CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — While the genesis of Progress Illinois dates back to 2006, the left-leaning news and commentary site officially launched in March 2008, riding a wave of national interest in Illinois politics propelled by then-senator Barack Obama’s unlikely bid for the presidency. The spotlight on Illinois intensified further that year with ex-governor Rod Blagojevich’s descent from up-and-coming progressive politician to perpetual punch line. It was a good time to be a fledgling Illinois-centric political news site.
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According to current editor-in-chief Aricka Flowers, Progress Illinois “was born out of the idea to find that progressive voice, to allow and support a progressive voice in the Illinois and Chicago media market.” With that in mind, the Illinois State Council of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) agreed to offer seed money to found a website focused on labor issues.
The result is Progress Illinois, a site whose stock in trade is in stories that have flown under the radar elsewhere. While the average reader may be left cold by the site’s laser beam focus on nuts-and-bolts progressive issues, left-leaners and policy wonks surely rejoice at the site’s in-depth coverage of the same. Stories the mainstream media might consider too “inside baseball”—a policy paper on pension funding, say, or a legislative hearing on predatory-lending reform—get major play in Progress Illinois.
“We kind of focus on stories that are underreported,” Flowers says. “We’re typically providing coverage to the stories so they eventually get coverage somewhere else. Or we’re taking a story that is out there, and we’re covering it more in-depth than traditional outlets can.”
In addition to progressive-minded readers, Flowers says Progress Illinois’s core audience consists primarily of working journalists, hardcore policy types, and people who work in advocacy in one capacity or another.
In addition to Flowers, Progress Illinois employs one editor, two full-time reporter-bloggers, and a small corps of freelancers. The site produces a mixture of long-form reportage, quick-hit blog posts, and links to traditional media, with what Flowers says is a roughly three-to-one ratio of original material to aggregated fare.
Partnerships with a local progressive radio station, Chicago’s National Public Radio affiliate, and a local public access channel all provide additional platforms for Progress Illinois’ stories.
Since the site makes no attempt to mask its affiliation with SEIU, Flowers says that its association with the high-profile labor union, which representes more than 1.8 million American workers, did raise eyebrows early on: “In the beginning, I think there was a little leeriness, wondering what we were and all that. But over the past few years, I think we’ve proved and defined ourselves as a wholly separate entity.” SEIU, she says, plays no editorial role in the site’s coverage.
Although the plan all along has been to make the site wholly ad-supported (the site is incorporated as a for-proft) advertisers have been slow to catch on. The only current advertiser on the site is DealsNear.Me, a kind of crowdsourced Groupon, but Flowers says there are plans to host ads for several candidates for local political office. The site also hopes to bring in additional outside sponsors, although—for the moment, at least—SEIU remains the site’s sole financial backer.
Progress Illinois Data
Name: Progress Illinois
Revenue Sources, other: Founding sponsorship from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Illinois State Council
Principal Staff: Aricka Flowers, editor-in-chief.
Affiliations: Content partnership with public access station CAN-TV.
CJR on Progress Illinois:
02/01/11: From the News Junkie to the Newcomer - Former Progress Illinois editor Josh Kalven on his new venture, Newsbound.tv - Josh Kalven