Exit of Illinois’ longest-serving investigative reporting duo signals end of an era at the Belleville News-Democrat

It was a hell of a way to go out.

In their final investigation for the Belleville News-Democrat, one of Illinois’ top investigative reporting duos found that East St. Louis was not only one of the deadliest cities in America, it also had one of the lowest rates for solving murders.

Through meticulous reporting that Beth Hundsdorfer and George Pawlazcyk were known for in their nearly 20 years together at the Metro East newspaper, the pair showed that the murders were concentrated around the city’s public housing projects and also raised the possibility of a serial killer.

The series was published in its entirety on the paper’s website in April and in five parts in the print edition for a week.

“Every year you see this,” said Hundsdorfer, who noted that none of their sources in East St. Louis was surprised with the findings. “This affects everybody that lives in East St. Louis. Everybody. Everybody knows somebody. Everybody’s related to somebody. It’s so prevalent in the community.”

The St. Louis skyline and Gateway Arch rise from the tree tops from this view across the river in East. St. Louis.  Photo by Paul Sableman via Flickr. 

The investigation began with a conversation about the 2017 murder of Alexis Winston in East St. Louis, Hundsdorfer told GJR. In spite of strong evidence, the case was never solved. That same year, there was a spike in the number of East St. Louis murders, up to 37 compared to the city’s average of 24. In a town of 27,000 people, the East St. Louis murder rate was projected at 96 deaths per 100,000 people between 2000 and 2018. By that measure, it was the most dangerous city in the country. Only 25 percent of the murders in that 18 year period led to convictions.

To figure out the prosecution rate, Hundsdorfer and Pawlaczyk had to dig through a trove of local court reporting and team up with former St. Clair County State’s attorney, Brendan Kelly. 

This, according to Pawlaczyk, was the most difficult part. “You might say, ‘well, that sounds like it’s simple,’ but nobody keeps track. And also the local media, including the BND did not always write a story about the murder.”

The initial plan was to do a series solving some of the East St. Louis murder cases which never led to convictions. But as Hundsdorfer and Pawlaczyk compiled a database of the murders, other larger narratives jumped out at them.

Two stories from the five part series did delve into individual murders, more closely reflecting the initial ambitions for the series.

Though the series was comprehensive – featuring the perspectives of victims, residents, law enforcement, activists and legislators – it garnered a mixed reception from residents of East St. Louis.

Tim Fox, the editor of the magazine I Am EStL, wrote a Facebook post that was spotted by BND city editor Gary Dotson, who edited Hundsdorfer and Palwaczyk’s series, and subsequently printed as an op-ed in the BND.

“The article did make some good distinctions about the changing nature of violent crime, but those distinctions can be made about violent crime everywhere,” wrote Fox. “When random shootings — of total strangers, by total strangers — are an almost daily occurrence across the country, why is East St. Louis singled out?”

Fox’s work at I Am EStL aims to showcase the positive side of the city. “Changing perceptions was [I Am EStL founder, Charmaine Savage’s] goal for the magazine, and it’s my goal as editor,” Fox also wrote. “Of course, the city needs more resources to investigate crime and fight it, but it needs resources for crime victims and everyone else in the community, too. Those resources will never come if people are afraid to go to East St. Louis.”

This sentiment was echoed, in starker terms, by the recently sworn-in mayor of East St. Louis, Robert Eastern III, in an interview with the Gateway Journalism Review.

“It makes it seem like all East St. Louis citizens are a part of gun violence and stuff in that nature, but that’s a falsehood,” said Eastern. “It also gives the outside community a reason to think that East St. Louis [residents] are all bad people, and that’s not true. We are a city of champions. We’re a prideful community.”

But Hundsdorfer and Pawlaczyk see it differently.

“To single out East St. Louis, and to point out that it is the most dangerous small city in the U.S. … is not a statement about the people that live there. It’s a fact.” said Hundsdorfer. “It’s not like we think this is a band of roving criminals. It’s not. There’s very good people in East St Louis who deserve better than what they’re getting.”

“No one knows that better than us,” Pawlaczyk added.

Over the course of their time at the BND, Pawlaczyk and Hundsdorfer worked on a dozen investigations, Dotson, said continued a tradition of accountability journalism at the paper. According to Pawlaczyk, almost all of these investigations led to legislative change.

In 2013, Tamms correctional center was closed following a report by Hundsdorfer and Pawlaczyk about the mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners. In 2006, the director of Illinois DCFS resigned a week before Hundsdorfer and Pawlaczyk published a series on child deaths related to DCFS negligence. Following the article, a series of reforms were enacted.

“We had a long history of being a small, aggressive, watchdog investigative newspaper,” said Dotson, who’s worked closely with Hundsdorfer and Pawlaczyk’s for all their major investigations. “They not only enhanced it and solidified it, but they took it to the next level, in part because they worked together as a team for so long and were so successful.”

Hundsdorfer and Pawlaczyk’s work at the paper earned them national recognition. Working together, they won a 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors award, and were nominated for another six. In state contests, they beat out the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times for top prizes. 

“Beth and I have never thought that we live in a small town, and certainly stuff we’ve done has had a national effect,” said Pawlaczyk. “If we find a story – say mentally ill prisoners being held in solitary confinement for a long time – that’s as true as the plot of Le Misérable or whatever. That’s worldwide.” 

