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Meet a Member: Lee Gaines

Lee GainesOne of the biggest benefits of your INBA membership is getting to know professionals in different markets, in different stages of their career, maybe even working in a different aspect of broadcasting or education.

In the latest entry of our "Meet a Member" series, we're introducing you to Lee Gaines, a reporter with WILL (Illinois Public Media), covering education and criminal justice. She's also part of Illinois Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR member stations across the state.

How did you develop an interest in reporting or broadcasting?

I needed a job. I was a freshman in college during the 2008 financial crisis. I previously wanted to be an actress but failed to get into any acting schools. I loved reading and writing. I was and currently am a much better writer than actress. Teaching didn’t appeal to me, and therefore journalism made sense. And then I fell in love with reporting. I feel so lucky to have found a job that I love doing every day. I was a print reporter for the first seven years of my career, and I transitioned into public radio a little more than a year ago.

What was your first job in journalism and/or broadcasting?

I was the sole reporter for a weekly newspaper in the suburbs of Boston. The paper was part of the GateHouse Media New England chain. I covered the very ritzy bedroom community of Wellesley, Mass. That’s where I got a taste for investigative journalism. The school district was rife with controversy, and I stumbled onto a good story at the right time. I look back at that experience as the inspiration for my interest and preference for investigative and hard news reporting. I realized through that experience how much I enjoy digging for information — pulling on a thread until a complex and nuanced narrative fully unravels. It is often a laborious process, but one I enjoy immensely.

Why do you love being a journalist?

It’s exciting. My entire job involves absorbing, processing and regurgitating facts, data, and personal stories. Then I get to transform all of that information into a cohesive and engaging narrative. It’s the perfect combination of critical analysis and creativity. I’m an extrovert, and I really enjoy one-on-one conversations with sources. I’ve met an incredible array of incredibly interesting people through my job. Some of those interviews are hard, but they’re necessary. I also think this work is important. I don’t think I could do something where I didn’t feel like I was contributing something to a community — whether that’s my town, the state, the region or the country. And there’s this indescribable thrill I feel when I’ve stumbled onto a story no one else has reported. It's intoxicating.

What broadcast or story you’ve done makes you most proud?

I’m really proud of the work I’ve done around incarceration and education in Illinois. I hope my stories examining the lack of state spending on books in prisons, barriers to higher ed for formerly incarcerated people, and the reporting I’m currently doing around the value of a college in prison program beyond recidivism rates as well as the state of educational programming in Illinois prisons will foster a better understanding of what access or lack thereof to education means for those convicted of crimes. That was a long sentence.

What’s the hardest story or broadcast you’ve had to do?

A few weeks ago, I drove to Des Plaines to visit a school district who had helped a couple homeless families get into housing thanks to a little known state law passed in 2017. As part of that reporting, I visited with one family who received assistance from the district, and spoke on the phone with another.

Poverty is a difficult subject to report on. It feels overwhelming. It’s hard to point to the root of the problem as well as who or what is responsible for that problem. I really labored over that story because I wanted to do it justice. Not for the schools so much as for the families I interviewed. Their stories were difficult to hear, and difficult to whittle down to a few sound bites for broadcast. I often wonder whether the four-minute public radio feature is really the best way to tell stories about human suffering exacerbated or caused by systemic inequities. So, yeah, that was hard.

What’s your most embarrassing broadcast moment?

I’ve screwed up a few All Things Considered broadcasts. Thankfully I’ve never cursed on air. The first time I hosted ATC I could barely read the scripts because my hands were shaking so much.

Why did you join INBA?

I think it’s a great opportunity to connect with editors and reporters in the field. It’s nice to be able to put a face to the voice and byline.