ProPublica Illinois

Students will design, develop, prototype and test one tool for community engagement, with a likely focus on the listening and information gathering stage.

ProPublica is collaborating with students at the Knight Lab to conduct user research—with communities and the newsroom. Students will design, develop, prototype and test one tool for community engagement, with a likely focus on the listening and information gathering stage. Some details for this project are TBD, since ProPublica will be getting up and running with these efforts between opening applications and when this project kicks off. But we feel confident that engagement—and supporting technology—will be central to the launch of ProPublica Illinois.

About ProPublica Illinois

ProPublica has long done ambitious crowdsourcing projects in which our reporting has been informed by readers. We’ve seen time and time again just how important community contributions can be to producing hard-hitting, rich journalism.

All the way back in 2010, we created a database of thousands of struggling homeowners given short shrift by their banks. We even matched up homeowners with reporters in their areas. More recently, crowdsourcing and community were at the heart of a project focused on investigating the multi-generational impact of Agent Orange. We heard from more than 6,000 Vietnam veterans and their family members about their stories related to the dangerous chemical. Their responses have shaped the reporting focus and helped created real-world impact.

There is, of course, an element of the work that speaks to the particular moment we’re in: There has been lots of reflection since the election about how journalists should be thinking more about the audiences and communities we’re writing for — and how to reach beyond the typical ones. We see that as a key part of our job.

A few months ago, we announced that we were hiring for a new kind of position: engagement reporter. Engagement is often used as a kind of euphemism for a social media gig or equated with thinking solely about getting the biggest audience. We’ve been thinking of something different: a journalist who specializes in building and cultivating communities to both deepen our reporting and to galvanize responses to it. They would operate as a kind of journalistic community organizer, who is member of investigative projects from the get-go and uses whatever tools fit best — online or off.

Our plan is simple. We’re going to give every project at ProPublica the opportunity to be informed from the very beginning by the communities who are at the center of the stories. We don’t have a detailed blueprint. We’re going to be learning what works, what doesn’t, and changing as we go.

This is going to be particularly important as we launch ProPublica Illinois. We have limited footprint in Illinois, to date, and while we’ll be based in Chicago, we’re looking to develop relationships with communities across the state to help shape our coverage in ways that respond to the needs of Illinois citizens. We’ve been in discussion with Hearken and the Illinois Humanities team on ways we can begin listening – but we think there are opportunities to do more and to create new tools and strategies for listening broadly to the communities of Illinois, to better inform and shape our new operation.

Over the next few months, we’ll be looking to develop new tools for deepening our community engagement – through implementation of online listening tools, through new story forms, and more.


Results from the project

Faculty and Staff Leads

Joe Germuska

Chief Nerd

Joe runs Knight Lab’s technology, professional staff and student fellows. Before joining us, Joe was on the Chicago Tribune News Apps team. Also, he hosts a weekly radio show on WNUR-FM – Conference of the Birds.

Emily Withrow


Bethany Ao

Jay Nargundkar

Muna Khan

Paige Leskin

Samuel Park