Dialogs: “Accountability” Has a Special Meaning for Community Journalists in CHF Neighborhood Series

Top left, Katie Prout, and right, Maxwell Evans. Bottom left, Bettina Chang, and right, Jackie Serrato.

The Chicago Humanities Festival continued its Chicago Neighborhood Series with a panel of three journalists from Chicago’s community media, mainly focusing on the south side. The panel was moderated by Bettina Chang, cofounder and editorial director at City Bureau, a nonprofit civic journalism lab based on the south side. The journalists discussed their coverage of community news and some of the issues they’ve dealt with doing their work over the last year. The program was presented in partnership with PEN America.

Their comments and stories emphasized the importance of Chicago’s independent media and how much they contribute to the fabric of their neighborhoods and our city. Community journalists are in the community and connecting with residents regularly, thus ensuring their accountability to the community, Chang said.

During the program, Chang paused occasionally to remind the audience that we are in the midst of the second annual #SaveChicagoMedia fundraiser and asked viewers to donate.

The panelists were: Maxwell Evans, who covers Hyde Park, Woodlawn and South Shore neighborhoods for Block Club Chicago; Katie Prout, a Chicago freelance writer whose work has been featured in the Chicago Reader, Belt Magazine and the New Republic; and Jackie Serrato, a “barrio journalist” and editor-in-chief of South Side Weekly newspaper.

Maxwell Evans. Screenshot from CHF event.

Evans said that the organic connections you make in a neighborhood, just visiting a grocery store or walking your dog, are essential to a community journalist. He found the biggest change during the pandemic was not being able to attend meetings and interview residents in person. With virtual meetings, he said, you can’t strike up a casual conversation with someone and start developing a relationship that can help the community.

He said (and later tweeted), “Community journalism is about having the extra connection with sources and treating them as a peer rather than mining them for information. It’s not about power.”

Chang commented that major media (daily newspapers and network TV) are often “parachute journalists” who drop in for a story and then leave. Community journalists are there day after day and can stay in touch with residents, community organizations and their stories as they develop. 

Jackie Serrato. Screenshot from CHF event.

Serrato, who got her start in journalism after launching a bilingual community Facebook page that gained 150,000 followers, commented that South Side Weekly publishes a lot of lists, data and maps to help residents deal with their lives. She said she’s thankful that her newspaper, which is primarily a volunteer operation, receives a lot of stories and story ideas from community members, which “means they trust us.” South Side Weekly’s Twitter account  lists the email address for sending story tips.

South Side Weekly was always “print forward,” Serrato said, and described how their papers were always delivered to stores and cafes. That became more difficult during the pandemic and now, she said, “we have a more healthy balance between print and digital.”

Katie Prout. Screenshot from CHF event.

Prout, who often writes long-form features and investigative stories, said that when she thinks about community journalism, she thinks about removing the top-down hierarchical approach of traditional journalism and working with people in the community to tell their stories. She talked about the complications of getting all sides of a story—or addressing all aspects of a subject’s life—at any time.

Her year-long research on the lives of residents of Chicago’s last men’s-only hotel was recently published in the New Republic (and was published in collaboration with the Chicago Reader). The hotel in the South Loop is a vestige of an earlier era, “the final refuge for many of the 200-plus men who live there now, between themselves and homelessness, where small rooms—sometimes called cubicles and sometimes called cages—rent for $19 a night and where many … live for decades of their lives.” She commented that, as the writer, “my job is to listen for the honesty and look for the part that might be messier but more true.”

Prout’s Twitter bio describes her as a writer for hire who believes in the Midwest.

An audience member asked the journalists about essential Chicago stories that are underreported.

Serrato said the root causes of poverty and violence are not addressed and there’s little coverage of the proliferation of guns in the neighborhoods, despite the state’s and city’s fairly strict gun laws. Financially, south and west side communities, she added, also desperately need business and economic development—not big commercial developments, but assistance for neighborhood development and small business.

Chang responded by saying that most business and financial development coverage now is for and about people with money, not for and about the people who need it.

Evans said that another underreported story is the amount of organizing going on in neighborhoods to fight poverty, hunger and violence; much of this activity is unknown on a citywide level, he said, because only independent and community journalists are covering these activities.

You can view the one-hour community journalism program here. Get an overview of future Chicago Humanities Festival programs here.

Finally, please consider a donation to #SaveChicagoMedia and the kind of journalism the CHF panelists practice. Your donation to specific media outlets will be triple matched between now and 11:59pm tomorrow, Friday, June 11. You can help get Chicago independent media back on its feet after the Covid-19 pandemic, and ensure our city’s diverse, eclectic media scene can survive. A donation of any amount will help.

Donate today at www.savechicagomedia.org to have your donation tripled. Thank you.

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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