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Six Things We’ve Learned in Six Months

It’s our half-birthday.

Our ProPublica Illinois team on launch day, Oct. 10, 2017. (Jill Shepherd/ProPublica)

This week marks six months since we launched our website and began to publish our journalism. Since Oct. 10, 2017, we’ve published 80 stories or posts, which is about 87,000 words, and is the equivalent of about 17.5 ProPublicas (1 ProPublica unit = 5,000 words).

But who’s counting?

We’ve launched eight series, published 24 newsletters and filed at least 1,805 Freedom of Information Act requests. Actually, that’s just how many data reporter Sandhya Kambhampati has filed. Among all of us, we’ve filed a few thousand.

We’ve teamed up with a local theater group to travel the state and host workshops about news, information and media trust. We’ve made a widget that tracks candidates’ finances in the Illinois governor’s race that any newsroom, organization or political nerd can embed for free. And, because we like sharing, we’re happy to say that 84 percent of our stories were published under a Creative Commons license.

Those are just some of the measurable things. There are a lot of lessons we’ve learned, both as a team and as individuals, over the last six months. And, on our half-birthday, we’d like to take the opportunity to share a few of those lessons with you.

From reporter Melissa Sanchez

One of the things I’ve learned — or am still learning, to be frank — is the value of patience when it comes to using big data to tell stories. Doing this right takes a lot of time, but the results can be powerful.

Our story on why Chicago ticket debt is sending thousands of drivers into bankruptcy demanded much more sophisticated analyses than I could do on my own. The datasets we obtained and built were so massive and complicated, it took months to answer key questions.

Luckily, I have very smart and thoughtful colleagues who helped. Now they’re teaching me how to do more of these analyses on my own, using new tools and languages, for follow-up stories. It’s empowering, time-consuming and worth reminding myself to be patient!

From office manager Abby Ropp

In the last six months, I’ve learned that sometimes the best way to fly is by the seat of your pants. In a brand-new office, where the work being done changes constantly, there’s no real way to predict what the office will need or want in six months. You have to show up each day ready to roll with whatever new punches are thrown your way — and God help you if you run out of LaCroix.

From engagement reporter Logan Jaffe

Respect the platform. Treat social media platforms as not just ways to distribute stories, but as ways to publish them. No story is too complicated to get people to care about. Seriously. When I first met ProPublica Illinois reporter Jason Grotto and learned about his reporting on Cook County property tax inequity, I thought it would be a huge challenge to get people engaged with the seemingly unsexy topic of municipal finance. I learned that, even on social media, if you keep bringing a story back to why people should care, what is at stake and who is affected, people will embrace terms such as “sales ratio study” and “effective tax rate.” Get people in a room together. Make time for regular check-ins with your reporting team to update each other on a story’s progress, across all platforms. And then, get your reporting team in a room with people who are not your reporting team. I was amazed when, at our City Bureau Public Newsroom event, a room full of hands shot up when Sandhya asked if people wanted to get into the weeds of her analysis for our property tax investigation. And I was equally amazed at what we learned from our first event in collaboration with Free Street Theater.

From reporter Jodi Cohen

I’ve learned there are advantages to working in close quarters, especially when you are surrounded by colleagues who have diverse skills, interests and experiences. I also have learned that being part of a start-up where everyone’s opinions are solicited and heard is amazing.

From news apps developer David Eads

I’ve been an advocate for visual journalism for a long time, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped learning new tricks or being surprised when visuals cast a story in a new light. I had the honor of working with Susie Cagle, one of the finest visual journalists working today, for one of Mick Dumke’s stories about the Illinois Policy Institute. That project taught me just how effective the visual language of comics can be at making sense of the complicated relationships and timelines that we often need to explain. Susie’s illustrations helped our audience understand the story but they also helped me understand the story.

Deputy editor Steve Mills and reporting fellow Jerrel Floyd shared the same lesson: collaboration.

From deputy editor Steve Mills

Before I came to ProPublica Illinois, I had worked with many of my colleagues but never another newsroom. In less than a year here, I’ve worked on collaborations with the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ, Mother Jones and others. And it’s been great. Sure, collaborations can be a little tricky. Collaborators have edited some of my edits and ignored some of my suggestions. But each partner has brought something new to our stories. Each has made them better. Now, I see those former competitors as potential partners.

From reporting fellow Jerrel Floyd

I’ve learned that collaboration is an incredibly magical thing, and not just in-house collaboration. With our Local Reporting Network, I’ve witnessed a partnership between ProPublica and The Southern Illinoisan through reporter Molly Parker to tell a story of public housing issues in southern Illinois.

I think there are so many stories throughout Illinois that need to be told. So it can only be a benefit to have all of this journalistic talent come together and tell those stories. I’m excited to see where that goes from here.

One more thing: We also want to say “thanks.” Thanks for reading our work, for supporting us, for chiming in, for sending us tips and for being engaged. If you feel you’ve learned from us in any way, or have something you think we should think about over the next six months, we’d love to hear about it. Send us an email to [email protected].

OK. Have a nice weekend.

—Logan Jaffe, engagement reporter

Rohan Patrick McDonald for ProPublica Illinois

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