August 5, 2013

INN welcomes new members, Pt 2: The Chicago Bureau, the Center for Accountability Journalism

INN welcomes four new member organizations to our ranks — Mission & State of Santa Barbara, California, the Montana Center for Investigative Reporting, The Chicago Bureau, and the Washington, D.C.-based, nationally focused Center for Accountability Journalism.

Each organization is accomplished in its own right, and taken together embody the geographic diversity and broad scope of public-interest journalism today.

This week we’re pleased to offer the following informative and inspirational Q&As from The Chicago Bureau and the Center for Accountability Journalism.

Welcome, all!

Eric Ferkenhoff, The Chicago Bureau

INN: What was the motivation to start The Chicago Bureau? In particular, what about the existing news-media ecosystem makes you feel this is opportune?

EF: I got out of college in 1992, and worked in a juvenile home from the end of my college years thru 1993. It struck someone who grew up in a solidly middle class system, to see young people thrown into a system that didn't have their best interests at heart. That really led me into journalism. A generation later I'm looking to try and make sense out of the equation of poor schools, poverty and the violence and lack of opportunity that hurts so many minority communities. I'm trying to make sense of that on a daily basis with The Chicago Bureau.

INN: You were a mainstream journalist at the Chicago Tribune and other outlets, and ended up teaching journalism at the Medill school at Northwestern University.

EF: I really wanted to break out and study juvenile justice ... I proposed creating a juvenile justice class to really look at the policies and issues that impact the generation growing up now. I didn't want to create a teeny-bopper site, I wanted to create a policy site that can move the conversation forward about the weighty issues of immigration, poverty, and race that feed into the juvenile-justice system ... That was the birth of it. We were kind of hit and miss for about a year; I was still on a teaching schedule, and would edit in between my teaching schedule. Students would write stories in between the busy class schedule. Sometimes  we'd run 11 stories in a day, sometimes two weeks between stories. In May of this year we though, "We've got something good going, let's make it serious." We took on an executive editor, took on a marketing communications person ... and got involved in INN.

Juvenile justice got started in Chicago in 1899 ... There is coverage [locally] from time to time, but we feel there is room to cover it on a regular basis, and fill a hole in coverage in Chicago about an issue that was born in Chicago — the notion that juveniles should be treated differently from adults. The system is racially skewed, overpopulated due to a fear of super predators that never came to be. It was a restorative model, became punitive, and is coming back home. We're trying to cover this all in depth.

We are reinventing and redesigning our entire site offering daily, weekly and monthly product. We are doing a lot of fundraising efforts because we are poor, we got fiscal sponsorship from you guys  — Thank God!

Our sole purpose is to move forward the conversation on policies that affect youth, and want to create a very robust product that can accomplish that.

INN: What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far in covering your beat AND in launching your organization?

EF: It's a tricky issue because of the confidentiality. We want to protect children as well as give voice to them. Put simply, we're dealing with the most vulnerable population that is at the discretion and power of the most powerful institutions in the world — the law enforcement institutions and government of the United States. There's no one keeping a regular eye on the city where juvenile justice was born.

They're a generation that is "too old to cuddle but too young to vote." So therefore they are ignored and set aside. But, if we ignore them and don't prop them up, we risk raising a generation that isn't prepared to have a stake in this country.

We are trying to see the macro issues through the micro lens of Chicago youth.

INN: How has INN supported you so far — and how do you anticipate working with INN over time?

EF: They've been so helpful. They've offered every piece of advice, answered every question we've had so far. Also fiscal sponsorship. It gives us editorial credibility as well as financial standing ... new news organizations need that to get started. We have a great debt to you guys.

Dan Froomkin, the Center for Accountability Journalism

INN: What was the motivation to start the Center for Accountability Journalism? In particular, what about the existing news-media ecosystem makes you feel this is opportune? 

DF: I think there's a widespread feeling that the news media as a whole is allowing too much misinformation to spread, rather than rebutting it, and that this is seriously impairing our democracy. I think a lot of us would like to do something about it, and I think the current state of technology and social media allows a small group of us to do that very effectively.

Nonprofit investigative reporting is booming, as the INN's amazing membership so clearly demonstrates. But oddly enough, there is no one place issuing a clarion-call for journalism that fights deception, rather than simply presenting he-said/she-said arguments and leave our readers confused and under-informed.

INN: Aggregation can be an extremely powerful means of promoting worthy journalism. Tell me a little bit about your focus on aggregation and amplification of existing coverage. How will that play out? Do you want to preview any of the aggregating methodologies and promotional mechanisms you plan on implementing? Will you be doing original reporting as well? 

DF: We'll champion gutsy reporting from mainstream and independent sources, explain its significance, put it in context, follow it up, build on it, and keep important questions from falling off the radar.

We'll also point out areas where the media has been too inattentive, too credulous, or too easily confused. We'll connect dots that have been left unconnected with our own analysis and reporting as well as panel discussions, networks of experts, and more.

INN: Without spilling the beans on anything: What do you feel are the biggest stories you want to go after? Are you filling gaps in coverage, or are you looking to take the place of legacy media that no longer exists or isn't competitive?

DF: I suspect a lot of what we do in our first year is going to revolve around issues related to national security and economic inequality. In both cases, our role will be to point out gaps in coverage and suggest ways to fill them, rather than filling them ourselves. (Remember: It's going to be a very small staff.)

We'll also be exhorting more assertive and truth-seeking reporting, and fighting false equivalency.

Issues like torture and inequality really don't have two equally plausible sides to them, and there's no reason journalists should cover them that way.

INN: What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far in launching your organization?

DF: It's sometimes hard to explain what we intend to do, because we're going to be doing so many things at once. We're going to be advocates, but also analysts; press critics who also do some original reporting; we're going to develop original ways to embrace new technology, while also modeling the best ways to use what already exists.

But I think it will all work together beautifully. That's why we're focusing on getting the site launched in the fall.

INN: How has INN supported you so far — and how do you anticipate working with INN over time?

DF: INN has been a godsend. By serving as our fiscal sponsor, INN has allowed us to begin accepting charitable donations prior to winning our own 501(c)(3) designation. Its sample policies mean we don't have to craft our own. We intend to call a lot of attention to the amazing work done by its members. I'm working with Adam Schweigert to make some minor modifications to Largo to support even greater in-depth exploration of specific topics. I feel like we have a home base.