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ProPublica Programs Are Helping Diverse Candidates Break Into Newsrooms. Here Are Their Inspiring Stories.

Almost 100 journalists and journalism students have gone through our Data Institute and scholarship program. Many have told us that their experience shaped their lives and careers.

Enan Liang, special to ProPublica

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Four years ago, ProPublica started two programs that have become key components in our strategy to increase the diversity of our newsroom and our industry. One is the Data Institute, a two-week workshop that teaches journalists skills in data, coding and design. The other is our Diversity Scholarship program, which sends journalists from underrepresented groups to conferences such as NAHJ, NABJ and AAJA.

Nearly 100 journalists and journalism students have gone through these programs. Recently, we sent around a questionnaire to see where the Data Institute alumni and scholarship recipients are now. Many pointed to their experience with ProPublica as a turning point in their lives and careers.

Data Institute

The Data Institute has taught 36 journalists since the first class of 2016. The students have ranged from midcareer journalists to journalism educators to J-school students. The Data Institute is a two-week, intensive workshop meant to expose people to a wide range of skills and techniques, including basic statistical analysis, programming, web scraping, data visualization and web design. The program is taught by ProPublica journalists, with visiting instructors and speakers from The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Marshall Project, Buzzfeed, WNYC and more.

Originally funded by the Knight Institute, since 2018 we’ve partnered with the Ida B. Wells Society, which funds the program and helps select each year’s students. For the past two years, OpenNews has provided logistical support.

Some Data Institute alumni told us that the skills they learned at the workshop enabled them to do stories that they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. Some credited the institute with helping them land a job.

What follows are lightly edited responses to our alumni survey:

Kayleigh Skinner, Data Institute 2018

Since attending the Data Institute, I’ve been able to use data and numbers in my stories a lot more seamlessly and, more important, understand what they mean. In the past, a huge spreadsheet would have intimidated me, but now thanks to the training I’ve received I feel comfortable cleaning it up and using it for projects.

I am an education and politics reporter at Mississippi Today in Jackson. One of my favorite projects I’ve done this year is an interactive data visualization with a colleague called “Do your lawmakers look like you?” I spent weeks collecting the birthdates, race, sex, district, party, etc. of every lawmaker in the Legislature to build my own database, and my colleague Alex Rozier and I used it to create an interactive that readers can use to see if the people in charge of making laws for the state reflect their electorate. I would not have even known where to begin on a project like this were it not for the Data Institute training.

In my day to day, I’ve also been able to create my own graphics using Datawrapper and do my own analysis on the large datasets I frequently have to mine as an education reporter. Knowing how to sort, use pivot tables and create formulas to decipher what I need to know from a dataset has been truly invaluable.

Laura Moscoso, Data Institute 2018

I’m still working at the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico, now as the data and multimedia editor. I continue to work on the everyday investigations, and since January I’ve also been working on a new project that’s following the money around the reconstruction of PR after Hurricane Maria.

I must mention our #RickyLeaks series, which started with the July 13 publication of a scandalous Telegram chat between the then-governor, Ricardo Rosselló, and his closest advisers. The publication resulted in the resignation of Rosselló on July 24 (effective Aug. 2). For the series, I mostly analyzed contracts with the government and other databases in order to build a power/relationship map using the tool Kumu that could describe a pillage of public funds during the Rosselló administration.

The institute has helped me enormously, and I apply most of what I learned in my day-to-day work. I think the biggest takeaway for me was not being afraid to dig into code even if I’m not “fluent” in it. I’m also more confident and creative when I’m proposing ideas and designs to my colleagues and editor. I think a lot about interviewing databases, cleaning with a journalistic instinct and rigorously fact checking my work and my colleagues’ work.

Samantha Smylie, Data Institute 2018

After the Data Institute, I immediately started freelancing for a few news organizations in Chicago. In February, I was hired as a staff writer at the Hyde Park Herald, a hyperlocal news organization on the South Side of Chicago that focuses on the Kenwood and Hyde Park neighborhoods. I cover education, housing, retail and development. The Data Institute gave me the confidence I needed to pursue a staff job. Also, I use my skills to read academic studies and understand the methodologies used to get a result. In the future, I will continue to seek training in data journalism and use it for education and housing reporting.

