Ten Years of ProPublica: a Q&A on Leading the Way
Sisi Wei and Ryann Grochowski Jones on the past and future of their work at ProPublica
Last month, ProPublica marked the 10-year anniversary of its founding. It’s a milestone that we’re proud to help celebrate. A decade ago, the journalism-tech community was just beginning to take root, and OpenNews was still a few years away from starting its work. These days, ProPublica’s up-and-coming leaders are beginning to shape the next 10 years. We talked with Sisi Wei and Ryann Grochowski Jones about their pathways to newsroom leadership positions, how they think about building a diverse and collaborative team, and more.
Getting Started at ProPublica
Source: You both started at ProPublica about five years ago, around the same time. Why did you decide to join this team?
Sisi: Ryann and I have a very different story. Scott [Klein] recruited me from the Washington Post. I was a graphics editor there and I was pretty happy doing my job, but also wanted to do more back-end database work and data analysis and more reporting…I had already been in the process of trying to change my job there when Scott reached out. The job at ProPublica was hilariously exactly what I had been looking for…I thought, “Wow. I could either work really hard to change my current situation at an institution that doesn’t have anybody that does that job yet, or I could go to ProPublica, an excellent investigative news organization in which everybody’s job is what I’m trying to fight for right now.” So that’s why I decided to come here.
Ryann: I moved to New York the summer of 2013 and was freelancing as a data reporter for hire. At the time, Jennifer LaFleur, who was the head of data here at the time, was leaving to take a job at [the Center for Investigative Reporting]. She brought me in and introduced me to people, and said, “If you need somebody in the interim, Ryann is here.” So I started working at ProPublica two days a week. I was also freelancing for the New York Times two days a week. Then Scott asked me if I could come three days a week. Within two months he asked if I would stay there full-time. So I did. I like to say that I just showed up one day and never left. [laughs]
Sisi: [laughs] I had no idea who Ryann was when she first started working here. It was like some days she would be in the office, and other days she wouldn’t. So I just thought she was a visitor.
Ryann: At that point, the data and news app teams were still separate, though. So I wasn’t even sitting near the team…that really only happened once I came on full-time.
Merging the News Apps and Data Teams
Source: It sounds like merging the news apps and data teams was a big shift for everyone. Can you tell us more about that?
Ryann: Around when I started full-time, ProPublica decided to merge the news apps and data team into one team. Really that’s all I’ve known of my life here at ProPublica. But previously those two teams were separate.
Sisi: Back then they were very separate teams. And the news apps team would do its own data analysis, unless we were specifically working on a project with [Jennifer LaFleur], who was the data editor at the time…So when the data team got merged into the news apps team, we suddenly had a very different relationship with each other, which I think has made ProPublica a lot better… News apps developers can do some of their own data analysis. But for more complicated stuff, we go to Ryann’s team for help. Then if Ryann’s team, which has a strong data journalism and statistical background, wants to do more visual stuff, they come to us for help. It just works very well.
Moving Up and Breaking Down Silos
Source: What’s it been like to move into leadership roles in the past year or so?
Ryann: I wrote my application memo and came in for my interview while I was on maternity leave. I’ve been back for a year now, and I became deputy editor of the data team shortly after my return. When I pitched my vision of the team, it was because I had been a data reporter for four years here, and I was able to see firsthand what seemed to be working and what didn’t. It seemed like the biggest issue was that the data team was siloed from the rest of the newsroom. It really couldn’t be—because basically any story or project at ProPublica that has any data analysis, even if it’s just a simple analysis in Excel, needs to be checked by the data team. We weren’t hearing about these stories or we didn’t know about these stories until a day before publication. By then, it would be too late to be able to offer anything substantive.
I went on a listening tour when I first started, to get reporters’ and editors’ input on how they think the data team works, what they think we do. And I was very surprised by the results. So there’s been a lot of re-education about what our team does and what we can do, and now we’re brought in to collaborate with reporters and editors more. I am still learning a ton. This is totally new for me. But I feel like the four years I spent as a data reporter have really helped guide my leadership of this team.
Hiring Well & Considerately
Source: I know ProPublica has been working a lot on its hiring process, especially in trying to reach a more diverse pool of candidates. Sisi, can you talk about that, since that’s something you’ve been working on?
Sisi: I’ve been doing [the deputy editor role] for about a year and a half now, and the first thing that we did was hire a bunch of developers. So I had to think critically about what that meant. And I had a lot of opinions based on the experience that Lena Groeger and I had running the Data Institute for a year before—and we thought very, very deliberately about what application processes should be like, what interviews should be like. So when we had that first massive round of hiring, which included the new deputy editor for data position that Ryann got, it was not only thinking about what should we do on my team, but encouraging the rest of the newsroom to do things that I thought were really important when it came to hiring and hiring well and hiring considerately….
What’s been amazing to see is how our hiring practices evolved from last year to this year. A lot of the things that we did almost exclusively on my team are things that the entire newsroom is doing now—how we track candidates, when we ask about things like diversity, how we hold ourselves accountable based on each stage of the process and are transparent to the newsroom at large…that’s been an incredible evolution. Once that ball started rolling, I’ve been able to to improve my own practices based on what other teams at ProPublica do as well.
