How a Chicago reporter ‘explodes stereotypes’ with unexpected stories about the city

Photo of Lolly Bowean by Jackie Spinner

In early 2015, the Chicago Tribune reported on a spike in shootings in the nation’s third-largest city–the start of more than a year of grim news about crime and policing. Much of the violence and the subsequent coverage was concentrated in the predominantly African-American south and west sides of the city, including the Englewood neighborhood, one of Chicago’s most dangerous.

Lolly Bowean, a general assignment reporter at the Tribune, was also reporting from Englewood around that time, but not about the uptick in crime. Instead, she delivered a gem of a story about a local man who had gone on to become a lecturer at Harvard but didn’t want to sell his family home to a railroad company expanding its yard–a tale, she wrote, that “highlights the unique relationship African-Americans have with their property, since at one time so few were allowed to buy and own land and so few could afford to purchase houses.”

It was a classic Bowean piece, the type of story the self-described “old-fashioned community reporter” came to the Tribune more than a decade ago to tell. Bowean covers a wide range of breaking news for the Trib, but, as her bio on the paper’s website notes, she has carved out a niche reporting on urban affairs, youth culture, housing issues, and the city’s minority communities. Those are topics Bowean, who is African-American, assigned to herself. In a recent interview at a downtown coffee shop near the Tribune Tower, she joked that it was her way of “going rogue.”

“I look for what’s missing,” she says.

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In doing so, she’s found rich, and often surprising, stories. At a ceremony this spring, Bowean received the Studs Terkel Award, one of the highest honors for journalists covering Chicago. A few weeks later, she was awarded a coveted Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, where she will spend the 2016-17 academic year researching the cultural differences between the African-American descendants of American slavery and the children of black immigrants.

“Lolly loves to explode other people’s stereotypes,” says Mark Jacob, the Tribune’s associate managing editor for metro news. “She loves to write stories that broaden people’s views of others. It makes her a delight to read.”

Bowean, 37, has been developing those skills since she was a student journalist in high school in Knoxville, Tennessee. Sometimes, for a laugh, she pulls up one of her first stories, about a man hired to wear a chicken costume at a chicken restaurant. She went on to write for Howard University’s acclaimed student newspaper, the Hilltop, where Natalie Moore, now the South Side reporter for WBEZ, was her editor.

Moore remembers sending Bowean out on vague assignments to find something to write about. She never failed. “She was always really good about finding interesting stories off the beaten path,” Moore says.

Bowean worked for the New Orleans Times-Picayune before joining the Tribune in 2004. From the paper’s Lake County bureau, in the affluent suburbs north of Chicago, she found stories about the growing number of African-American families who were choosing to home-school their children, and about the county’s largest African-American church.

She later moved to the South Side bureau and then came downtown five years ago. Along the way she earned a reputation for being a workhorse, constantly reporting or writing on deadline, even self-imposed ones. In addition to following breaking news about a police officer facing disciplinary action or the latest developments in the Laquan McDonald murder trial, Bowean delivers enterprising coverage of city residents’ struggles with the local housing authority, along with a steady stream of moving features. She’s written about the elaborate prom send-offs African-American families give to their children, about Easter hairstyles, about a black beauty blogger who lost her hair to cancer.

“I try to write about the joys of life in the African-American community,” she says. “All too often, there isn’t that balance. It’s about violence. It’s about crime.”

Bowean’s work, Jacob says, is a testament to the importance of diversity in a newsroom. “The Tribune is an old newspaper run by white men for a very long time,” he said. “It’s just important for us to reflect the entire community.”

According to a survey conducted by the American Society of News Editors, black journalists accounted for about 7 percent of the Tribune’s newsroom, and Hispanic journalists about 6 percent in 2014, the most recent year for which figures are publicly available. By comparison, the city of Chicago is about 33 percent black and 29 percent Hispanic, according to 2010 Census data. Those numbers put the Tribune in the same general company as most other big-city papers around the country. Nationally, the percentage of all minority journalists at daily newspapers hasn’t moved much over the past two decades, even as the country has grown increasingly diverse.

“There’s a saying in diversity circles that you have to see it to be it,” says Margaret Holt, the Tribune’s standards editor. “Which, of course, makes Lolly’s success here all the more important to us, because she’s inspiring other talented young minorities every day. That matters.”

It can be a tricky thing for reporters of color to find their place in a traditionally white newsroom. Sheila Solomon, who was a senior editor for recruitment at the Tribune from 2002 to 2011 and brought Bowean to the paper, says many young journalists of color who interviewed at the paper wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t be pigeonholed into writing only about their own communities.

That was not a concern for Bowean, says Solomon, now manager of recruiting and interns at Rivet Radio in Chicago. “Her ideas still are about writing stories about people who you aren’t usually going to meet in a publication. She has held firm to that.”

Flynn McRoberts, now the Chicago bureau chief for Bloomberg News, was the mentor the Tribune to Bowean when she came to the Tribune–the first time in her career she wasn’t assigned an African-American woman to guide her, Bowean says. McRoberts taught her “how to navigate the power structure,” helped her with her writing style, and showed her how to sell a story to editors, she says.

For his part, McRoberts says he merely tried to be a good advocate for Bowean’s stories. “She had a combination of bulldog relentless reporting instinct but a huge heart,” he says. “Often times the most empathetic and big-hearted people can be the amazing feature reporters and the investigative unit is full of hard-bitten, hard-core, skeptical-to-the-point-of- cynical people, and Lolly bridged that and exhibited the best qualities.”

Those who know Bowean say that empathy stems from her relationship with her twin brother, Ronald, who died two years ago. Ronald, whom the family called “PoPo,” was disabled and lived at home his whole life.

Says Solomon, the former Tribune recruiter: “That experience of watching her mother raise her brother and attend to him has a lot to do with the compassion that you not only see but feel. You can feel Lolly’s emotions and the emotions of the people she writes about.”

After her Nieman fellowship, Bowean plans to return to the Tribune, which she calls her “destination paper.”

“In many ways, I’m still doing what I started out doing,” she says. “Looking around neighborhoods and trying to identify stories.”

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