Alumni Interview: Dan Petrella
I report on state government and politics. My primary focus is covering the Pritzker administration, especially when the governor appears in public here in Chicago.
I always wanted to work at the Tribune. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and I remember sitting on the living room floor on Sunday afternoons and reading the paper—including stories by some of the people I work with now.
After I finished grad school, I worked for a couple of years on CU-CitizenAccess [a website that covers social justice and economic issues in east central Illinois]. In 2012, I was hired by the State Journal-Register in Springfield. I went on to become the Springfield bureau reporter for Lee Enterprises, which owns papers around Illinois and the rest of country. At the end of January 2017, I started at the Chicago Tribune.
I remember walking in the door of Tribune Tower for my job interview and being in awe. The building has been described as a “cathedral of journalism.” There are quotes about the First Amendment and the power of the press etched into the marble walls of the lobby. Then I went up the elevator to the newsroom, and it was sort of dumpy. I worked for about a year in Tribune Tower before we vacated and moved to the Prudential Center. When the pandemic hit, people started working from home. Now the newsroom has moved again, to the Freedom Center.
Covering a public figure—a politician like Pritzker—is not necessarily a friendly relationship. He’s very gregarious, and he comes across as a fairly warm person. But when you’re a reporter and politicians are talking to you, they’re not talking the way they might talk to their aides behind the scenes. Anytime you’re covering a politician, you’re going to ask questions that he or she doesn’t necessarily want to answer, and you’re going to write things that are more critical than might be appreciated. You want specific answers to specific questions that you don’t always get. You file Freedom of Information requests for information, and it takes longer than you would like to receive that information. I’ve had requests that languished for several months. Those are the sorts of day-to-day frustrations that go along with covering government.
Much of what I’ve written in the past couple of years has been about the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. That has been a very important issue to our audience. We were the first to report that the governor was going to issue his stay-at-home order back in March of 2020, and that story is still the most viewed on the Chicago Tribune website. The Tribune reporter in Springfield and I worked our sources hard to confirm that the stay-at-home order was coming. And there was a huge effort to bring in reporters from across the newsroom to talk with Chicagoans about what this was going to mean for them in their lives. It was an impressive demonstration of what can happen when so many talented, smart people come together and pull in the same direction.
The Tribune has gone through many ups and downs since I’ve been here. Earlier this year, when the company wanted to permanently cut people’s salaries, our union was able to negotiate to get us three weeks of unpaid furlough instead. Alden Global Capital [a hedge fund] bought the paper in May, and then we had a round of buyouts. About 40 editors and reporters parted ways with the paper. Many people whom I highly respect made the decision to leave, including Mary Schmich, a Pulitzer prize–winning columnist who was very helpful and encouraging when I wrote a column last year about my aunt who had died from the coronavirus. Many of these people had been at the Tribune for decades. I thought about taking the buyout, but I still have a lot to learn in this job, and I’m still enjoying it a lot. Covering state government and working with my colleagues who cover City Hall is a core part of what the Tribune does and has always done. It’s the DNA of the paper.
When I was in graduate school, I interned at Illinois Alumni magazine. Being at the UIAA was a brief but momentous time in my life. When my wife, Julia Burns Petrella, ’07 LAS, MS ’09 IS, and I got married, we had our wedding reception at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center.