Pawlaczyk was referring to the duo’s 2009 series, “Trapped in Tamms,” about a supermax prison in a southern Illinois town with a population of roughly 1,000, which won the pair a George Polk award.

In March 2019, Pawlaczyk took a buyout from their parent company, McClatchy. Hundsdorfer moved to St. Louis Public Radio  as an investigative reporter and coordinator. Even though they no longer share an office, they have no plans to stop working together. When I spoke to them for this story, Pawlaczyk had a draft of the duo’s upcoming true crime novel, their second after 2012’s “Murder on a Lonely Road,” in front of him on his computer.

Nor do they have any plans to stop investigating in smaller towns, where papers increasingly lack the resources to carry out such time-consuming work.

“I hope that I’m able to fill that hole,” said Hundsdorfer. “I mean every job that you have can be investigative. I mean if you’re a cop reporter for a local paper, you can do investigative work. You gotta put in the time, but you can do it.”

After Hundsdorfer and Pawlaczyk’s exit, Dotson still hopes to keep investigative and watchdog journalism a central part of the paper’s identity. After Hundsdorfer and Pawlaczyk’s exit, BND reporter Lexi Cortes, who recently earned a place in Editor & Publisher’s list of 25 under 35, was reassigned as a full-time investigative reporter. 

“We have tried to build [investigative reporting] into all of our beats and put less emphasis on going to a meeting and writing about what happened at the meeting,” said Dotson. “And instead using our time and our resources in doing accountability journalism.”

Yet the paper’s shrinking resources, a spat of recent layoffs and restructuring could affect the paper’s ability to continue such work. Between 2015 and 2017, the paper’s daily circulation fell from 33,000 to 20,828.

“I’m not certain how it’s all gonna pan out,” said Hundsdorfer. “I guess we’ll all see that. But, I mean, their problems aren’t any problems that aren’t being had by every Metro newspaper. The [St. Louis] Post-Dispatch has cut back. And they’ve lost a lot of their experience, and that’ s a little troubling. But what does it mean? I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe you’ll see some new young rock stars emerge out of all of this. I don’t know.”

When Hundsdorfer and Pawlaczyk were at the paper, Dotson sometimes had to defend keeping a team of two investigative reporters on staff to senior editors and publishers, though both Hundsdorfer and Pawlaczyk often covered daily and weekend beats between investigations.

“You have two people who were working on one thing for a long time,” said Hundsdorfer. “If they needed us, we would step in, of course. We’re not prima donnas or anything, but it’s a thing to commit to. It’s a lot. With the changes economically, I imagine it’s even harder.”

Hundsdorfer is now the investigative reporter and coordinator at KWMU. Her plans are to continue reporting like she has been and to hone her craft writing for the radio medium.

Pawlaczyk’s plan “is real simple,” he said. “Finish this true crime book, win the lucky day lotto, and find a really good story that Beth and I can collaborate on and win the Pulitzer.”

Editor’s Note: Hundsdorfer no longer works for St. Louis Public Radio.

Ian Karbal is Chicago-based freelance journalist whose investigative work in downstate Illinois made him a finalist for the 2018 Peter Lisagor Awards. He can be found on Twitter at @iankarbal

Chicago non-profit media outlets are challenging notions of how a newsroom should operate

Jackie Serrato, now a journalist at the Chicago Reporter, a non-profit founded in 1972, entered the industry determined and untrained. She had started a Facebook page to share local news from an Hispanic neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side and to give residents a platform to discuss issues facing the Little Village neighborhood. But Serrato was surprised to find that community members often dismissed reports from credible legacy news organizations.

“That’s when I realized that there just wasn’t Latinos or people of color in these newsrooms,” Serrato said. “I wasn’t going to expect people who were not from our neighborhood – people who were white, or middle class or, I don’t know, who had money – to understand the issues that were happening or to have in their radar what was truly happening in our parts of the city.”

Serrato cited articles that asserted El Chapo was influencing shootings in Little Village, a claim that Serrato saw as inflammatory and misrepresentative.

Armed with this realization, Serrato committed herself to joining the ranks of Chicago journalists, Her bachelors degree wasn’t in journalism, so she taught herself the necessary skills. She learned to take pictures and edit video, learned how to interview and collect data, and how to cover local events. Serrato supplemented her self-teaching regiment with workshops, internships and fellowships.

“The fact that they cared enough to offer these programs or these opportunities to people that had less resources, or were less advantaged, I guess, you know, I felt that it was the right place for me and that I wanted to keep working in the non-profit realm,” Serrato said.

On May 18, Serrato was joined by three other journalists working in the non-profit sector in Chicago for a panel on the state of non-profit media that was hosted by the Chicago Journalists Association  (Editor’s note: Gateway Journalism Review is nonprofit.)

Panelists Louise Kiernan, Bettina Chang, Jackie Serrato and Jaret Rutecki speak with attendees after a panel on nonprofit news. (Photo by Ian Karbal)

Like Serrato, fellow panelist Bettina Chang saw nonprofit media as an opportunity to amplify voices that were underrepresented in legacy newsrooms.

