URBANA, ILLINOIS — When Brant Houston moved to the Champaign-Urbana, Illinois area from Columbia, Missouri to assume the University of Illinois’s Knight Chair in Journalism, he did what he had long encouraged students to do in the classes he taught on computer assisted reporting: he trawled through census data to get a sense of his community. The poverty rate immediately stuck out as far out of proportion to its presence in local news; in Houston’s view, it appeared to be one of the defining characteristics of the community, but he suspected that residents without direct experience of it, particularly in the university community, likely did not know much about the poor in their midst. He decided to do some reporting.
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That was in 2007. Shortly afterward, Houston teamed up with U of I colleague Rich Martin, formerly of Virginia’s Roanoke Times, where as managing editor he directed major projects covering Roanoke’s own “invisible poverty.” With a Knight Foundation Community Information Needs grant, some additional funds from the university, and a partnership with local paper the News Gazette, the two spent a year learning about how to build, maintain, and financially sustain a website; theirs launched as CU-CitizenAccess in January 2010. From day one the site featured meaty stories on economic issues in Champaign County, reported by two part-time professional reporters and a handful of grad students.
“The first major [story], which really surprised people, talked about the amount of poverty in the county and the kind of poverty in the county,” recalls Houston. Nearly twenty percent of Champaign County residents live below the poverty line—what was particularly striking to Houston was the proportion of students among the poor. Another project, called “Wilber Heights,” examined the decay of a neighborhood after its zoning regulations were changed from residential to industrial, rendering home maintenance all but impossible.
“We’re looking into particular parts of the community that may not get reported on,” says Houston, who notes that the News-Gazette is, like newspapers all over the country, strapped for resources. In addition to U of I faculty members Houston and Martin, CU-Citizen Access employs two professional reporters, each of whom work thirty hours a week. Martin has designed a “covering poverty” class as part of the project; student work from this class is a major source of the site’s content, as is work contributed by other masters students and undergraduates at the school.
The site has built connections across university departments and throughout local media. It occasionally produces stories for the local NPR affiliate. U of I’s School of Library Information Sciences has set up computer labs in underserved areas, and CU-CitizenAccess is trying to find ways to use the labs as meeting places where journalism students, faculty, and local journalists can collaborate on projects and be accessible to the communities they aim to serve. The labs are also an important part of making the site itself available to households that might not have Internet access.
“This is a research and development project,” says Houston. “We are trying out things, both in terms of newsgathering and information presentation. Some will work and some won’t.”
The site’s financial freedom puts it in a better position to experiment than most. As a non-profit housed within a university, the site is free of many of the fiscal pressures that face other operations. Houston devotes some time to fundraising but, because of the university’s equipment and its steady supply of students to write for the website, “we’ve got a minimum amount of sustainability,” he says.
Principal Staff: Brant Houston, co-director; Rich Martin, co-director; Pam Dempsey, project coordinator.
Affiliations: News-Gazette (Champaign, Ill.), WILL (NPR and PBS), (Urbana, Ill.), Marajen Stevick Foundation.