By Jon Funabiki
A groundbreaking Chicago experiment shows just how valuable it can be to foster journalism from the ground up. The project sparked high-quality coverage about important issues, and it opened up journalism to new voices and under-covered communities. It proved that foundations can have a catalytic role in promoting innovations in journalism.
The project was called the Local Reporting Awards Initiative, and it was launched by a consortium of funders who worried that Chicago’s residents—especially those living in the poorest neighborhoods—were not getting the type of news coverage they needed to help them address the vexing issues that they faced. So they agreed to “prime the pump,” so to speak, by offering grants to individuals and organizations that could produce high-quality news coverage about important governmental issues affecting Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, which tend to be on the south and west sides of the city.
A striking aspect of the project was its flexible definition of who could do journalism. They opened up the competition not only to traditional news outlets and professional journalists, but also to bloggers, freelancers, grassroots organizations, policy groups and collaborations of organizations and individuals. They wanted to infuse journalism with new voices and perspectives. They received 108 applications and made 31 grants; six proposals received $10,000 each and 25 proposals received $2,000 each.
That was in 2011. An independent evaluator’s report that was just released praised the project for producing top-notch journalism. “To say our expectations for editorial quality were met would be an understatement,” said the evaluator, Janet Coats, who is a former longtime newspaper executive. “In all honesty, we were blown away by the quality of the work.”
More importantly, the project’s “open door” policy led to a rich range of stories produced by a diverse mix of people and organizations, some experienced journalists, others with no journalism experience at all. A few examples:
- Carlos Javier Ortiz produced a moving photo documentary about the “undeclared war” on youth—violence—currently the second leading cause of death for children and youth between 10 and 24 years of age.
- Salim Muwakkil completed a “richly sourced and nuanced” five-part series on “African American youth who have borne the brunt of the Great Recession.”
- A group of youth journalists produced a series of stories and photographs for The Gate about young people who live in constant fear and anxiety because they are undocumented.
- Pennie Brinson of The Neighborhood Writing Alliance, a nonprofit that helps resident write, publish and perform their own work, examined how individuals with disabilities are impacted by bullying, domestic violence and other issues.
“The magic of having people with deep knowledge of these communities do so much of the work is that they showed the great range of issues, people and concerns that make up daily life in these neighborhoods,” said Coats in her report. “These stories touched on poverty, yes, but also on environmental issues, cyber bullying among young people of color, class divides within the African-American community. These are not subjects traditionally covered within these neighborhoods by mainstream news organizations.”
At Renaissance Journalism, we strive to help local communities create their own journalism. You can see that in our support of grassroots news outlets like the Nichi Bei Weekly and Oakland Local and in our annual LearningLAB, where we offer media training to ethnic and community journalists and nonprofit professionals. So it was inspiring and gratifying to see the success of the Local Reporting Awards Initiative. Kudos to the sponsoring funders: The Chicago Community Trust, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the McCormick Foundation, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and The Woods Fund of Chicago.