People of color represent just 22.6 percent of the workforce in U.S. newsrooms that responded to the 2018 ASNE diversity survey. The survey also found that 79.3 percent reported having at least one woman among their top three editors, and 32.7 percent reported having at least one minority journalist in a top-three position.

A former DNAinfo and Chicago Magazine reporter, Chang co-founded City Bureau in 2015, a non-profit newsroom dedicated to bringing equitable journalism to under-covered Chicago neighborhoods, primarily on the city’s south and west sides. She started City Bureau with three fellow DNAinfo reporters, initially running the website while working full time.

“It certainly wasn’t a quick revelation, so much as we believe there’s a better way to do media and we really want to be the ones to make that possible,” Chang said.

City Bureau had one of the most diverse newsrooms of media organizations that responded to the ASNE survey in 2018, with 60 percent. By comparison, the Chicago Tribune had 20 percent and the Chicago Sun-Times had 15 percent. The Belleville News-Democrat near St. Louis  had 38 percent and Chicago Public Media about 40.. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had 14 percent and St. Louis Public Radio 36 percent.

Chang spoke to the benefits of running a newsroom that doesn’t rely on page-clicks and advertising to stay afloat. “Without the constant pressure of getting clicks so that you can sell ads, you suddenly have all this brain space to think about other stuff,” Chang said.

With that freedom, many non-profits have been able to focus on long-form reporting, and free reporters from the pressure of writing stories designed as click-bait.

“At DNAinfo, we had this mandate from the top to say like, ‘OK. Every writer needs to do three stories a day, we need to get a certain amount of page views and Facebook likes,’ and all that kind of stuff in order to make money from our advertisers,” Chang said.

Of course it still costs to produce news, and even those media outlets that don’t exist to make money or have to answer to shareholders do have to bring in enough funding to cover operating expenses. Most rely on grants, but grants are competitive and grantors can be fickle, and there simply is not enough foundation funding to support the growing nonprofit media industry, as a 2018 report from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University found. The study was a comprehensive look not only at the growth in the nonprofit media sector but also the economic pressures that so many face going after a limited pool of foundation resources. The majority of foundation funding goes to public media (43 percent) and journalism education and museums (20 percent). Less than 5 percent funds local news nonprofits.

“Going non-profit from the very beginning is really difficult,” Chang said. “It’s like adding an extra level of oversight over what you’re doing at every single moment. You have to create a board of directors. There’s a thing called fiduciary responsibility, which is a really big deal and some people don’t know about that. Getting a grant is not easy.”

While many non-profit media outlets have risen over the past few years, panelists expressed concerns that the mechanisms which have allowed for that rise may be temporary.

Rutecki noted how Trump’s election sparked a rush of donations to non-profit newsrooms. Yet he fears that the Trump bump will not sustain.

“Private foundations are extremely fickle,” said Chang. “Right now non-profit news, as I see it, is extremely shiny and fascinating for these private foundations. So, awesome, while it’s going good, let’s keep it up.”

ProPublica Illinois and the Better Government Association represent perhaps the strongest commitments to using a non-profit model to push investigative journalism of the outlets represented at the panel. Both outlets reporters’ deal almost exclusively in such work.

ProPublica’s 2018 series on ticket debt in Chicago and its disproportionate effect on black motorists recently earned them a Peter Lisagor award. The BGA’s 2018 series on suburban Cook County police shootings, and the lack of accountability for officers was followed by statewide legislation requiring internal review of all police shootings statewide.

Some analysts see investigative reporting as a dwindling form in legacy and local for-profit newsrooms as the media industry struggles to maintain the resources that have allowed reporters to work on single projects for long periods of time.

“I look back at working at a newspaper and I can picture the terror on reporters’ faces with the chart beat television that would tell everyone, up to the second, how many clicks your story is getting, and you spend two months working on an investigation and some guy who wrote a really funny story about this, you know, football player gets like 800 million clicks and you just disappear off the face of the earth,” said Jared Rutecki, an investigative reporter at the BGA, the oldest non-profit represented on the panel, founded in 1923.

However, as Louise Kieran, editor-in-chief at ProPublica Illinois, said many legacy outlets are still doing excellent investigative reporting, and that it’s best not to create a false division between the works produced by non-profit and for-profit outlets.

Kieran also touted ProPublica Illinois’ willingness to collaborate with other outlets and publications as a byproduct of the unique position that non-profits are in with their funding, not relying on page views which drive the prioritization of exclusive stories in the traditional sense.

The same freedoms that have allowed ProPublica Illinois and the BGA to focus on time and resource-consuming investigations have allowed the Chicago Reporter and City Bureau to report on historically underserved neighborhoods without keeping their work behind a paywall.

City Bureau has also used its funding to set up fellowships and community newsroom projects aimed at training aspiring local journalists and engaged citizens, like Serrato, to cover local events.

Chang, however, sees that commitment as a practical way to address issues facing media outlets everywhere, like disappearing jobs for journalists, as much as a service to the community.

“You can’t send a journalist to every meeting that matters in Chicago, but you can ask a very well-trained citizen to do it because they care, because they want to contribute to their communities,” Chang said. “I would love for if all those journalism jobs came back, but we need to prepare for a future in which that money is gone. So what are we doing structurally, at the level of informing our communities, getting people involved, sort of galvanizing an entire community and society to care about the generation of information and distribution of information so that we can survive – that democracy will survive – after all those journalism jobs are dead in the ground?”

