.

Ola Giwa, a data reporter with a web development background, was one of the Investigative Project’s first apprentices. Giwa, who previously did contract data analysis and web development for WBEZ, had more coding and web development experience than journalism experience, but has been interested in data visualization since “before [there was]…even a name for it,” she told me in an interview. Giwa credited a TED talk by Hans Rosling and work by The New York Times with kindling her interest in data visualization, and said she began “having a bug for” journalism while working at the Invisible Institute, another Chicago-based nonprofit journalism outlet.

In her three-month apprenticeship with the Investigative Project, Giwa gained experience with reporting tasks she had never done before, like fact-checking and pulling court records. She described the experience as “a mini boot camp into learning the basics of journalism.”

“I’m more of a puzzle person,” she told me — she enjoys working with numbers and data for their own sake, and gets excited by building an end product or making something work. But at the Investigative Project, though she still crunched data, Giwa was pushed outside her comfort zone. “They made me not do a lot of data work,” she said, chuckling. “They’re just like, we already know that you can do data [work]…so we’re going to teach you some of the things of being an actual journalist.”

When she went to the courthouse to look up records for someone the team would be interviewing for the first time, “I felt like one of those cops from Law and Order,” Giwa said.

Caputo explained that “in addition to actually doing the work…taking the time to show someone ‘this is the process’” is key to the apprenticeship program. Tasks are typically broken up into concrete chunks, like working on a memo about the history of certain legislation one week. “Of course, this is new, and we were building the plane as we fly it,” she added. “We’re growing and learning, but the core of what we do is this really supported experiential learning.”

The Investigative Project’s first two stories — a two-part series on disproportionate traffic stops of Black drivers in Illinois, 20 years after legislation sponsored by then-state senator Barack Obama that was supposed to have the opposite effect — exemplify the kind of work the organization aims to produce. Caputo said that any story the Investigative Project works on should be “revelatory,” “use data and primary documents,” and be reported with a sharp eye to “how people interact with systems — and we often find that communities of color are harmed by systems,” whether that means the same nursing home company has fewer employees in a Black community than a white community, or Black minors are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system. “It’s less of a one-off and more of looking at how systems are structured and how they’re helping or hurting people,” Caputo said.

To produce these two stories, which took close to six months of reporting, the Investigative Project’s team — including Giwa, and two other apprentices, Leslie Hurtado and Taylor Moore — reviewed two decades’ worth of traffic stop data. The investigation, Caputo said, quantified data to show that “driving and interacting with traffic enforcement is different for Black people than other drivers.” (One driver the reporters interviewed had been stopped in “random” traffic stops 24 times since 2007.) This was “kind of an everyman story,” she added — “any Black driver will have something to say about traffic stops. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, or you have a criminal record. The experience is ubiquitous for all Black drivers, and it transcends class.”

Now, the Investigative Project is focused on building its team out, and has a list of potential partnership opportunities and story ideas as it plans future projects, Caputo said. As an INN member, the organization aims to raise $50,000 through NewsMatch this fall, and wants to develop “an individual donor base that’s sustained.” (The Investigative Project has about 150 individual donors, a number it aims to grow.) Leaders are also thinking through “how to monetize the training aspect of the work that we do” for a broader journalism community (beyond the training it provides to its own apprentices and staff).

“Foundations have helped us to get off to a great start, and we’re so grateful for that,” Caputo said. “But we recognize that we need to bring in different types of revenue in order to be sustainable and less reliant, because funders change their minds on their priorities on what they fund.”

One mission priority for the Investigative Project is supporting “smaller newsrooms that are covering communities of color, that are immersed in them, and to bring more investigative firepower to those newsrooms, to train those journalists, to add capacity.” Another priority is reach — partnering with WBEZ for the traffic stop series, for instance, expanded those stories’ reach.

“We’re being strategic about who we’re partnering with,” Caputo said. “We don’t want to partner just with large newsrooms…because equally important to us is building capacity among people who will continue to grow into those positions where they can lead a project.”

Photo of the Chicago skyline by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar on Flickr.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     Oct. 26, 2023, 2:45 p.m.
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