Embedded in a neighborhood

The Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau features a depth of coverage of many communities and issues that isn’t always accessible. Over the summer I spoke with Gordon Walek and Patrick Barry about the site. Our conversation quickly shifted from online news to the way reporting can be used in service to communities and organizations working with communities and some of the challenges posed by this model.

The Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau looks like an elegant aggregation of news from local news organizations, neighborhood groups and nonprofit organizations – which it is. But it’s just one face of the relationship between reporting and community development for neighborhoods throughout the city.

The idea for the site came from the overwhelming amount of information available on the web, said Patrick Barry, a contractor with Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago, or LISC/Chicago, the organization that sponsors the site. The organization brings together financial and technical resources to support community-building groups to develop infrastructure, housing, employment and other assets in Chicago neighborhoods.

The Neighborhood News Bureau site aggregates news from organizations supported by LISC/Chicago, ones reporting on neighborhoods where LISC/Chicago sponsors programs, and news outlets covering issues related to community development. Barry said he had used aggregator sites that help collect and filter online news, but there were no such sites that focused on news for low-and-moderate-income communities.

Topics in Chicago's News Ecosystem
The need for aggregation. A recently released study of Chicago's local news ecosystem found that community development was the second most covered topic by local online news sites. However, many of these sites may be small, new or otherwise unknown to a broad audience.

“Our thrust is to identify interesting stories in the neighborhoods where we work,” Gordon Walek said.

Walek is the communications manager at LISC/Chicago and manages the neighborhood news aggregator. He said the kind of urban affairs coverage collected by the site has been largely abandoned by the city’s newspapers. Even in the heydey of daily newspapers, Walek said, many of the communities and issues covered in stories aggregated by the site lacked coverage.

Barry said the site’s audience was interested in the process or neighborhood development and issues affecting developing neighborhoods like affordable housing or violence and includes professors of community development and urban studies, reporters, developers and bankers. Former community residents can also use the site to stay informed about their old neighborhood, he said.

While the site continues to suck in news feeds from a range of Chicago sites, further development of the Neighborhood News Bureau site has been limited by a lack of funds, Barry said. But the news site is just one part of LISC/Chicago’s ongoing use of reporting in the community development process.

Walek said LISC/Chicago’s involvement in reporting came out of a need to make the development process transparent to the communities where development projects were happening. The development corporation hired journalists to report on community meetings about development projects. Rather than simply take minutes of the meetings, Walek said, the journalists were tasked with writing stories about the implementation of development plans and how the plans were received by community members.

“Straight journalism can be a very powerful tool to inform people about community development,” Barry said.

Reporters covering neighborhood development plans for LISC/Chicago are known as “scribes.” Barry, the organization’s first scribe, said the name implies a role as a servant to the community rather than being independent from the community. Barry said that while a traditional reporter might attend a community meeting about development plans in search of a good story, a scribe’s goal is to reflect the issues that were surfaced at the meetings in a way that is useful to community residents in understanding what was happening or planned to happen. Scribes were also tasked with contributing to quality of life reports that helped drive neighborhood development projects. Because the scribes listened closely to voices from the neighborhood, “writing as an insider using the voice of a neighborhood,” Barry said, neighborhood residents felt ownership of the development plans.

In order to write with the voice of the neighborhood, scribes, who mostly live outside of the neighborhoods they report on, had to rethink their impression of the neighborhoods and the language they used to write about those places, Barry said. While a reporter’s impression of a neighborhood may be of a “bombed-out ghetto,” Barry said, the reporter had to quickly learn that residents didn’t appreciate that description. More importantly, it wasn’t how they thought of their neighborhood. LISC/Chicago reporters, he said, have learned a lot from neighborhood residents about how to talk about places.

Barry said working to document development projects with LISC/Chicago has given many reporters a deeper perspective of neighborhood dynamics than when they covered neighborhood issues for traditional media. Traditional reporting only allows journalists to perceive a neighborhood through controlled interactions such as a public meeting or a scheduled interview with a key stakeholder, Barry said. Spending more time in the community allows journalists working for LISC/Chicago to see a more nuanced and often more difficult view of community decision making. Barry said being embedded in the community gives reporters access to the egos or duplicity of neighborhood figures, internal squabbling, friction over gentrification and ethnic tensions. Often, Walek said, scribes are able to see such aspects of the neighborhood in a way that managers of programs operating in the neighborhoods can’t.

While LISC/Chicago scribes have a long-term relationship with neighborhoods, sometimes spanning eight years, and get a comprehensive view of the communities, they must balance their access to unflattering aspects of the neighborhood with the needs of the community. Scribes may write about internal conflict in the neighborhood, Barry said, but only if it’s constructive.

