Rebecca Skloot, Bethany McLean
Robert Feder named his list of the 21 most powerful women in Chicago journalism. It’s an interesting list, and I don’t really have any issues with it, except to note that these lists are inevitably affected by your interests and knowledge. Feder’s list is heavy on management and broadcast journalism—which is fine, obviously. That’s his beat. And I’m not going to argue that the president and general manager of ABC7 isn’t powerful.
By comparison, Scott Smith, director of digital strategy and development here at Chicago, also has a list, and inevitably it’s got lots of digital people: like Jacqui Cheng of Ars Technica, a Conde Nast property and old, at least in Internet years ("Serving the technologist for 1.2897 × 10-1 centuries") technology site. Ars Technica probably doesn’t have the reach in Chicago of ABC7, but the site gets six million readers a month.
So it also depends on what you mean by "Chicago journalism." That’s the fun of listmaking: seeing how the definitions of things like power and influence change from different perspectives. In that spirit, my inevitably biased additions, which reflect my interests in long-form journalism and public policy:
* Kimbriell Kelly, Chicago Reporter. Not just an august publication with a no-BS commitment to social justice in diverse forms, but a place that produces some outstanding investigative journalists, like my former colleague Mick Dumke, and new Hoy staffer Jeff Kelly Lowenstein.
* Rebecca Skloot, freelance science writer, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Obviously I didn’t read every book that came out in 2010, but it’s hard to imagine one that combined quality, critical praise, and popular success quite like it. A remarkable achievement for a first book.
* Bethany McLean, Vanity Fair contributing editor and Slate contributor, author of The Smartest Guys in the Room (with Peter Elkind) and All the Devils Are Here (with Joe Nocera). A fairly recent transplant, admittedly, but one of the best, most influential economic journalists in the country.
* Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus co-founder and editor, ESPN.com contributor. Like Ars Technica it might not have a deep reach in the city, but its data-driven take on baseball has been extremely influential in the world of sports journalism.
OK, a site mostly geared towards fantasy baseball addicts and deep sports nerds (like myself) might seem light in comparison, but it’s been a big part of an important shift in sports journalism towards increasingly sophisticated statistical analysis. And I think that’s part of the value of sports: the way we talk about it and analyze it spills over into "important"* subjects: Kahrl’s former colleague Nate Silver left BP to start FiveThirtyEight, which was acquired by the New York Times, where he continues to work his statistical magic on politics.
* Eula Biss, essayst, Northwestern lecturer, author of Notes From No Man’s Land. I’m really pushing the definition of "journalism," but I told you this would reflect my biases. Essays have always been an important approach to and interest in nonfiction. I love reading and writing them, but not a lot of people actually get to produce them with any regularity. In the small but wonderful world of creative nonfiction/essay writing, Biss is one of the best.
*No, I don’t think there’s anything more important than baseball, either. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.
Here’s video of Skloot and McLean discussing their work:
Photographs: (Skloot) Manda Townsend; (McLean) Anna Knott