Josh Kalven and Progress Illinois
Post by post, Progress Illinois’ Josh Kalven, Adam Doster, and Angela Caputo are mapping a new kind of news with their progressive political coverage of government from the local to the national levels.
Their site, sponsored by Service Employees International Union, is among the most successful of the local new news sites in achieving their self-professed goals: to engage non-insiders in some of the play-by-play of politics and policy, and to fill in some gaps in coverage of community, advocacy and nonprofit groups.
“Illinois politics is opaque to a lot of folks, who are alienated and just kind of lost when it comes to local politics,” says Josh, who largely edits his colleagues’ pieces. These appear at a rate of about 1 post per hour, 8 posts per day nearly every day since the site’s inception in March 2008, just two years ago.
“We don’t ever imagine having a huge newsroom and being able to kind of do the original daily grind reporting, but we can help provide context, explanation and sort of guidance for readers,” Josh says. “There are a lot of progressive activists doing great work in the state who don’t really get a lot of attention,” he adds. “By covering them we hope to embolden them also.”
True to the new medium, Progress Illinois’ biggest scoops have included finding news hiding in plain sight. Reporter Adam Doster became one of a relative handful of journalists to highlight big banks’ slap on the wrist in the past two years, when he reported U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin had told AM radio host Ray Hanania, “the banks—hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created—are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”
That story helped ignite anger in Washington. When local advocacy organization National People’s Action organized the largest national bank protest in years, Progress Illinois’ print and video coverage documented a story that local metro news outlets barely noticed.
Another feature of the site is its explanatory journalism. For example, on longer-running story topics the staff splice together the basic facts and past coverage to help newcomers to a story understand the context. The backstory on the Hart Schaffner Marx bankruptcy and eventual purchase last spring includes both clips and a narrative description of the events, which was updated as the issue evolved, Josh says. Other features include “curating” news—offering links to items elsewhere that they judge of interest to the site’s readers through their popular “Around the Horn.” The site also makes adept and unobtrusive use of Twitter, RSS, and all the other tools of Web 2.0.
Josh, son of Jamie Kalven (who’s fusing his own mix of new journalism at the Invisible Institute on the South Side), grew up with Studs as a family friend. Asked if he was inspired by Studs, Josh looks down, smiles and recalls that growing up Studs was a regular at his family’s dinner table.
“I have a baseball that he gave me when I graduated from college that said, ‘Remember, sometimes in life you have to throw a spitball.’ I don’t know quite what he would make of Progress Illinois.” We think he’d like it… a lot.
Josh, 29, worked in politics before spending three years as a researcher and then editorial director at Media Matters for America. Adam, 25, is also a senior editor with In These Times, and has written for The Nation and other outlets. Angela, 32, previously a reporter with the Southtown Star and Lerner Newspapers, is also the first journalist in the history of the Studs Terkel Awards to win two (she received the companion award, a scholarship for Columbia College journalism students, in 2005).