Jennifer Peebles had always thought she would be a teacher. She may not work in a classroom now, but she has a student whose success speaks to her teaching ability: herself. Peebles (Twitter: @jpeebles) self-instructed much of her way from suburban reporter for The Tennessean to managing editor, digital, at the Washington Examiner.
“I like finding out about new things I like,” Peebles said, and there have been plenty of new things to try since she first explored journalism in the early 1990s.
She liked newspapers when she was younger but knew no one who could teach her about journalism. While at Vanderbilt University, where she earned a bachelor’s in history, she joined the student newspaper and eventually oversaw it as editor-in-chief. Her interest led to an internship at The Tennessean, and she continued to work there through college. They hired her after graduation.
That’s where her adventures in data-driven journalism began. The paper arranged training in computer-assisted reporting, and her interest in it led her to enroll in a CAR bootcamp, which Peebles called “the computer-assisted reporting version of Hogwarts.”
Later, geographic information systems piqued her interest in using maps to tell stories.
“I just thought, ‘That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I want to learn how to do that.’” She received GIS instruction from the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting, a program of Investigative Reporters and Editors. She has been teaching herself CAR techniques ever since.
She spent 14 years in Nashville filling various roles before a call came from Houston and her data-journalism career gained momentum.
Trent Seibert had met Peebles at The Tennessean, and in 2008 he founded an investigative reporting project called Texas Watchdog.
“My first order of business was to get JP there,” he said. Seibert, the editor at Texas Watchdog, received a grant in 2008 to start the organization, and he made Peebles his deputy editor.
“She really has an eye for new media in a sense of being able to use technology to tell a story,” Seibert said. “By the way, she’s the best writer I know. But she can tell a story in a digital way.”
Her data and online skills helped make her chairwoman of the national SPJ Digital Media Committee for two years. Peebles joined SPJ in 1994 and has served as chapter president for Middle Tennessee Pro and Houston Pro.
For three years in Houston, Peebles digested data on government spending, compiled a map of roads with the most car accidents and tracked campaign donations to school-board candidates. Her findings came together as interactive graphics and, eventually, led to a new job.
Mark Tapscott, Washington Examiner executive editor, followed Texas Watchdog. When creating an investigative team, he had the same instinct Seibert had years before: Get Peebles.
To the capital she went, and after seven months as the Examiner’s first data editor, Peebles received a promotion to managing editor, digital.
“Jennifer is tireless. I don’t just mean that in terms of hours which she puts in,” Tapscott said. “In terms of her curiosity and her skepticism — she’s never satisfied, certainly not with easy answers, not with obvious answers. I think that is the absolute essential ingredient for journalism.”
Or, put another way:
“She’s like Batman,” Seibert said. “She doesn’t like evil-doers. … I wouldn’t want to be breaking the rules, I wouldn’t want to be funneling money illegally, I wouldn’t want to be carving out favors in the fine print of legislation if I knew Jennifer Peebles was a reporter in my town.”
Curiosity has carried her a long way from her hometown, Warrenton, Ga., where she grew up contemplating a future in teaching. But her childhood ambitions weren’t far off, considering the way her work educates the public.
Peebles also teaches by example: Never stop learning.