Peoria Journal-Star vows to continue coverage of minority communities despite layoffs

Dennis Anderson has been the top editor at the Peoria Journal Star for six years. But when he realized that his paper was not in touch with African American residents on the south side of the Central Illinois city, Anderson went back to beat reporting.

He began talking to community leaders, asking each to recommend five more people with whom he could connect. He kept asking for more people and kept listening to what they had to say.

The paper had “a blind spot” in this part of its community, Anderson told GJR. It needed “to do a better job of covering that community and its role in the city of Peoria.”

The Journal Star–and Anderson’s efforts, were highlighted in a recent report from the American Press Institute on how news organizations around the country are strengthening their relationships with their communities through deep listening and dialogue.

The recognition comes as Gatehouse Media, the parent company that owns Journal Sar, laid off five employees at the  paper, including an assignment editor and reporter who was part of the team working in the underrepresented communities in Peoria.

Anderson told GJR that the layoffs would not affect the coverage of the south side community. “We’ve made a commitment that this is important,” he said. “We are a community institution.”

The API report identified several strategies on how to create a “culture of listening” among news organizations from a March summit held in Nashville, Tenn. earlier this year with community journalists, editors and nonprofit leaders.

Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media and Emily Goligoski of the Membership Puzzle Project emphasized “how much journalists can learn from customer service, an industry where it’s crucial to get back in touch with everyone who reaches out to you,” according to the report.

In 2014, residents of the Peoria’s south side made up only five percent of the newspaper’s subscribers. Residents complained that the only time they saw a reporter show up was to cover crime or local charity efforts.

Anderson created an advisory board from his contacts in the community. Board members began to give feedback on the paper’s coverage and offered story ideas.

“People need to see themselves reflected in the coverage,” Anderson said.

The paper continues to host monthly meetings in the community, and Anderson said that at least four or five stories a month come directly from these meetings. He sends an email to about 150 people twice a month to keep them updated.

About 12 to 24 people attend the meetings each month. “Each month there’s a handful of people who had never been to any of our meetings before, but had heard about it, and they started coming,” Anderson said.

Sherry Cannon, founder, president and executive director of the non-profit organization Hope Renewed Youth Conference in Peoria, said she began attending the meetings about three years ago afterhearing about them from the president of the local NAACP.

She said these meetings have helped by creating space for networking with a lot of different organizations, including non-profit and government agencies, and have helped get “positive news for the paper to report on in the African American community.”

Cannon recalled that when the #MeToo movement began she spoke to Anderson and said that this should be discussed locally. She said three podcasts were done: one with women, another with men, and the last one with men and women discussing sexual harassment.

Cannon said the newspaper is “doing a better job.”

Chris Kaergard, a 13-year veteran of the paper and assignment editor for the PJS past seven years, was one of the employees laid off earlier this month. In May Kaergard wrote a story about the purchase of a vacant grocery store property. It is the first owned outright by the South Side Mission in Peoria. He agreed with the paper’s commitment to south side coverage would likely not be affected by the staff cuts, although Cannon expressed concerns that it would not? continue with the same intensity.

“No question it will be harder,” Kaergard said, “just as it will to be covering government accountability, education, major statewide and local elections in the next several months,” he said. There is “always a challenge when any institution loses staff and it makes covering any community more difficult…other media in Peoria have experienced staff departures and shrinkage.”

Rocio Villaseñor is a correspondent for Gateway Journalism Review. Her Twitter is @Rose26rv.

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