Scribes must also balance covering problems facing the neighborhood while recognizing that crime reports dominate traditional media coverage in some areas such as Englewood or North Lawndale where LISC/Chicago supports programs. Walek said crime is an “800 pound gorilla” when reporting on these communities because it is present, but the organization wants to offer a more diverse view of the neighborhood. Walek said reporters for his organization might cover community events like street fairs, neighborhood sports programs or programs that integrate teen health and education needs.

A video slideshow about the “B-Ball on the Block” sports program shows how LISC/Chicago’s reports acknowledge problems like violence and segregation, but ultimately focus on community-based responses. Walek said reports forefront “innovative solutions to what seems like an insurmountable problem.”

“There’s a lot of human capacity in these neighborhoods,” Barry said.

While stories tend to have a positive focus and highlight LISC/Chicago-supported programs or partners, they also give considerable space and agency to neighborhood residents or neighborhood dynamics that aren’t usually addressed in the media, such as conflict between Latino and African-American communities in Humboldt Park, the subject of a recent story. The focus on supported programs is in part to offer program funders a way to evaluate programs in a way that is more engaging than a traditional report, Walek said. Stories, photographs and multimedia can sometimes better record the impact of a program’s work and how it was received by the community.

Photographs are also important for giving readers outside of profiled communities a more nuanced idea of the neighborhoods that emphasizes similarities between diverse communities, Barry said. He cited how photos of well-maintained houses in Little Village might challenge outside perceptions of the neighborhood.

Over time, Walek said, LISC/Chicago reporting has created an unintentional record of how some neighborhoods have evolved. However, like many new models for reporting, LISC/Chicago is dependent on foundations to pay journalists, Walek said, and he’s not sure how reporting will get funded after foundation money runs out.

Memo for the week of August 22: Coffee shop newsrooms and name games with mosques and SEO

Me this week

Last week, I talked with Rhonda Jones-Gillespie, news editor at the Chicago Defender and I feel like I need to follow up with her.  It wasn’t until after our conversation that I realized why there seemed to be a disconnect around some of my questions.  While the Defender does report about African-American communities in Chicago, a big part of what they do, and what I didn’t really get, is ground city and national news stories in the African American experience in Chicago.  While I’ve been most interested in looking at how a story local to one community might connect with a broader audience, I’ve overlooked the opposite, but equally important, trajectory.  It’s one that journalists have been doing for a long time (though perhaps less so as news organizations become more resource bound) – taking a story and picking out the most important aspects for a local audience or looking at a broader policy’s impact on a particular community.

This week, I  was finally able to sit down with Icoi Johnson and Samuel Vega, the recipients of WBEZ’s Prizker Fellowship, which I had written about previously.  I found the fellows’ backgrounds and  outlooks to be pretty different, which was interesting and probably a good thing for WBEZ.  Vega, who is from Humboldt Park and seemed pretty involved in the community offered some interesting insight into WBEZ’s bureau in the neighborhood.  Vega said he  had noticed the storefront bureau, but had never been inside it until he toured it as part of his training for the fellowship.  He said it often appeared closed and that he was more familiar with the reporter who runs the bureau because of his coverage of events in Humboldt Park.  Vega’s anecdote indicates that connecting with different news  communities may be a little more complicated than simply setting up shop.

Coffee shop newsrooms – a cool idea but you have to pick the right shop

Perhaps a better approach might be the coffee shop newsroom experiments that Poynter wrote about extensively at the beginning of this month.  Placing a reporter in an already trafficked space like a coffee shop may make reporters more accessible to the general public than a space exclusive to the news organization.  Some of the benefits of putting reporters or “newsrooms” in coffee shops seem pretty cool: more transparency/accountability, more audience understanding of the reporting process, developing new sources, getting new framings for stories or new dimensions for stories of which the reporter is already aware and recruiting citizen journalists.

This week I had my own experience with reporting and coffee shops.  I often work in coffee shops because I find them more convenient, and often less distracting than heading down to the Medill Newsroom.  While I use them primarily for convenience, they can still be a good way to connect with sources.  However, you have to go to the right coffee shop.  In reporting a story about LGBTQA youth of color in Boystown and a parking policy proposed by some residents designed to deter the youth, I did a lot of writing in Lakeview coffee shops.  I usually went to one close to my house a little east of Boystown or one close to Boystown but seemingly catering to a more particular customer demographic.  I liked the coffee shops I chose because they were locally owned and independent, there was interesting art on the wall and employees sometimes seemed like they were hanging out with friends or family as much as they were serving customers, creating a casual, comfortable atmosphere.

