Q&A: Louise Kiernan says ProPublica Illinois will ‘find areas where we can have impact’

LOUISE KIERNAN, A PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING veteran journalist and associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill journalism school, will be the first editor-in-chief of ProPublica Illinois. Kiernan, who starts her new position on April 4, spent 18 years as a reporter and editor at the Chicago Tribune, a tenure that included a decade as a special projects reporter.

Kiernan was the lead writer on a Tribune investigative series on air travel after 9/11 that won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2001. That same year, she was also a Pulitzer finalist for a multi-part story she wrote about a young mother who was killed by a broken skyscraper window—a project she considers the beginning of her love of investigative reporting.

Kiernan’s affection for in-depth watchdog reporting puts her in good company. ProPublica has won three Pulitzer Prizes since its founding in 2008, including one last year for explanatory reporting (awarded to T. Christian Miller and The Marshall Project’s Ken Armstrong for “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”). ProPublica Illinois is the newsroom’s first regional operation, and it’s hard to imagine a better fit than Kiernan, given her role as Enterprise Editor at the Tribune and her time as a professor at one of the nation’s top journalism schools, based in Illinois.

One of the first Illinois journalists to congratulate Kiernan was Ann Marie Lipinski, another Pulitzer Prize-winner and a former Tribune editor who is now head curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Kiernan, in her typically humble style, replied that she was “only here because you hired me all those years ago” at the Tribune. “Easiest decision ever,” Lipinski responded.

CJR talked with Kiernan as she prepared to finish teaching her final quarter at Northwestern. She spoke highly of the investigative journalists that already are laboring in Chicago but notes that the city and state are plump with stories to uncover. ProPublica Illinois may be well-poised to do just that: On the day Kiernan spoke with CJR, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark announced that he was giving $1 million to ProPublica. (Newmark is a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers, and the Craigslist Charitable Fund supports work by CJR.) The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This is ProPublica’s first newsroom outside of New York. Why Chicago?

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Chicago and Illinois are logical choices for the first regional operation. First of all, there are so many great stories to tell here, and so many issues that might be local or regional or national in implication. I also think that we already have a great pool of talented journalists and journalism being produced here. And thirdly, the opportunities for funding this kind of operation are good here.

Chicago has no shortage of good investigative reporting—from the Tribune, your former paper, to the Sun-Times, the Better Government Association, and more. What hole do you think you will be trying to fill?

I think there are always more great stories than reporters to tell them. Part of what we’re hoping to do is to build on a rich and thriving landscape. The model for ProPublica is collaboration, and always has been.

What work did you do as a journalist in Illinois that you are most proud of?

If I had to pick one piece of work, it would be a story I did about a woman killed by a piece of falling glass at a skyscraper in the Loop. It was the story that made me fall in love with investigative reporting. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer in explanatory reporting (and lost to another series that I was the lead writer on) and, even though it’s certainly old at this point, I still get asked about it more than anything else I’ve done. Last week, when I was meeting with Medill students and recent grads in Texas, one told me that the story had just been the subject of a writing workshop at the paper where he works.

You told Poynter that your students are optimistic about the future of journalism. Why do you think that is? And why are you?

Because it’s really fun. You know? It’s not as though they are doing a lot of academic reading into the state of journalism and drawing these broad conclusions. I think they are just having a good time and they really like the work.

Just an hour ago, there was a freshman journalism student reporting a story about this for the student paper so I just started asking her about her own path to journalism and she said, “I just love interviewing people. I love finding out their story.” I think that’s the heart of that optimism. It’s really fun. It’s a great way to spend their time and to get a ticket into a world you’d never have access to except that you’re a journalist.

Journalism has changed in the six and a half years that you’ve been in the classroom. What change do you find most challenging?

I have done my best to stay engaged in the world of journalism. I ran the Nieman Storyboard website. I did some reporting. I’m pretty connected to what’s happening. I don’t feel like I’ve been sitting in a corner wearing a tweed jacket for six years. One area I’m really curious about is encryption and security for journalists. It’s an area my students are very curious about.

I talked to Sam Roe a few weeks ago for a story I wrote for CJR about the Tribune’s drug interaction series. He told me that the science and journalism both had to be rock solid for the story to work. I think we’re all feeling that pressure. Our credibility is at stake in a way it never has been before. How do you produce investigative reporting, which can be incredibly complex, under those circumstances?

You are absolutely right in that it’s one of the most important elements of the current state of journalism. It’s something we really have to think about doing. I think it’s true that there’s more pressure and the stakes feel higher. But it’s all work we should have been doing all along.

Where do you get your Illinois news?

I get my news from places you would expect—the Tribune, Sun-Times, WBEZ, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, BBC—and I also track smaller local outlets doing interesting work: the Chicago Reporter, the Reader, City Bureau and Invisible Institute, to name a few. I like Politico’s Illinois Playbook to alert me to what’s happening around the state, and I read my community newspaper, the Wednesday Journal in Oak Park, from cover to cover every week. I’m probably forgetting some but that’s most of it, I think.

ProPublica is hiring 10 people for the new Illinois newsroom. What will it be like working for you?

It will be really fun. I think one of the keys to making ProPublica Illinois work is that it has to be a very collegial and collaborative culture. I think that’s very much how I approach teaching and managing.

Will ProPublica Illinois be better served by Illinois native journalists?

I think we will definitely want some journalists with expertise in the issues facing this city and region. But we are definitely getting interest in the positions from outside the area, and there are great benefits to bringing in fresh eyes, as well.

How much of your time will be spent producing journalism versus raising the funds needed to do the work?

The short answer is I don’t know. The longer answer is that I would expect some of my time will be involved in talking about ProPublica and fundraising for ProPublica, but we also have a development team, and I think that we’ll have those resources here.

Tell me about doing the sort of watchdog reporting that ProPublica is known for at a time when the media are under attack by the President of the United States.

I think there’s a greater appreciation for the role that journalism plays in protecting democracy than I can certainly remember in my lifetime. I was alive during Watergate, but I just remember it knocking all the good cartoons off TV in the afternoon. I think there was that same sort of excitement and passion then that we are surrounded by now, even though it’s a really challenging time. It’s really an exciting time, too.

You must be excited about being able to go after the stories you’ve always wanted to do.

I have a half-dozen ideas before breakfast. The only person I can order to do my story ideas is my husband, and he writes about arts and entertainment. Without going into specifics, I think there are definitely areas that have been on my mind that I’m really curious about. We are going to find areas where we can have impact.

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.