April Joyner, Data Institute 2017

I’m a markets correspondent at Reuters, where I write about U.S. stocks. I joined the company in fall 2017 not too long after my participation in the Data Institute. The Excel and data skills I learned at the Data Institute have come in handy as a business reporter. It gave me strategies to find story ideas and to ensure that the data I have really does support the story I’m pursuing. On a personal note, it gave me a confidence boost: I was freelancing at the time and ready to get back into a staff position, and being able to talk about a new skill was quite helpful as I was interviewing.

Ellis Simani, Data Institute 2017

Last month, I began a yearlong fellowship as a data reporter at ProPublica, two years after participating in the 2017 Data Institute. Prior to joining ProPublica, I worked for the LA Times on the graphics desk. There, I covered a variety of topics ranging from visualizing environmental issues along California’s coast, to investigating the shortcomings of the Census Bureau’s racial categories. I contributed data analysis on a series of stories focused on exploring the political and economic challenges facing California’s next governor. The project was a finalist for various print and online journalism awards. The biggest lesson I took from my time at the Data Institute was to be skeptical and untrusting when working with data. Though I have spent most of my time at fast-paced daily papers since leaving the Data Institute, I have always put an emphasis on taking the time to vet and question any data that I come across, and not placing more trust in numbers than I would any other source I work with as a reporter.

Julieta Rodrigo, Data Institute 2017

I am so thankful for the Data Institute. The work I completed in those weeks changed the course of my career. I started at the institute with an idea that I wanted to focus on journalism related specifically to foreign affairs, but the skills I learned during the program led me to a career in environmental science. The more I learned about climate change, the more I realized it was a threat multiplier for all the issues I already cared about, such as national security, immigration and the economy. I still want to be a journalist, but I want to add a lens of environmental science over every story.

Lakeidra Chavis, Data Institute 2016

I’m currently a reporting fellow at ProPublica Illinois in Chicago. In late 2016, after I attended the first Data Institute, I moved to Chicago to work for WBEZ, the local NPR station. At that time, shootings in the city were at a record high. I tracked all of the fatal shootings in real time in an in-house database. This helped to add context and substance to our often daily coverage of the issue without chasing other news outlets for the details. I couldn’t have done that without the tools I learned at the institute.

The skills I learned at the institute helped me stand apart in the newsrooms I worked in. I was able to do more accountability-focused reporting while having to report in a demanding, daily schedule. I was also able to pursue more enterprise stories since I had a better understanding of datasets, how to use them, how to spot errors and how to design my stories in a way that’s visually appealing.

Marquita Brown, Data Institute 2016

A month ago, I started a new job as the managing editor of EdTech Magazine: Focus on K-12. I was a daily newspaper reporter covering education when I attended ProPublica’s Data Institute in 2016. My job involves writing and publishing content in print and online. It requires a good bit of understanding of technology and how technology is used in education, specifically elementary and secondary schools. I know the exposure I received through ProPublica, particularly learning the basics of coding and design, as well as data analysis training, helped get me to where I am today. I learned some intangible lessons from ProPublica that now are just part of my default modus operandi: Don’t be afraid of failure. Never stop learning. I really honed my critical thinking skills during the Institute. Just learning about the possibilities of coding, design and data analysis was life changing.

Wendi Thomas, Data Institute 2016

I’m the editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom in Memphis, Tennessee. Since the institute, I launched MLK50. We publish original content weekly on poverty, power and public policy. I have a small team of part-time editors and a visuals editor as well as a roster of freelance writers. We’re in our third year. Also since then, I was chosen for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. My first set of stories published in late June on the aggressive debt collection practices of a nonprofit hospital in Memphis. In 2018, I was named Journalist of the Year by the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS). In August, I received NABJ’s Best Practices Award for MLK50. At the NABJ 2019 convention in Florida, I spoke on two panels about investigative journalism.

