A Peoria paper is working to ‘be there’ in underserved community—without adding reporters

Robin Berry remembered a time in Peoria, Illinois, when residents of the South Side so detested the local newspaper that groups of people would buy a single copy and pass it around so they wouldn’t have to give the Journal Star “a dime more than they had to.”

Until a few months ago, the Gatehouse Media Inc. paper only seemed to report negative news from the South Side of Peoria, said Berry, housing development director for the non-profit Peoria Citizens Committee for Economic Opportunity. “Based on the newspaper, it would be a place that I would not want to live,” she said.

The South Side of the city, known locally by its zip code, 61605, is one of the poorest in the nation. Much of the violent crime in Peoria is concentrated in this part of the city, with six killings there since January.

But crime isn’t the South Side’s only story. When Journal Star Executive Editor Dennis Anderson invited Berry to be a part of a new reader advisory group he created earlier this year, she carried a message about the paper’s coverage that was almost universally held in her community.

“Yes we have challenges and, yes, I know you still need to report the facts, and that’s fine,” Berry said. “But let’s report about the good things. People are trying to empower people. Those things are happening.”

Anderson, who came to the paper three years ago, was taking notes.

By his count, the newsroom of 42 full-timers is now averaging a story every other day from the South Side, comprehensive coverage of a community that is struggling but also surviving and achieving.

The advisory group meets every month, with 12 to 25 people attending, including reporters and editors from the paper. (Journal Star Publisher Ken Mauser has come to about half of the meetings.) The group discusses possible story ideas, which Anderson later assigns, and talks about the paper’s coverage from the previous month.

When Anderson met with the advisory group last week, he gave them a packet of Journal Star clips that included stories about community groups working to create and help people find jobs, residents fighting against crime and a black college student who filed a complaint against police after they stopped him—without cause, he argued, and arrested him after he refused to provide his identification. The stories don’t gloss over the challenges in the community but rather attempt to explain what is happening and what community leaders are trying to do address the problems.

“We have not changed our coverage of events that happen in the community in terms of crime,” Anderson said. “We are still covering those stories. The important part was to get a different sense of what else was happening in the community.”

The story about unemployment rates is a good example. The lead graphic very dramatically shows how unemployment on the South Side (27.8 percent) compares to unemployment in the greater Peoria area (6.3 percent). But it does more than simply report the gap. It quotes community members offering reasons for the joblessness and what some of them are trying to do, including a center that runs a program for people just out of prison.

Anderson told me that he created the advisory group because he wanted a way to connect better with the community and to do it without necessarily adding more reporters, which he can’t afford to do. There is no reporter assigned to the South Side or any other part of Peoria, a city of about 116,000. The newsroom is divided by topical beats. “Just taking a look at the number of readers we have in that community, it wasn’t something we could be happy about it,” Anderson said, noting that less than 5 percent of the paper’s 42,000 daily circulation comes from the South Side. (Sunday circulation is 52,580)

Pam Adams, who has been at the paper since 1976, is one of three full-time African-American employees in the newsroom. She said she has stayed at her hometown paper all of these years because she wanted to make sure that the paper wasn’t missing key stories from her community. She considers the advisory group a productive development, but said she’d like to see more “real people” involved, more readers and not only community leaders.

A former columnist, Adams recently went back to covering news because the paper needed more reporters. She rejected the notion that Journal Star needs to be more diverse to cover its diverse communities.

“I think we ought to expect good reporters to tell good stories regardless,” Adams said. “I knew from Day 1 I was expected to be able to cover white people without falling into stereotypes. White reporters ought to be able to cover blacks, Muslims, Mexicans, without falling into those stereotypes.”

Anderson said he would like to have a more diverse newsroom, but he has a small staff and few opportunities to hire new full-timers. Since he can’t bring new reporters into the newsroom, he’s bringing in readers.

A life-long newsman who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, Anderson said he and his brother had a subscription to the Chicago Sun-Times to read about the Cubs and White Sox. “We brought the newspaper into the home on our own,” he said.

The newspaper once published a photo of his family from a picnic. “Just family, sitting on a park bench, eating some hot dogs,” Anderson said, describing the photo.

He said he realized that’s what the South Side of Peoria wanted, too, to see everyday images and read everyday stories about their lives. “We were missing people from that zip code,” he said. “We just hadn’t made a concerted effort to spend time in South Peoria, and we needed to make that a priority. “

Anderson started to reach out to community leaders and eventually brought them together to form the advisory group, which he wrote about in August for the GateHouse website. Berry, of the Peoria Citizens Committee for Economic Opportunity, is an original member. She also is a fan—and a source and subject of the paper’s improved coverage of the community. “Dennis is great for the community,” she said. “This is the very first time I’ve seen something like this take place with the Journal Star.”

Sara Netzley, associate chair of the Department of Communication at Bradley University in Peoria, said that as newsrooms continue to shrink, papers have to be creative about covering underserved communities.

“They don’t have enough people to send them into the community to get the sources,” said Netzley, who was a Journal Star reporter for a year. “To bring members of the public in, it’s invaluable. It increases the diversity of perspective.”

This was not the first reader advisory group for Anderson, who has been an editor at papers in New York, Connecticut and Kansas. Last year, the New York-based media company encouraged all of its papers to engage better with readers as part of a quarterly evaluation program called Inner Circle Initiatives. Papers used to be encouraged only to start community blogs. Now they must add reader advisory boards, reader-contributed photo pages and social media storytelling (using Storify). How many of these strategies they must adopt is based on the size of the newsroom.

“This was perfect for us because we were already in the process of making the group happen,” Anderson said.

It may take more time for the group’s efforts to be noticeable inside or even outside of the community. But then again, it’s probably better that it’s not too obvious. The paper hasn’t scrubbed what readers might consider “bad news” of the South Side from its coverage, including a spate of murders this past July that left four dead in eight days (not all of them on the South Side). It has an obligation to coverage crime and all of the other challenges in the community.

Greg Lynn, an Anglican priest on Peoria’s South Side, is not a member of the advisory group. Before Anderson started the group, Lynn wrote an article for the Whiskey City blog, a collaboration of writing of 20- and 30-somethings in Peoria. In the article, “Why so Afraid of Peoria,” Lynn argued that much of the fear about the city’s South Side is rooted in racism. People don’t know what it’s really like to live there, he wrote. “Live south of War Memorial,” he said, referring to the drive that defines the South Side boundary. “The houses have more character and neighbors know each other.”

He reads the Journal Star online, Lynn told me in an interview, but he doesn’t subscribe. He hasn’t particularly noticed a shift in the paper’s coverage. “I feel like if black people are on the home page, it’s in regards to stories related to crime,” he said. “There’s more going on in the South end than violence, and there’s got to be more we can put out there to the public to stop giving the misimpression that anything that goes on in the South end or East Bluff is violent crime.”

Lynn has friends who work at the Journal Star and didn’t want to knock the paper, he said. He praised the reader advisory group after I told him about it. “I think it’s great that the leadership of the Journal Star wants to know what it can do and wants to think creatively how they can contribute to something productive, some sort of solution,” he said.

Anderson said the newspaper is doing what police departments are also attempting to do by putting officers back on the streets.

To be a part of the community, he said, “you need to be there.”

Correction: This story originally said that Dennis Anderson has been an editor at multiple GateHouse papers; The Journal Star is his first GateHouse position.

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.