Ian Karbal is Chicago-based freelance journalist. He can be found on Twitter at @iankarbal.

‘Unpacking Segregation’ panelists examine how journalists shape Black Chicago’s narrative

Media coverage of violence on the Chicago’s south and west sides is both a symptom and a factor in Chicago’s historic segregation, and one with political and social ramifications felt across the city. In the national media, Chicago is a poster child for “black on black violence,” a one-sided framing of violent crime in disinvested and segregated areas of the country even though the city’s murder rate is far from the highest in the country or even the Midwest.

From left to right: Moderator Kristin Taylor, panelists Natalie Moore, Lucy Baird, David Schalliol, Deborah Payne, Carlos Javier Ortiz and Tonika Johnson.

At a recent panel discussion in Chicago on segregation, Chicago journalist Natalie Moore succinctly summed up the issue like this: “It’s like paint by numbers,” said Moore, a WBEZ public radio reporter and a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. “Yellow tape. A neighbor. Somebody crying … You know what the story is.”

For Moore and other journalists in Chicago, it can be a struggle to break through the dominant media narrative about the city’s predominantly black and Hispanic south and west sides, which are often covered in terms of gun violence and crime that occur there. While stories like the ones Moore described may offer a convenient template for news coverage, the proliferation of crime reporting in lieu of deeper analysis of the driving forces behind it can create a stereotypical narrative of some of the city’s most storied and vulnerable neighborhoods. That narrative contributes to the continued segregation of the city itself.

Moore has written and spoken extensively about how this singular media narrative has shaped the way Chicagoans, both in and outside of the affected areas, see their city, how it’s affected the distribution of resources to these neighborhoods and the creation of policies that shape them.

“When unraveling the impact and implications of Chicago violence, we fail to recognize that the media have played a role in contributing to the narrative,” Moore wrote in her 2017 book, “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.” “We become what we think we are. Chicagoans are time and time again fed how violent we are, and many people internalize that cognitive belief. The perception of crime is higher than the reality. From the mob to gangs, violence has percolated through the streets of Chicago for the past hundred years. The city has seen it all before; there’s nothing new under the sun. We just don’t remember.”

Although a May 2 panel discussion at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago aimed to provide a broad overview of segregation in the city, covering the Great Migration to the modern mechanisms of disinvestment in Chicago’s black and brown communities, it only took 30 minutes into the discussion for a panel of activists and journalists (Moore was one of them) to turn its attention to the media’s role.

When violent crimes happen, “this is the only time you see a lot of news organizations come into these neighborhoods,” Moore said. “So it perpetuates stereotypes and it becomes this singular narrative.”

Other panelists  included Carlos Javier Ortiz, a cinematographer and photographer; Tonika Johnson, a local artist whose Folded Map project explores Chicago’s racial and economic divide;  David Schalliol, a photographer and documentarian; Deborah Payne, an activist in Englewood who is one of the subjects of Schalliol’s recent documentary, “The Area;” and Lucy Baird, a historian focused on housing discrimination. The panel was moderated by Kristin Taylor, at the museum.

Many on the city’s south side share Moore’s concern about how media coverage of their neighborhood can shape the perception of it, even for its residents.

“The same negative narrative that everyone knows about Englewood is shared through the media. That’s also the same narrative that residents in Englewood actually get,” said Johnson, an Englewood native. “Honestly it comes down to the fact that the media is not a place of information for us. There’s an information deficit. So people rely on the news to find out things about their city, about their neighborhood, but when you’re from a neighborhood that’s just reported one way, where do you go? What do you do?”

As well as creating art to highlight the inequity felt on Chicago’s south side, Johnson joined the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, of which Payne is also a member. RAGE was one of the first organizations to host aldermanic forums in the Englewood neighborhood where, before, according to Johnson, incumbent aldermen could expect to keep winning re-election regardless of how their votes affected the parts of the neighborhood they represented. (Aldermen in Chicago represent the city’s 50 wards and serve on the City Council).

RAGE also helped Johnson attain funding to rent billboards in Englewood which were plastered with celebratory photographs taken by Johnson throughout the neighborhood. The billboards, Johnson says, were another way to fight the dominant narrative, to help the residents in Englewood feel proud of where they live.

Moore and Ortiz recalled working for a native Chicagoan editor at Ebony who charged them with writing a slice-of-life story in the Roseland neighborhood in Chicago. The pair spent 48 hours in the neighborhood, from Friday to Sunday. Neither remembered seeing any violence.

The ramifications of racial and economic segregation are too numerous to list. A select few discussed in the panel include the negative impacts on public schools, forced relocations, economic impacts for the greater city (One study by the Metropolitan Planning Council that found segregation is costing Chicago an estimated 4.4 billion a year)in addition to  and, of course, the emotional toll it can have on people living in disinvested neighborhoods.

“We see time and time again one of the consequences of segregation is the way that all these kinds of factors get amplified,” Schalliol said. “We know there are real problems that emerge when people are segregated based on class. We know there are real problems when people are segregated based on race. When the two of those things come together, it becomes just absolutely disastrous.”

Panelists also highlighted the good work being done on the south and west sides by many journalists in Chicago. Johnson pointed to the works of newer, hyperlocal outlets like City Bureau and The Triibe, as well as legacy outlets like the Chicago Reporter and WBEZ.