The staff here also cares a lot about diversity, and the top editors here have really heard that and taken it really seriously. So this year we announced that we were implementing the Rooney Rule and that was a promise that we wrote out in a post. We do a diversity update every year and so that has really affected our hiring this year too because the Rooney Rule means that at least one finalist interviewed for every job needs to be a person of color…
Since the beginning of this year we’ve had monthly diversity meetings, since we knew there was going to be a lot of hiring. Last month we were able to show the staff a breakdown of the finalists’ demographics, without any names. And most of the time we had much more than one finalist who was a person of color, and the staff was able to see that.
On Testing Candidates During the Hiring Process
Source: Another question about hiring diverse candidates… How do you handle the workload for applicants, if they’re parents or caregivers without a lot of time to complete a test alongside their normal human responsibilities?
Ryann: Becoming a parent has taught me a lot of flexibility. And I am not in general a very flexible person [laughter]. But prior to having my daughter, I might work until 7:00 or 8:00 or maybe later, not particularly for any good reason, but because I had all the time in the world. … Now my daughter is in daycare full time, and if I’m not out of the office at 5:00 PM to pick her up at 6:00 PM, there will be an issue…. We have a data reporting test where we give [candidates] a data set and have them go through how they would assess it. It allows us to see their thought process, their news judgment, and also how well they document their work. And I have certainly been much more cognizant this year about the amount of time that that takes and the demands that it puts on somebody’s schedule since he or she would most likely be working on it, obviously, outside of their normal job hours.
Sisi: And we’ve given extensions for that. We always give more time than you actually need to complete the test, and then on top of that, if you have special considerations I think we’ve always granted them.
On Gender Parity
Source: Anything else we haven’t talked about, about diversity at ProPublica?
Sisi: One thing to mention is that it’s an area that we’re getting better at, but we’re definitely not perfect. It’s something that the organization is actively working on, and if other newsrooms are trying to figure out, “How do we get on a similar path?”, a lot of it is about pushing boundaries and being willing to speak up within your own organization about “What do we care about? How do we get there?”.
Source: That is definitely interesting to hear; I think that we, who are big fans of your work, often think that it’s a magical perfect place.
Ryann: Yes, it is not a perfect place. There are no perfect places.
Sisi: The best part about ProPublica is that no doors are shut. People listen no matter where they are in the organization. They might not always agree with you, but they will listen.
On Exemplary Projects
Source: Can you tell us about some work that your teams have done, that you’re particularly proud of?
Ryann: Charlie Ornstein (who is now an editor here, but still moonlights as a reporter because he is a machine) was working on a story about heart transplants and how poorly they were going at a certain hospital in Texas. And he was partnering with the Houston Chronicle, who had used state data to look at this hospital. Charlie wanted to know if we could quantitatively compare a certain surgeon’s performance to others. And so the two data reporters on my team, Hannah Fresques and Olga Pierce, worked together to look at Medicare inpatient data—which is a huge data set, but they are both very adept at extracting information from it. They worked together pretty quickly, maybe just two weeks. They found that the surgeon (who the story was focused on) had much higher one-year death rates for his patients versus similar surgeons. And it was just a piece of this story, but it was the most quantitative piece.
A few days after the story came out, the hospital suspended its transplant program in part because of some of the problems that were raised in these stories. Going back to my leadership style, I’ve found that collaboration is where our newsroom really shines. And I was really excited to see the data team collaborate with the larger newsroom to bring our level of expertise to a really important subject and to see some impact after that….I was incredibly proud of that.
Source: Sisi, what about you? Especially something that makes you proud to be working with at ProPublica, right now. Like what ProPublica does best.
Sisi: If you put it like that, I have to talk about our asylum game and how ProPublica really lets me experiment. What’s amazing about the project is that news games are not something journalism has decided to invest in, even if individual journalism organizations have tried making them in the past. Most places make one or two and then maybe it will work and maybe it won’t, and they won’t make any more. And it is very hard, I think, even though our niche area in journalism is an area in which we do a lot of experimentation. I think people are still scared to experiment a lot when it comes to immersive experiences that aren’t just taking advantage of a medium, but are about having us fully dive in and do our journalism so differently.
Thanks for talking with us, Sisi and Ryann. Here’s to the next decade and beyond.
Ryann Grochowski Jones is the deputy data editor at ProPublica. Previously, she was a data reporter at ProPublica and at Investigative Newsource/KPBS in San Diego, California. She received her master’s degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where she was a data librarian for Investigative Reporters and Editors/National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. Ryann started her career as a municipal beat reporter for her hometown newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Editor of Source from 2015-2020
Sisi Wei is the Director of Programs at OpenNews, where she envisions and executes transformative initiatives to help create a journalism industry that is more inclusive and equitable, especially for journalists of color and local journalists. Previously, she was the Assistant Managing Editor at ProPublica, during which she edited and managed news apps, graphics, visual investigations and large, interdisciplinary projects. Sisi has won numerous Malofiej, SND Digital and ONA awards, the Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism, and the 2016 Data Journalism Award for Best Individual Portfolio. She has served as an adjunct professor at New York University, The New School and CUNY, and she is also the co-founder of Code with me, a high-impact, nonprofit workshop that teaches journalists how to code. She is based in New York City.