Attempting to fill a local news void, ProPublica launches Illinois unit

John Picken

In the nine years since its founding, ProPublica has established a sterling reputation and racked up awards for its deeply-reported investigative pieces. Yesterday, the nonprofit newsroom announced the next phase in its evolution: the upcoming launch of an Illinois unit, focusing on stories in Chicago and around the state.

As local and regional newspapers have grappled with the collapse of an antiquated business model, funding for investigative units and accountability journalism has shrunk drastically. ProPublica hopes to fill that void–at least partially–with a series of regional operations for which the Illinois unit, to start early next year, will serve as a trial balloon.

Seed money for the project comes in part from a larger five-year grant from the Ford Foundation and another committed funder that ProPublica declined to identify. Eventually, the news site hopes the unit will fund itself through grassroots donations. The need for that sort of local support was one of the reasons Illinois was chosen as the pilot location for expansion.

“We looked at a couple of factors,” ProPublica president Richard Tofel tells CJR. “Most important was a place where there are lots of accountability stories to do and a history of having done them. Illinois certainly seemed to be that. Another is that, in the long run, if this idea is to work, we need these operations to be locally funded, so you look at places where that would be possible.”

Tofel says ProPublica has a rough idea of the project’s budget, but didn’t want to discuss it until the outlet hires an editor for the Chicago-based unit, which will eventually comprise about 10 staffers. The unit will operate largely independently, with a regional editor reporting to ProPublica Editor in Chief Stephen Engelberg. “It’s not a bureau,” Tofel says. “It’s more like a newspaper within a larger company.”

With a newsroom of about 45 journalists, ProPublica often produces pieces in conjunction with other organizations. In 2016, T. Christian Miller won the outlet’s third Pulitzer Prize for “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” a piece he wrote in partnership with The Marshall Project’s Ken Armstrong. Founded with seed money, and a multi-year commitment, from the Sandler Foundation, ProPublica has also received grants from the MacArthur Foundation and Knight Foundation, among others.

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 Though plans for the Illinois unit were in motion well before the election of Donald Trump, the new venture fits with a set of initiatives that ProPublica has recently launched, including a beat on hate crimes and the so-called “alt-right.” Although the organization’s mission of producing accountability journalism in the public interest remains the same, Tofel tells CJR that the newsroom will also be focusing more on issues like immigration, trade, and the policies of a Trump White House. “Our role is unchanged,” he says. “The question is the tactics of executing it.”

 

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.