“The good thing about working at WBEZ is that we can choose a little bit more what we do,” Moore said. “You know, there are a lot of news outlets, which is a good thing. But also our audience, if they heard shootings and that kind of round-up coverage, they will call – I mean, they have called – and say ‘that’s not why I’m a member of WBEZ. I can turn on the TV for that.”

Ortiz added, “There’s so many stories out there that you can, if you’re a journalist, you can go cover that nobody’s covering. Just go out and do it and open our eyes to it.”

Work from both Ortiz and Schalliol is on display at the museum in the city’s South Loop through July 7. They offer intimate looks at life on Chicago’s south side.

Ian Karbal is Chicago-based freelance journalist. He can be found on Twitter at @iankarbal.

As history is made in Chicago’s mayoral election, newsrooms struggle for diverse leadership

On election night in late February in the East Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, about 100 supporters and family members of mayoral candidate Amara Enyia gathered on the first floor of the Blue Lacuna workspace to wait for the results. Even though Enyia was a long shot candidate in a race that ultimately produced Chicago’s first black female mayor, she had a decent size media pool at her watch party, including the city’s daily newspapers, two TV stations, Rolling Out magazine, the Chicago Crusader and a small documentary crew working for filmmaker Steve James.

Chicago mayoral candidate Amara Enyia is interviewed on the night of the Feb. 26 election. Two other candidates advanced to the April 2 run-off, and one will become Chicago’s first black female mayor. Photo by Ian Karbal.

Enyia, a 35-year-old progressive candidate from the west side of Chicago, didn’t advance to the April 2 run-off, finishing sixth in a crowded field of 14, but the significance of what she had achieved–and what was happening that night, wasn’t lost on her as she conceded. “You can’t buy passion, you can’t buy commitment, and you certainly can’t buy… loyalty,” Enyia told the predominantly African-American crowd at her watch party. “There are folks who couldn’t pay for what we did.”

It would turn out to be a historical night for two other black female candidates, including former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, who was elected by a landslide in the April 2 run-off to be the city’s first black female mayor. But the city’s media still have a long way to go in telling that story by and from the perspective of the black community. Although news organizations sent reporters to cover Enyia, the lack of black representation in newsrooms across the city meant that coverage often fell short of understanding what truly matters to a large segment of the city and what issues may drive or keep voters away from the polls for the run-off. This will be an even bigger challenge after Lightfoot takes office in May. Not only is she the first black woman to lead the city but she also is the first openly gay mayor.

“When you talk about who is sort of part of reporting, telling this narrative of the election and just what the political landscape looks like, it’s immediately inauthentic and flawed to produce that picture without, you know, the voice of the people who make up a good portion of the city,” said Adeshina Emmanuel, a Chicago-based reporter for Chalkbeat, a nonprofit education news organization.

Just hours after the Feb. 26 election results were tallied, an award winning-journalist issued a call to action. Deborah Douglas, currently a Pulliam Visiting professor at DePauw University in Indiana, wrote an an impassioned post  on Facebook aimed at her journalist friends.

“So, now that two black women are vying for Chicago mayor, maybe national media should ask black journalists for their insight,” Douglas wrote. “Here’s a thought: Maybe talk to some black women journalists because they might understand some nuances others can’t see or access.”

While history is being made at City Hall, similar progress elsewhere is slow, notably in the legacy newsrooms that cover the mayor’s office.

“Do we have the percentage of people of color that represent the city in our newsrooms? No, we do not. I think that I see a lot of very strong voices, but we’ve always had trouble,” said Susy Schultz, president of Public Narrative, an organization that works to train journalists and nonprofits tell stories of and for underrepresented people.”

According to a 2018 ASNE survey, journalists of color comprise 15.38 percent of the newsroom staff at the Chicago Sun-Times, 20.15 percent of the newsroom staff at the Chicago Tribune and 39.34 percent of newsroom staff at Chicago Public Media, which operates the NPR affiliate, WBEZ. Nationwide, 22.2 percent of newsroom staff are people of color, a number that has been steadily climbing for years. But female journalists of color are still sorely underrepresented.

A 2018 study by the Women in Media Center found that women of color represent only 7.95 percent of print newsroom staff nationally, 12.6 percent of local TV news staff and 6.2 percent of local radio staff.

“It does mean something to hold a particular identity and to be able to understand the nuance of being in that identity,” said Douglas. “We have those experiences. So just stop and look at us and talk to us. It doesn’t mean that other voices aren’t important, but we must be included in this conversation if we’re not included in anything else.”

Of course, there are prominent black women journalists who are deeply involved in covering Chicago’s politics at some of the city’s largest publication. As Douglas noted in her post, they include Natalie Yvonne Moore, Maudlyne Ihejirika, Adrienne Samuels Gibbs, Kathy Chaney, Lolly Bowean and Tiffany Walden. (Moore wrote a powerful piece for WBEZ calling on Black Chicago to stop chasing the ghost of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor).

Walden, co-founder of The Triibe, an independent, online-only publication that launched in 2017, said, “independent media is really in this place where they’re trying to fix – I won’t say fix, but they’re trying to fill in the gaps that we have because mainstream has only focused on a certain demographic and a certain side of the city for so long.”