I can’t say that I use Ruby every day in my work, but I still follow the data hygiene principles I learned. The institute made me familiar with Excel and spreadsheets, and being a part of the LRN gave me an opportunity to practice daily. And the institute gave me an opportunity to meet lots of ProPublicans, which helped give me the confidence to apply for the LRN. ProPublica is a model of what being intentional about diversity and inclusion look like. I am proud to be even tangentially associated with y’all!

Diversity Scholarship Recipients

ProPublica has sent more than 50 students to a journalism conference that they otherwise would not have been able to attend. Some told us that attending the conference led to their first job. Others let us know that connections they made resulted in a job or fellowship a year or two later.

Andy Tsubasa Field, Diversity Scholarship 2018

I am currently driving to North Dakota where I will start my first job as the local government reporter for The Bismarck Tribune. The ProPublica Diversity Scholarship has had a tremendous impact on my career. The financial help from the scholarship helped increase my involvement in the AAJA community. I made valuable connections at the 2018 conference. Most important, attending the AAJA conference helped me find out about the AAJA Mentor Match program. I now have a mentor who helped give me advice during my job search. He was actually the one who emailed me about The Bismarck Tribune opening. So, I think it’s safe to say that without your scholarship, I might not be on a 21-hour drive to Bismarck right now for my first job!

Lynda Gonzalez, Diversity Scholarship 2018

I’m excited to share that I’ve been hired as a staff photojournalist at The Dallas Morning News for the next year through a Poynter-partnered fellowship program. Since receiving the ProPublica scholarship, I’ve graduated from my dual master’s program in journalism and Latin American studies in May 2019. Additionally, I was selected from hundreds of applicants to participate in the competitive The New York Times Student Journalism Institute this May. There, I produced a photo essay about one teenage boy’s coming-of-age story as a Guatamalan asylum-seeker in New York City. This opportunity was made possible directly because of the ProPublica scholarship — I connected with the institute’s program director at the NAHJ conference in Miami last summer, and I kept in touch with him during the application process. I’m endlessly thankful to ProPublica for investing in journalists from diverse backgrounds!

Isabeth Mendoza, Diversity Scholarship 2018

I am freelancing in Los Angeles as a podcast producer and radio reporter/producer. Since the scholarship, I completed an internship with NPR (in Los Angeles) on the national desk and was accepted in the inaugural cohort for the International Women’s Media Foundation — Gwen Ifill Fellows mentorship program. The scholarship by ProPublica was instrumental in attending NAHJ conference, where I gained the confidence, emotional support and resources to shift my career to journalism. In between the workshops and events, I networked with amazing journalists who wholeheartedly cared about mentorship, giving advice and seeing more Latinx journalists. I have felt inspired to continue working independently and return to the promises I made to myself a year ago, which includes carving out space in the audio world for health equity.

Andrew Jones, Diversity Scholarship 2018

I’m immensely grateful to ProPublica, and I feel like being a scholarship winner has opened all the doors in my journalism path. Without it, I honestly don’t think that all I’ve done would have been possible.

I’m heading into my final semester at the University of Houston, and I will graduate with a journalism degree. I was accepted as an emerging reporter through ProPublica, which has vastly expanded my network. In May, I attended The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and while I was there, I won the Mando Montaño scholarship for being the stand-out attendee.

In June, I attended the IRE conference on a sponsorship I was awarded through the Dow Jones News Fund, and while I was there, I got picked up by the Houston Chronicle network and I’m now a stringer for the paper covering greater Houston. In the future, I want to report on a variety of topics including culture, travel and how our relationship to technology influences the ways in which we interact with each other and the world.

Julia Munslow, Diversity Scholarship 2018

I’m currently working as a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Pahang, Malaysia. I also volunteer my writing for AAJA-Asia’s N3Conference and Reach the World, a nonprofit that allows travelers to share their stories with classrooms in the U.S. Additionally, I have started the first English newsletter at the secondary school where I teach, and I am co-planning a national storytelling conference in Kuala Lumpur in August. Once the grant is over, I plan to return to work in journalism.