But, because they were somewhat more expensive and closed around 10 p.m., they didn’t really attract customers who were young people of color coming to hang out in the neighborhood.  The night I spent writing at the Starbucks at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Clark Street, a wide range of customers came in, including folks who could have been sources for my story.  While I could have gone out on the streets searching for people who could tell me their experience of coming to the neighborhood, a common thread in what youth I had interviewed told me is that they often feel profiled by police and neighborhood residents.  Both residents and youth described sidewalk confrontations that escalated and didn’t lead to a productive dialog.  As a reporter, I didn’t want to contribute to these dynamics. Spaces like coffee shops are important for reporting across dynamics like the ones in Boystown because they’re more neutral.  People from a variety of backgrounds can be on equal footing in the coffee shop as patrons and engaged in the same activities, like working on a laptop.  Had I spent the entire quarter working at that Starbucks, I might have been able to meet some sources with a good insight into the dynamic in a way that developed out of a more organic conversation, over music or helping someone reach a power outlet) rather than cornering people on the street.  Also, the public nature of the coffee shop could have attracted other people into the conversation, adding multiple perspectives to the reporting and perhaps even bridging the resident/visitor divide.

My experience with diversity and neighborhood coffee shops may be more universal.  Kim Feller, author of “Wrestling With Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino“, wrote about diversity and coffee shop clientèle on the Colorlines website:

While there are still funky independents eking out a living on the retail margins, most coffeehouses and designer roasters are niche markets, like purveyors of artisan cheeses, hand-painted T-shirts and limited-edition sneakers. They appeal to those on the trendy, cutting edge and survive by exclusivity—by pleasing a small, loyal and financially privileged. Starbucks, on the other hand, has been able to risk expansion from urban business cores and upscale suburbs into more modest settings, where it often provides the only meeting place that is neither a noisy fast-food restaurant nor a bar and that is often surprisingly multiracial.

Mosques and SEO

In terms of stories that sit across a cultural divide, nothing’s been bigger, or representative of journalism’s struggles to bridge those gaps, than reporting about the controversy over plans for a Muslim community center near the site of the World Trade Center towers destroyed in the September 11, 2001 attacks.  One idea that’s likely inflamed the debate is the use of the phrase “ground zero mosque” in the media, which suggests, incorrectly, that the community center is being constructed at the site of the former towers.  Mark Coddington at Nieman Labs has a good rundown of what a number of media critics have been saying about the use of this term.  While some blame cable news, others point to SEO.  As a term gains traction with the public, online news websites have to choose between using an incorrect term or making their content more difficult to find.  Coddington wrote:

Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride zeroed in on that idea of search-engine optimization, noting that the AP is being punished for their stand against the term “ground zero mosque” by not appearing very highly on the all-important news searches for that phrase. In order to stay relevant to search engines, news organizations have to continue using an inaccurate term once it’s taken hold, she concluded. In response, McBride suggested pre-emptively using factchecking resources to nip misconceptions in the bud. “Now that Google makes it impossible to move beyond our distortions — even when we know better — we should be prepared,” she said.

Coddington also pointed out that Online Journalism Review’s Brian McDermott pinpointed our news consumption patterns as the culprit for the proliferation of incorrect terms for things.  As we move more quickly from media to media, terms like “ground zero mosque” have more sticking power than Park51 or the Cordoba Center.

The tough choice of deciding between content discovery and accuracy is the same one I wrote about regarding the phrase “sissy bounce” and New Orleans artists’ distaste for the term.  In a pretty interesting, but unrelated thread, Anthony Neal, a scholar who studies Black popular culture, posted some tracks from New Orleans in the 1960s that refer to a dance called “The Sophisticated Cissy.”  Still, even if the term “sissy” may have some interesting connections to New Orleans musical history, it’s important to remember that contemporary artists don’t use the term to identify their work.

Memo for weeks of August 1 and August 8

The last two weeks haven’t been very productive for my independent study as I’ve had stories or projects due for other classes.  Though I was too late to shadow youth reporters covering teen depression as part of a Community TV Network summer program, I was able to watch the youth film their introduction sequences, get a sense of the group dynamic and talk to some of the youth who produced this summer’s report.

This week, I plan to follow up with the community organizations who nominated people for WBEZ’s Pritzker Fellowship and finish synthesizing and writing stories based on the reporting that I’ve already done.  I still need to connect with news organizations focused on African-American communities such as WVON, the Defender and/or some south-side bloggers writing about community news.

On the topic of African-American news coverage, I took a look at a Pew Research Center report titled Media, Race and Obama’s First Year, which analyzed media coverage of African Americans during the past year.