The Triibe is one of more than 200 ethnic and community outlets in Chicago by Public Narrative’s count.

It was founded with the purpose of giving a voice to Chicago’s black millennials and to offer a counter-narrative for Chicago’s black population which is often written about in terms of the city’s violence and poverty.

“I’m always an advocate for black women to tell stories. And I’m definitely always an advocate for black people to own their own stories. That’s why we started the Triibe. We were tired of other people owning our stories and telling them from their point of view when we’re fully capable of telling them from our point of view ourselves,” said Walden.

Leading up to the Feb. 26 election, the Triibe published in-depth interviews exclusively with the black mayoral candidates, with a focus on issues that most affect Chicago’s black community, The Triibe also covered the aldermanic race, analyzing the records of the members of Chicago’s Black Caucus.

The Triibe partnered with other independent and nonprofit organizations, the Better Government Association, Block Club Chicago, The Chicago Reporter and The Daily Line to set up Chi.vote, an online resource for Chicago voters which helps voters identify which district they live in, who represents them, how those representatives have voted and answer questions about the voting process and the candidates on the ballot.

The Triibe editors “knew that we couldn’t cover the election in the same capacity that a Chicago Tribune could, or that the Sun-Times could, or even that the Block Club Chi could,” Walden said. “We originally reached out to Block Club Chi and some other folks to say, ‘hey we all wanna do this. We’re all gonna be covering the election. Is there any way we can kind of do it together?’”

Fernando Diaz, editor and publisher of the Chicago Reporter, one of the founding organizations of Chi.Vote, said he’s been impressed with the culture of collaboration in Chicago’s media landscape.

“I think the focus on covering police accountability, affordable housing and the historic accomplishment of two African-American women vying for mayor has been very relevant for Black readers and voters,” he told GJR. “ I think the coverage has largely been enlightening, as each news organization has carved a focus of their coverage. But the campaigns – in some notable cases – have become quite polarizing, which is to be expected when so much is on the line and especially in Chicago.”

The collective of publications and nonprofits that contributes to Chi.vote has grown to include Chalkbeat Chicago, City Bureau, Reform for Illinois, Southside Weekly and Univision Chicago.

“I think there’s a lot of work being done right now to make sure all of these news outlets in Chicago know one another,” said Schultz. “They work together. They partner with one another. And they elevate one another. That, I think – I hope – as opposed to heavy heavy news competition, which has always been the news legacy of Chicago, I’m hoping that cooperation is one of the things that we can do well together to actually help one another survive and thrive.”

Yet at Chicago’s legacy publications, people of color, and women in particular, are largely left out of decision-making roles. There are exceptions, of course. The Chicago Reporter, where Diaz is currently editor, was previously led by Susan Richardson, a black woman. The Chicago Sun-Times also recently hired Nykia Wright, a black woman, as interim CEO.

“WGN does a really good job because there are a lot of women producers, but we still need people in the higher management positions,” said Yolanda Joe, a journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and freelance reporter and producer for WGN. “The vice presidents of news, they determine the budgets, they determine who you hire, what stories you cover, who goes out of town to cover certain things. So those positions are lacking for women and people of color, but I think that, overall here in Chicago, people are making that effort. I just think that everybody should step up the game.”

Douglas said it’s simply not enough to have diversity among the reporting staff.

“It’s just not enough to have black and brown voices, and I’m prioritizing black in this case because it’s two black female candidates,” Douglas said of the mayoral candidates. “It’s not enough to have them working there. They have to be working in decision-making positions and gatekeeping positions so they can actually shape content and actually surface the necessary nuance that needs to be displayed in our coverage.”

Unlike many of the frontrunners before the run-off, Enyia’s election night event attracted a uniquely young and diverse collection of devoted supporters. Enyia, a Garfield Park native from the city’s west side, didn’t have the money or name recognition of her more established competitors. She relied on grassroots campaigning, an aggressive social media presence and celebrity endorsements from Chance the Rapper and Kanye West.

The media pool at the event was also noticeably diverse, with more women than men, more than half of them non-white, a better reflection of the city itself than most newsrooms in Chicago.

A survey conducted by City Bureau and the University of Texas at Austin found that. 67.8 percent of Chicago’s west side residents and 54.2 percent of the city’s south side residents agreed that local news coverage of their neighborhoods was “too negative.” Only 26.4 percent of Chicago’s north side and downtown residents responded the same.

In a similar trend, only 42.9 percent of west side residents and 38.1 percent of south side residents felt that local news stories did a “good job of showing what is going on” in their neighborhoods. This is compared to 62.4 percent of surveyed north side and downtown residents.

Notably, the same study also found that south and west side residents reported being likely to volunteer to report on a public meeting, with 67.4 and 63.4 percent, respectively, responding affirmatively. That’s compared with 43.3 percent of north side and downtown residents who said the same.

“When they see people covering their communities, they don’t see people that look like them often enough. So the trust has disintegrated. Just as the trust has disintegrated between police and community, it also disintegrated between community and media,” said Maudlyne Ihejirika, the president of the NABJ Chicago chapter and a long-time Sun Times reporter and columnist. “The obvious is that increased representation of people from those communities, from those black and brown communities, within newsrooms, behind cameras, with a pen and a notebook, when they come to cover those communities or just bringing their knowledge of what is happening in those communities to bear in legacy media outlets, will definitely go a long way in rebuilding that trust.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated April 3 to reflect that Lori Lightfoot won the election.

