December 8, 2016

Since announcing the creation of ProPublica Illinois, president Richard Tofel has heard from people in other states hoping the nonprofit investigative organization will set up shop in their cities, too.

And it might.

But first, they have to figure out the prairie state.

ProPublica announced Wednesday the creation of ProPublica Illinois, the search for a Chicago-based editor and seed funding from the Ford Foundation.

Two important things the nonprofit looked for were a place with a track record of needing accountability journalism and a place where that work made a difference. They also wanted a place that could support that work.

“When we put places around the country through those two screens, Illinois came out, in our judgment, on top.”

But it’s not a bureau, Tofel told Crain’s on Wednesday. Then what is it? Here’s the analogy he offered Poynter: Consider the old newspaper model.

“This is not a bureau of a national newspaper,” he said. “This is a newspaper owned ultimately by a national company.”

And from a reader’s perspective, Tofel said, there’s a need for more coverage at the regional level.

In 2014, Pew reported on the shrinking landscape for state house reporters. From 2009 to 2014, Pew reported, Illinois went from 12 to five full-time state house reporters working for newspapers. ProPublica Illinois, which may have a reporter in the state’s capital, Springfield, (that’s up to the editor,) will have some competition from Chicago news organizations, however. And the fact that that ecosystem already exists, Tofel said, is a huge advantage.

“A very big part of our publication model is through and with partners, and we hope to do that with a wide range of partners in Illinois, ranging from distribution to joint reporting.”

ProPublica Illinois will use the seed funding to get started, then start local fundraising to support the organization. The plan, should they expand elsewhere, isn’t to move money around the country, but for each state to be able to support itself. And while ProPublica has worked at a national level, both with work and support, there’s still a lot to be learned at the state level.

So, for now, no hints about where they might go next.

“It’s just too soon,” Tofel said. “This has to work first, and it’s got to work on all levels. It needs to work editorially, it needs to work for readers and distribution, and it needs to work financially.”

He doesn’t know when they’ll know all that, Tofel said, and until they do, “we won’t be looking at a next place.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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