I’m Andrea Salcedo, one of this year’s Emerging Reporters at ProPublica Illinois. Landing an academic-year fellowship with ProPublica during my last year as a multimedia journalism student at Columbia College Chicago was a young journalist’s dream.
When our editor-in-chief asked if I’d be interested in interviewing our reporters and publishing short Q&As on our website, I jumped at the opportunity. Not only did I think it’d be a good way to introduce our staff to you, but I also thought it’d be fun and a unique chance to meet the journalists and mentors whom I admire and whose knowledge I want to absorb. Who else gets to ask questions of their colleagues and call it work? As a journalist just starting my career and hoping that one day I will be working as a full-time investigative reporter in a newsroom like ProPublica’s, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to be curious — even nosy — and ask these reporters everything I want to know about their lives and careers.
Every other week, I sat in a booth near ProPublica Illinois’ newsroom and asked reporters as many questions as I could. Sometimes, we talked for so long that the deputy editor came to check if we were OK and if I was ready for the next interview. Other times, we continued the conversation after I had stopped recording and I forgot it was time to go home. Yes, the conversations were that engaging! Every one of them either taught me something new, challenged a preconceived belief or reinforced an idea about journalism.
And now I’d like to share some of the lessons that stuck with me. But before I do, I want to extend the invitation to you, too. Why keep the fun all to myself? So ... as you read about what I learned by asking our reporters questions, I hope you’ll come up with some questions of your own. If you’ve got a question for a particular reporter, I’d love to hear it. We’ll gather some of your questions, share them with the team and update you with their answers in another newsletter.
OK, enough talking. Let’s get into it...
1. Reporters are starting to see the value of being more open about their work, their process and collaborations with other journalists.
The idea that journalism can only be produced by reporters working in a traditional newsroom is changing. Journalism school typically tells you that you can either choose print, broadcast, digital or radio as a branch within the field. Exploring different ways of doing journalism is often overlooked. Engagement reporter Logan Jaffe put it this way: “I want to do more things that people don’t normally associate with something that a newsroom could do. I want to partner with organizations that are beyond other newsrooms, like working with local theater groups or just exploring different ways that journalism can relate to other forms of communication that you might not traditionally think of as news media ... Journalists haven’t really branched out so much beyond the newsroom environment in the way that they can tell stories.”
Another idea of mine that reporter and mentor Jodi Cohen challenged is that news organizations are constantly competing for stories and reporters from different news outlets won’t work together and with the public. Let’s face it: Journalism is a competitive profession. But some principles should be closely examined.
“There’s just a different mindset happening,” Cohen said. “Reporters, editors [and] newsrooms are more willing to collaborate and also just more willing to be public about the work they’re doing. This mindset of being an investigative reporter in a room by yourself doing all the work and then having a big reveal is not the way of the future. Reporters are really more open and public about what they’re doing and seeking the public’s help. It’s leading to better informed” stories.
2. Success can mean more than sparking policy changes or forcing a public official to resign.
Journalism has the power to spark change — whether by overturning a wrongful conviction, creating or changing a law or forcing an authority figure to resign. But reporter Duaa Eldeib explained that there’s also power in “organic” change. As a reporter, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of measuring success with awards, policy changes or resignations. Yes, all of these feel great and validate our work, but it’s not why we do what we do. I don’t think someone could have phrased it better than Duaa. “If I’m able to tell someone’s story through my writing, then I feel like I will have succeeded,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a small story. Every story affects somebody, somewhere, somehow. If you’re able to reach that person, then you’ve done your job.”
3. “Be humble”
When I asked reporter Mick Dumke near the end of our conversation what journalism has taught him, he gave me a simple but key piece of advice. “Be humble. In most cases, the stories we work on are not about us, but we’re interested in them for some reason. You have to be drawn by something inside you, but you also (have to) realize you’re a speck out there and you’re trying to report on a much bigger world than your own.”
When you’re a young journalist about to graduate and jump into the real world, you ask yourself: “Do I have enough good clips? Did I land enough internships to gain experience? Were my clips published in big and recognized news outlets? Will I ever win a Pulitzer Prize? Will I land a job at a medium or big news organization right from the start?” It’s almost impossible to avoid getting caught up in this narcissistic game. Even veteran journalists do sometimes. But the truth is that none of this should matter. You don’t get into journalism to nourish your ego with awards, fame or prestigious news organizations. No. You choose journalism to tell untold stories, give power to the powerless and hold authority figures accountable. In the end, that’s all that matters.
So far, I’ve been the one asking our reporters these questions, but now I would like to give you, our readers, the opportunity to ask a few. What do you want to ask our investigative reporters? Tweet me your questions @salcedonews. I will select a few to ask our staff. Ask away!