Ian Karbal is Chicago-based freelance journalist. He can be found on Twitter at @iankarbal.

Artificial Intelligence that can write stories and crunch data is spreading in newsrooms. That’s a good thing for journalists

In 2009, a team of researchers and students at Northwestern University developed software that fully automates the writing of baseball game recaps.

StatsMonkey relies on publicly available data, like box scores, and a series of pre-written partial story templates. It can analyze a team’s changing probability of winning, play by play, find important moments from a given game, and develop a narrative arc based on them. It then plugs in the names of the relevant teams and players and produces a surprisingly readable story.

The following year Northwestern professors Kristian Hammond and Larry Birnbaum used the underlying technology to start Narrative Science, a Chicago based company that develops programs for big business and newsrooms alike through Natural Language Generation. NLG relies on artificial intelligence to interpret data and then display it in a readable format like text.

A screenshot of the program Arria Studio being used by Knight Lab students to write a data-driven template which will personalize a story about gun violence based on a reader’s location and gender

Since then, technology that can automate narrative reporting, often referred to as “robot journalism,” has grown by leaps and bounds in both its spread and sophistication. The Associated Press now automates the writing of 4,400 earnings reports for private companies every quarter, roughly 15 times as many as they were able to release when the reports were manually written. The AP has also automated its coverage of minor league baseball games, allowing the news service  to cover more games than was previously possible. The Los Angeles Times uses a program they call Quakebot to report on earthquakes using seismic data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The Washington Post, Forbes, Yahoo! News, Reuters and the New York Times, among others, have all used similar technologies to release both fully and partially automated stories.

But journalists who fear that such technology might render them obsolete are missing the point. xxx can rest easy. The applications of fully automated journalism are still limited and, if anything, allow reporters to focus on more interesting tasks than writing quarterly earnings reports.

“The state of the technology is very much in the template-based approach, if you think of madlib type of things.” said Nick Diakopoulos,  an assistant professor at Northwestern University and the author of the upcoming book Automating the News: How Algorithms are rewriting the media. “Human journalists are writing templates that have gaps in them where data is inserted.”

The technology has a number of limitations. For automated journalism to work, readily available and highly structured data is necessary, which is why the technology lends itself to writing sports game recaps, weather reports and financial earnings reports. When such data is available, software can autonomously gather that data, perform basic analysis like comparing a company’s earnings from one year to the next, and use that data to produce fully automated stories by plugging numbers into human-made templates.

“That was one of the early promises of automated journalism, that every high school would have a story for their game and you wouldn’t have to send a reporter to every game,” said Joe Germuska, director of Northwestern University’s Knight Lab, where journalism and computer science students collaborate on tools for media makers. Germuska. “ But somebody actually has to structure the data and schools aren’t doing that.”

Outside the world of sports reporting, for local news outlets, structured data can often be hard to come by, even when dealing with government entities. Documents produced by local governments often contain unstructured data, which is sometimes published in formats that an algorithm would have to be tailored to recognize, begging the question of whether a small outlet’s resources would be best placed in technology with such limited applications.

Cost is another prohibitive factor. Fully automated journalism is almost strictly used by large news outlets, like Reuters and AP because of this barrier. And smaller news organizations have little need for technology which would allow them to produce the quantity of stories which automated journalism makes possible, like writing recaps for hundreds of minor league baseball games.

Yet the relatively new field of computational journalism, which automated journalism falls under the umbrella of, can offer many tools that aid journalists instead of replacing them entirely. While fully automated journalism has limited applications, other forms of artificial intelligence can help journalists with tasks in many facets of content creation.

Brent Jones, a journalist at KWMU, St. Louis’ NPR station, has spent the last seven  years working on the tech side of news. After graduating from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 2007 with a degree in journalism, he began working at the St. Louis Beacon, largely doing web design.

“Every once in a while a project would come up where we would need a project page built or we’d need a fairly simple graphic, so I would create that,” said Jones. “That part of it really interested me, so I started working more as that. I went to a computer assisted reporting bootcamp at the investigative reporters and editors organization in Columbia at Mizzou … and that really kind of opened my eyes.”

When the St. Louis Beacon merged with KWMU, who already had an IT department, Jones pivoted to working with reporters on big-data projects and building internal tools to help reporters present and promote their stories.

“The data journalism is a big part of it, and seeing sort of how we can … take some of the burden off the reporters to perform some of those repetitive, boring, sometimes difficult tasks that a computer can do well,” Jones said. That’s really a thing that I see as mythical for me, is to figure out how I can make their lives easier by taking away some of that stuff and letting them so some of the more interesting and challenging work that is not easy for a computer.”

For a story on the podcast, “We Live Here,” Jones helped reporters analyze disciplinary data from schools across Missouri to determine how race affected the rate of suspensions and other disciplinary measures for students.

“Being able to program a little bit, we were able to look at the statistics across the entire state and look at how many suspensions were given out, combine that with enrollment statistics, and find where there were imbalances or where suspensions given to minority students were sort of out of proportion with their enrollment.”

