Memo for the week of July 18

This has been a busy and productive week for my independent study.

On Tuesday, I interviewed Gordan Walek and Patrick Barry, who are involved with the Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau, a project of  Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)/Chicago’s New Communities Program.  The program promotes development in 14 low-to-moderate-income communities in Chicago andnews bureau website aggregates news from these 14 communities as well as Chicago-wide news that intersects with community development issues.  Talking to Walek and Barry, I learned that the site is a visible face to reporting that has been ongoing since the start of the New Communities Program.

Our conversation surfaced the nuanced role of news produced by or in conjunction with community organizations instead of news organizations.  The news produced by lead agencies working with LISC/Chicago and by writers working for LISC/Chicago has the dual purpose of informing community members about the development projects happening in their neighborhoods and reporting the progress of these efforts to funders and the broader community interested in neighborhood development.  I thought it was interesting how Walek and Barry spoke about trying to factually report what was going on in the neighborhoods even when the stories are meant to serve specific goals.  As a result, this reporting produced some of the first web content about the communities in the New Communities Program and for communities affected by problems such as violence, some of the only stories about community response or resilience in the face of problems.

During the interview, Barry told me that he and other reporters try to use the language of  neighborhood residents to describe what’s happening there and how spending a considerable amount of time in the communities that they cover gives them a much deeper understanding of community issues and dynamics than reporters covering only the occasional story and even agency program managers.

I thought their initiative showed an interesting example of journalistic practice being applied outside of traditional media institutions and being able to serve information needs and provide insights into communities that don’t always get sustained engagement from the media.

On Thursday, I spoke with four reporters at the Tribune who wrote stories as part of the Seeking Safe Passage project.  They challenged my assumption that the Tribune would automatically cover youth violence in the wake of the street brawl that resulted in Derrion Albert’s death.  Instead, they felt that the Tribune made a very intentional decision to devote resources to in-depth, solutions-oriented reporting on youth violence in the city.

The reporters told me how they were conscious that the audience of the stories they wrote would be read by Chicago residents very far from areas most affected by youth violence and made a point to identify threads in their subject’s stories that the reporters felt were more universally resonant.  They also spoke of being very conscious of the language they used to describe youth and in being sure to describe violence in terms of the actions of the youth rather than being an innate quality of the youth.  As with the writers working with LISC/Chicago, the Tribune reporters also said they tried to use the language used by community members when writing about those communities.

Another thread of conversation in the interview that I found interesting was that most of the reporters said they could identify with some aspects of the experiences of the youth they interviewed but that other aspects were completely foreign.  I wonder if this offers the best possible perspective for a reporter, where someone is able to connect at a human level with the communities they’re covering but also able to maintain a critical perspective.  Deborah Shelton, one of the Tribune reporters, sent me a link to “Cross Cultural Reporting: Pairing Mainstream and Ethnic Media for Better Health Stories”, which describes how a collaboration between two reporters writing about mental health in immigrant communities used the different orientations of the reporters around the story to produce a nuanced story.

Finally, the Tribune reporters, a multi-racial team gave me a really interesting and nuanced account of how race mediates their reporting experience.  They said that a good reporter can get the story independent of racial barriers but that race did play a clear role their experiences reporting.  They also described how being able to spend considerable time reporting in a community gave them the opportunity to learn what they had missed in previous stories.

Preparing for next week, I e-mailed Cliff Kelley about an interview.  In particular, I’m interested in talking to him about cross-media collaborations like the Tribune-sponsored Seeking Safe Passage community forum which Kelley moderated along with his general perspective on his radio show’s role in meeting community information needs.  I also took a peek at the New News report by the Chicago Community Trust.  This report is from last summer, but a new version should be available soon.  It gives a good overview of innovators in the online media space, some of which I’ve already spoken with and some that I should follow up with.  Finally, I plan to get in touch with the coordinators of the youth reporters in the Community TV Network program to shadow the youth as they do their reporting.

Photo by Calsidyrose via Flickr.