Josh Kalven, Progress Illinois award acceptance remarks

It’s funny.  I remember attending this event in March 2008, about a week before Progress Illinois launched, and wondering to myself how the outlet would be received in the coming months.  It was a great year to start such a venture, particularly here in Illinois, but we had our challenges.  As I began spreading the word of PI’s impending arrival on the scene, I received lots of dubious responses from local writers, rightfully skeptical that an outlet fully funded by the biggest labor union in the state could cover political and policy debates in a credible or interesting or useful manner.

Then came the awards dinner in 2009.  When I introduced myself to some of the other attendees — “Hi, I’m Josh from Progress Illinois” — the outlet’s name rung a bell.  Some were ardent readers, some received our daily email digest, some came occasionally to the site to graze.  I even remember having a few conversations about specific items we had posted on PI earlier that day — which is always a thrilling experience for a writer.

Still, I never imagined that in 2010 we’d be up here receiving a Terkel award ourselves.  It’s an honor to say the least.

I’d like to thank, first and foremost, Tom Balanoff, Jerry Morrison, and the entire SEIU Illinois State Council.  PI was their idea and obviously came into being because of their financial support.  When I came back to Chicago to take on the project, I didn’t realize at the time how good an idea it was, how much the local progressive community needed an outlet of this sort.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to take on that idea and I’m proud to have shaped it into the outlet you see today.  There were many pitfalls before us when we started this project and it’s to SEIU’s credit that we stayed out of the ditch.  I’m continually impressed with the free hand they’ve given us to build a separate voice, though one that’s supportive of the issues they care about.

I’d also like to thank PI’s two reporter-bloggers, Adam Doster and Angela Caputo.  One of the most fun things about this job — about working with such a small team — is that we have constant opportunities to experiment.  But for every one of those successful experiments, there are numerous other ideas I’ve had that haven’t hit the sweet spot and, in many cases, haven’t seen the light of day.  So I’m thankful to Adam and Angela for their hard-work and patience.

As this event approached, I at one point wondered to myself whether Studs ever commented publicly on the rise of online journalism?  And so I did a bit of research and found this quote from a 2003 PBS interview he gave shortly after “Hope Dies Last” was published:

I don’t understand the Internet real well. I’m very bad technologically. I can’t drive a car. I fall off a bicycle. I goof up the tape recorder. I’m just learning to use an electric typewriter — that’s my big advance. I’m not up on the Internet, but I hear that is a democratic possibility. People can connect with each other.

“A democratic possibility” in which “people can connect.”

While Studs never really got to experience the internet — never got to work on it himself — he seems to have understood the possibilities, ones that we’re seeing realized today.  For instance, I imagine he’d be thrilled to know about the hundreds of unemployed Illinois residents who congregate on PI every day and have done so for the past six months.  They found us because we were one of the only outlets in the state that consistently covered the debate — both in Springfield and D.C. — over extending unemployment benefits.  And as we’ve continued to follow the story and fill in that gap, they’ve used our site as a forum to circulate information, to share their personal struggles as they hunt for jobs, and to answer questions about the process from fellow unemployed readers passing through.

I think Studs would like that idea: ordinary Americans talking to each other, empowering each other, without a filter, across lines of race, class, and geography.

I think if he were here today and could look at the new tools available to journalists and activists, he would join me in being extremely excited about the possibilities.  Yes, this is a time of chaos in this industry.  But with chaos comes the freedom to experiment.  And with experimentation comes innovation.  And as we innovate, hopefully we will increase civic engagement.

That issue — engagement — is one I really want to emphasize.  Every day, as I manage and write and edit at Progress Illinois, I think constantly about all those readers out there who are trying to make sense of the latest news cycle — particularly in this crazy, opaque, often-disturbing political culture in which we reside. I’m referring to the type of folks of all ages who are uninitiated and uniformed when it comes to the local political narratives.  And that lack of knowledge about the backstory leaves them alienated when faced with day-to-day reporting, which often assumes so much knowledge on the part of the reader.  That alienation then breeds cynicism, which keeps them away from the rallies and away from the polling booth and away from conversations with their neighbors, keeps them from becoming engaged.

As Adam and Angela can attest, I’m constantly pushing them to do a better job of explaining what are pretty esoteric and unsexy issues — but ones that we, as writers, know intimately and can handle in shorthand.  I want to ensure that when a reader approaches us with that fleeting motivation to enter the public debate, we’re giving them what they need.  And as a purely online outlet — unconstrained by broadcast times or column widths or word counts — we can accommodate that type of explanatory coverage on a daily basis.

When running a media property of any size, you’re constantly being asked to demonstrate your impact.  And I can rattle off plenty of examples of how we broke stories, or affected local media coverage, or helped progressive activists get their message out.  But my favorite example of impact is when a 20-something reader wrote in to say that she was “learning so much” from following Progress Illinois.

We, as journalists of all stripes, can be points of entry for citizens seeking to take part in their democracy.  And it if we do it well, we not only increase engagement and feed the appetite for activism, but we also generate demand for the product that we’re distributing on a daily basis.

Never has it been easier to embrace that role than it is today, never has it been easier to lower the barriers for our readers and potential readers.  And that is something to celebrate and to keep at the front of our minds and to work hard on.  You can be sure that Progress Illinois will be doing just that in the years to come.

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2010 Studs Terkel Awards
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