Jones was able to build a database where listeners could zero in on their local school district and compare that data to the state-wide set.

Personalizing stories and using large swaths of data are not uncommon uses of computational assistance. While Jones’ work is not the most sophisticated example of such practices, it’s unique because of the small scale of the station he was working for and the limited resources he used to analyze data on a scale that would have near impossible without computational assistance given the size of the team he was working with.

The New York Times, for instance, used AI to publish a story that used a reader’s geolocation data to personalize the story based on where they were reading it. The story, published in 2015, examined how a children’s financial opportunities were affected by the area where they grew up. The actual text of the article would change to include data on cities nearby the reader as reference points. Like in a fully automated story, human-written templates and structured data to fill in the gaps left by the reporters for the personalized section.

AI can also help reporters find stories. Reuters developed a program called News Tracer to help them monitor social media to break stories faster than other outlets, as well as determine the veracity of viral trends. According to a report published by Reuters, the software “runs machine-learning algorithms on a percentage of Twitter’s 700 million daily tweets to find breaking news.  These algorithms look for clusters of tweets that are talking about the same event and the tool then generates a newsworthiness rating, questioning whether the event is worth reporting.”

The software helps reporters verify the events in question by identifying likely eye witnesses and performing a sort of rudimentary background check by investigating the twitter accounts where a story originated using information like whether or not an account is verified, and looking at the accounts’ followers.

News Tracer led to Reuters getting a head start on stories like the San Bernadino shooting and a bombing in Brussels.

The breadth of possible applications of AI in newsrooms is still being explored by journalists and developers. At the Knight Lab, Germuska is currently overseeing the development of a project called “Watch Me Work,” which would perform background research on subjects in reporters’ stories as they type them.

“It’s still in pretty early days, but the idea is that it finds- sort of extracts – the subjects of your story from your text like the people and the nouns, things like that, said Germuska. “It is meant to be present while you’re working in, say, google doc, and to offer smart advice about information you might be needing for the work you’re working on with contextual clues and that kind of thing, but it’s not really aimed at doing the work for the journalist as much as making the journalist more effective.”

As the technology grows more sophisticated, and becomes more readily available, it is possible that smaller news outlets may begin to invest in technologies that assist reporters instead of writing stories for them.

AI has also been used to generate automated videos based on text, test out multiple headlines for a story to see which one generates the most clicks and create graphics which visualize data, among other things.

The spread of AI in newsrooms also raises a number of questions for journalists using the technology. For example, what should a byline look like for stories that were automated, either in full or in part? What is a news agency’s responsibility in terms of providing algorithmic transparency to their readers, that being allowing users to see what drives the algorithm generating the content in the stories they’re reading? Algorithms have the potential to be as biased as any reporter since they are made by humans, and often have to be taught to recognize patterns in data, which can itself be biased.

“If you train algorithms based on biased data, you’re going to get biased algorithms. And that is a thing we sort of have to be on the lookout for,” said Jones.

Algorithms can also be prone to errors, which reporters have to be especially careful to look out for. When content is being produced at a mass scale, even with a record for veracity, reporters and editors may grow lax when it comes to fact-checking.

In May 2015, The LA Times’ Quakebot falsely reported two earthquakes. Apparently, a large seismic event in the Pacific Ocean near Japan, affecting USGS equipment in California. Quakebot then published two reports stating that earthquakes of magnitudes 4.8 and 5.5 had hit California.

The incident reiterates the importance of human oversight of news-generating algorithms, even with software that has a proven track record.

Yet such instances are possible even for human reporters. A 2015 study conducted by German professor Andreas Graefe found that consumers preferred reading human-written content, but found automated news to be more credible. 986 participants were given articles, some correctly and some incorrectly labeled as being written by a human or an algorithm. The study found that participant’s opinions of the articles did not vary significantly based on whether the article was said to be written by a human or an algorithm, but that articles written by algorithms were consistently seen as less readable and more trustworthy than their human-written counterparts.

“I tend to be of the mind that you can’t put genies back in the bottle,” Germuska said. “So if there’s really a case where the tool does the job better than people, then great. Let the tool do that and people can do better stuff.”

It is unlikely that AI will take the jobs of human journalists anytime soon.

Andrea Guzman, a former journalist and professor at Northern Illinois University, as well as the author of several books on consumer interactions with AI, including automated journalism, has been following the development of such technology from its infancy.

While automated journalism used to be a discussion she would have once a semester in a few of her classes, she now teaches whole courses on the subject.

“People automatically jump to ‘well, machines are going to replace humans,’” Said Guzman, pointing out that such thinking lacks nuance. “But there’s also a lot of journalists using these as tools, right? And using them to help improve their reporting.”

Guzman recalled talking about automated journalism at a conference in 2015 with student journalists and veterans alike. After her lecture, a newspaper editor approached her and chided her for giving students “misinformation” about automated journalism becoming a larger part of newsrooms.

“You always want to be careful in discussing these things,” said Guzman. “‘What do we have now? Where could it go?’ The ‘where could it go,’ we know we’re not historically very good at predicting these thing. I mean, look at how newspapers and journalists reacted to the internet, you know, and how they thought that would end up.”

Ian Karbal is Chicago-based freelance journalist. He can be found on Twitter at @iankarbal.