Events and Individuals Dominate African American News Coverage

This graph shows the way African Americans were covered in the media, “as a group, African Americans attracted relatively little attention in the U.S. mainstream news media during the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency — and what coverage there was tended to focus more on specific episodes than on examining how broader issues and trends affected the lives of blacks generally.”

According to the study, African-American angles to broad national stories were covered as part of reporting on health care reform and the economy, though these topics made up less than 10 percent of coverage focused on African Americans.

The Pew Research Center also did analysis on coverage of Gates’ arrest in the African-American press.  According to Pew’s analysis:

the discussion and columns offered here took a starkly different angle than the commentary in the mainstream press. While the mainstream media largely assessed political implications for President Obama, the commentary in the black press considered the broader question of race relations in the U.S.  It was also evident that these papers saw themselves as a voice of the black community.  Even within the opinion columns, there was a clear sense of providing an African American perspective to the story. The tone, however, in many cases, came across as less “us” versus “them” and more of an assessment of steps needed from all sides.

This report gives me some background context for asking about coverage of Chicago stories, such as the slaying of Derrion Albert and how it was covered in different media.  I would love to see similar media analysis just for Chicago, but I think that’s beyond the scope of what I’m able to do.

On Tavis Smiley’s radio show this week, Smiley and CBS correspondent Byron Pitts discuss the need for more diverse news coverage.  Pitts said he was optimistic that the changing demographics of the U.S. would compel news organizations to have more diverse coverage and reporters that reflect the country’s diversity.  When I talked to a team of Tribune reporters, they offered a very nuanced account of race in the newsroom that I’m excited to write up.  The Tribune reporters said that race sometimes mediated their reporting but that a good reporter should be able to navigate racial boundaries on her beat.  Having a similar experience with race, the reporters said, could help connect with sources, but experiences with class could still be dramatically different, and were sometimes masked by assumptions about experiences tied to race.  One reporter said she still found a lack of economic diversity in the newsroom.

On a final race and reporting note, Colorlines analyzed some data about mentions of race in the news and argue that conservative publications explicitly mention race with greater frequency than other news organizations.  The data suggests that race gets mentioned across the media and Colorlines seems to think that controversy over, rather than experience with race gets the most coverage.  It makes me want to take a second look at how or if race was addressed in the Tribune’s reporting on youth violence.

Other people’s stories

In a seminar last week, I was surprised that so many of my classmates expressed an interest in reporting stories about “social justice” or the “underprivileged.”  On one hand, this is awesome because its so much better than wanting to report alarmist crime stories or about the socialist conspiracy to take away American freedom.  On the other hand, its really easy to report the stories of people with whom you don’t share experiences in a way that is patronizing or reinforces broadly held misconceptions or your own misconceptions.

While I don’t think my classmate’s experience with class are homogeneous, I think its safe to say that  many haven’t experienced extreme poverty.  My own experience is one that is firmly middle class.  Why then, do I and others have  such a fascination with the “underprivileged” and their stories?  I’ve struggled with this question, and the best explanation I can come up with for myself is that, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been sensitive to unfairness and cruelty, so stories about these things, which often involve class or race have always resonated with me.

But what does my attention do?  What does my reporting of other people’s stories of unfairness do?  This is a question I’m trying to answer as I move through my graduate program and one that I hope to raise with my classmates.  I think that we need to think about reporting stories about poverty or other social injustice not just because they’re powerful but because we can imagine some transformative outcome from retelling the story.  More and more I’m feeling like concerned middle-class or wealthy people need to stop fixating on simply “helping” those with different resources and mobilities and examine how the practice of being middle-class or wealthy perpetuates unfair systems.

When I told a friend I was going to journalism school, she said that she felt like it was really important that journalists started looking at helping (or maybe just moving out of the way so that) people can tell their own stories.  I think this idea is important.  Whether there still needs to be space for telling other people’s stories really depends on the outcomes we imagine.  Hopefully I can get a better answer to this question in the future.

The photo that goes with this post is from a screenshot from a video exploring teen violence by the Community TV Network’s Hard Cover News team.  It’s part of a project called Chain of Change that I found out about because my friend Chiara worked with it as part of her Internship at Beyondmedia.

The Chain of Change project’s website describes the project like this:

The Chain of Change project organizes youth activists to individually and collectively strategize how to end violence by exposing its roots through the creation of media. Beyondmedia distributes video cameras to youth groups, who create short videos that challenge individuals to think about their own roles in this struggle.

I think it’s a really great example of people affected by a particular problem, in this case youth affected by violence, are telling their own stories to help meet community needs.