DNAInfo Chicago alumni photoPaul Biasco, 2010 B.S. Journalism, Neighborhood Reporter
Justin Breen, 1999 B.S. Journalism, Senior Editor
Ted Cox, 1981 B.S. Journalism, City Hall Reporter
Jon Hansen, 2006 B.S. Journalism, Radio News Director
Stephanie Lulay, 2008 B.S., 2009 M.S. Journalism, Neighborhood Reporter

Chicago is home to the largest concentration of Illinois graduates in the country. It’s not unusual to find a number of Illini working for the same company. What is unusual is the three-year-old news organization, DNAinfo.com Chicago, where five journalism alumni have been changing the way news is delivered.

DNAinfo.com Chicago was launched in Nov. 26, 2012. One of its first major reports, ‘Murder in Chicago: The Human Toll,’ looked at the data associated with the city’s murder rate and the people who comprise that data. The resulting murder timeline, which continues today, was the culmination of months of research. It was a massive undertaking and earned the news organization an EPPY award from “Editor & Publisher” magazine for Best Investigative/Enterprise Feature on a Website with under 1 million unique monthly visitors.

The organization is working to break stories and build its reputation. “You build a reputation by breaking the story over and over again every day,” said Shamus Toomey, managing editor. “Every day we learn a little something new. There is no shortage of people wanting the news. You just have to get their attention. We’re all over the city — on radio, TV and in print.”

The philosophy at DNAinfo.com is to fill the neighborhood news gap that has been left by other news organizations. “We have the ability to do a small story that might not be as interesting to a larger news outlet,” Shamus said. “The whole organization is interested in telling interesting stories that people in the neighborhoods want to read and share.”

Justin Breen was the first of the Illini to join the team. He was the third person hired at the company in May 2012, before it had an office. He was part of the team that hired the first staff. “This place is an anomaly,” Justin said. “A growing company that is adding people; that is covering really local news and adding papers to several dozen neighborhoods in the city.”

As neighborhood reporters, Stephanie Lulay and Paul Biasco are deeply connected to their beats. They attend meetings, talk with business owners, know their neighborhoods and follow social media for scoops. They are also quickly adapting to how technology can add to their stories. “Back in school, they were just beginning to teach digital skills,” Stephanie said. “We use those now on a daily basis. You have to have everything in your arsenal.”

“We’re not going to give you a big block of text,” Paul said. “You’re going to have an audio clip, a Vine you took on the street, add in a map — knowing what’s possible is what we do. It makes the story more compelling.”

“I think we give them a streamlined version of the story,” Ted Cox added. “We give people the news that is applicable to their daily lives, make it straight forward, get in and get out. We include links to all of the background information on the story. If you want to dig in, you can.”

Jon Hansen, who recently left DNAinfo for Weigel Broadcasting agrees. “The ways we do it I think are very interesting,” Jon said. “The fact that you can go to one page for a story and you not only get a print version of it, you get audio enhancements. I think it’s something people have really taken a liking to. At the end of the day, people care about a good story.”

All five value their Illinois roots and feel the reputation of the program has made a difference.

“The Daily Illini had a great reputation — Ebert, Reston, the Ingrassia brothers,” Ted said. “Illinois has a reputation for producing capable and hands-on journalists.”

The Daily Illini and WPGU played an influential role with all of these alumni.

“I wrote for the Daily Illini for three years and was a copy editor for the paper for a year,” Paul said. “I learned how to work under pressure and conquer the fear of interviewing strangers, which was tough at first.”

“I pretty much lived at the Daily Illini, and ended my time there as managing editor,” Stephanie said. “I learned the value of hard work. Ask any hiring editor in Chicago and I bet they would characterize UI journalism grads as really hard workers.”

Ted wrote for the DI and also worked each year on the homecoming newspaper lampoon, The Tumor. “That was a kick,” he said. “Selling it on the Quad was a hoot. We got to keep a dime of every paper sold. With a run of 10,000 copies, that was a nice chunk of change for the handful of sellers.”

“I feel like one of the core skills I learned at U of I — whether it was through the College or WPGU — was how to be adaptable, learning how to make mistakes,” Jon said. “You need to research ahead of time and try and be as prepared as possible, but sometimes you're just going to be in a situation where you aren't 100 percent ready. Have faith in your abilities and just power through the situation with confidence. Fake it till you make it!”

Justin has been a regular volunteer with the College. He has served on the College of Media Alumni Board for six years and has organized and hosted Journalism Career Night since 2011. “Journalism Career Night is my favorite ‘work’ night of the year,” Justin said. “Not only do I get to talk to some amazing alumni who have exceeded in the professional world, but you get to meet so many excited students who want to become journalism stars. Not much is better than that.”

Stephanie, Jon and Paul have all made trips back to campus to speak with students. Jon worked with Lynn Holley and one of her classes as they dug into the world of podcasting. Ted’s younger daughter is a sophomore on campus this year. “She’s a legacy!”

Their advice for today’s students reflects their experiences. Read the news every day. Follow those you admire on Twitter. Engage with your own stories. Learn how the Web works. Get as much on-the-job training as you can through internships, WPGU or the DI. Education is not the same as working. Do everything. Soak up as much as you can. Meet alumni. Make connections with different people. Learn to communicate. Be a well-rounded person. Enjoy being a student.

Editor's note:
DNAInfo closed its doors November 2, 2017. A letter from CEO Joe Ricketts is available here.

  • Paul Biasco has been managing partner of Quiote, a Mexican restaurant in Logan Square, since October of 2016.
  • Justin Breen opened his own company - BrEpic Communications, a public relations and communications firm - in June, 2017.
  • Ted Cox is a contributing writer for the Chicago Reader.
  • Jon Hansen is a host, reporter and producer with WCIU-TV; radio host with WGN; back-up public address announcer for the Chicago Blackhawks; and fills in as a play-by-play announcer on ESPN for area college basketball games.