The scholarship allowed me to attend my first professional journalism conference, the 2018 AAJA convention, where I honed my skills and networked with other journalists. The people I met there generously offered me mentorship and friendship, and I remain in touch with them today. When I return to the newsroom, I am confident that I will have a strong professional network that stretches far beyond my workplace, one that I would not have without the scholarship. I remain deeply grateful to ProPublica for opening the door to these opportunities for me, and I hope that the scholarship will continue to do the same for others in the future.

Gabriel Pacheco, Diversity Scholarship 2018

Yesterday was my first day as part of the business and economic reporting team at El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s newspaper of record. I’m excited!

Since I got my ProPublica scholarship to attend NAHJ, I’ve been freelancing for different local news outlets, and, for the last few months, I helped folks in Rincón, PR, start up a nonprofit hyperlocal news outlet called A Rinconvenient Truth where I covered environmental, fiscal and community news before joining El Nuevo Día. The scholarship helped me discover a world of opportunities outside of academia for people like me with nontraditional backgrounds to make a successful transition to journalism. I also made a bunch of friends, from PR and beyond, that have become great colleagues, mentors and freelance employers.

Aneri Pattani, Diversity Scholarship 2017

I am currently in a full-time investigative reporting position with Spotlight PA, a new collaborative newsroom founded by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a few other local outlets. Since receiving the scholarship in 2017, I’ve worked at WNYC, where I helped produce an eight-episode podcast called Aftereffect, which used one man’s journey to highlight the shortcomings and abuses of Florida’s disability services system. I’ve participated in the weeklong Health Coverage Fellowship in Massachusetts and the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Comparative Effectiveness Research Fellowship. This past year I won the Pennsylvania Keystone Press Award for diverse journalist, awarded to a single early-career journalist in the state for contributions to their newsroom.

I used the scholarship to attend AAJA in 2017, which is actually where I first met executives from The Philadelphia Inquirer. I visited the office and interviewed with the editor in chief. Although that didn’t turn into a job immediately, those connections led them to recruit me for the Lenfest fellowship program a year later.

I’m very grateful for the opportunities afforded to me by this scholarship. I hope many other young journalists get the same benefits from it that I did.

Sarah Beth Guevara, Diversity Scholarship 2017

I’m currently working at News21, an investigative journalism fellowship. I’m researching mental health in the nation after natural disasters. In the fall, I will be one of three students from the University of Oklahoma at its DC program. Oklahoma hasn’t had a remote reporter at the capitol for years, so students are stepping up to fulfill that role. The ProPublica Scholarship helped me pursue journalism more seriously and pursue my master’s degree in the fall at Gaylord College. It also helped me take a leadership position with [UNFILTERED], a project using Facebook Live to cover the Oklahoma teachers’ walkout and other breaking news events.

Francisco Vara-Orta, Diversity Scholarship 2016

I’m currently a training director at IRE, helping journalists learn best practices in investigative and data journalism/organizing programming for them to network and get skills at conferences. I graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a master’s in investigative and data journalism; worked in two newly created positions working on enterprise and data journalism at national news nonprofits in education: Education Week/Chalkbeat; and won a Society of Features Journalism award for a project on Hate in Schools in collaboration with ProPublica.

The scholarship helped me to continue to forge relationships in industry, network with mentors and be able to afford to come to an important conference in DC during a presidential election year where race was at the center of the contest. Many of us are first-generation students and are not from much wealth, so these opportunities still matter a lot. Thank you so much!

Arriana McLymore, Diversity Scholarship 2016

Being one of the inaugural ProPublica scholarship winners helped open up a range of opportunities for me. Not only was I able to network with some of my favorite journalists during the 2016 NABJ convention in Washington, D.C., I participated in workshops that equipped me with skills and knowledge for a lifetime. At this year’s NABJ, I will be moderating my first panel on bringing diversity to technology reporting in Miami.

If you’re interested in applying for next year’s Data Institute or Diversity Scholarship program, sign up to be notified.

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