In Chicago, two brothers are using Instagram to engage new audiences for investigative reporting

In early 2015, Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, a freelance investigative journalist, published a story in The Chicago Reporter about a reverse mortgage scheme that targeted elderly African-Americans on Chicago’s south and west sides. More than 1,700 words, and accompanied by a trove of court documents, the article detailed the legal fight to protect homeowners.

Then Lowenstein and his brother, the photographer Jon Lowenstein, did something else: They posted a photo taken by Jon of Lillie Williams, one of the homeowners snared in the scam, on Jon’s Instagram feed, with a caption that distilled Williams’ plight and the broader story.

West Side – Chicago. Lillie Williams has lived on Chicago's West Side since coming north from Greenwood, Mississippi to join her family. She bought a two-story home with her sister Ethel Winters in the 70s that has been a hub of family life since, but she says the centerpiece of her financial legacy has been under threat since Mark Diamond convinced her to take out a reverse mortgage for home repairs in 2009. Williams, who lives on a fixed income and is in her late 80s, owes about $6,000 in insurance that is a requirement to maintain the reverse mortgage. Diamond has been sued dozen of times in civil court going back decades in state and federal courts, including a 2009 lawsuit filed by Attorney General Lisa Madigan that sought to keep him from doing business, according to an investigation by The Chicago Reporter. But he continues to operate seemingly unimpeded, raising questions about the effectiveness of civil litigation and government oversight. The Rev. Robin Hood, Williams' aunt, and others in the community are not waiting for the courts, but are seeking to have all reverse mortgages associated with Diamond undone. @noorimages #elderabuse @everydayusa #chicago #africanamerican #blackamerica

A photo posted by Jon Lowenstein – NOOR (@jonlowenstein) on

It’s just one example of how the Lowenstein brothers, who live in Chicago, have used Instagram to engage new audiences for investigative and accountability-minded reporting. Using Jon’s Instagram account, Jeff explains the story behind the pictures his brother makes, and they convene a rolling conversation in comments–answering questions and posing their own, soliciting similar stories and affirming them, sharing anecdotes and frustrations from the reporting process. “I hear you” is one of Jeff’s common refrains.

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Since Instagram doesn’t allow hyperlinks in captions or comments, Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, 50, has to rely on what he writes under his brother’s images—and the subsequent back-and-forth with commenters—to sum up complicated stories like the reverse mortgage scheme or a data-heavy look at disparities in nursing home care that the Center for Public Integrity published in 2014. (When people ask, he’ll also point them to a URL where they can read more.) Jon Lowenstein, 46, a co-president of the Amsterdam-based photographer’s collective NOOR, documented the images for the nursing home story as well.

Little Rock – Arkansas Louise Chapple raised 15 children on a farm in tiny Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Her daughter Lauretta Chapple documented the care problems she alleged her mother experienced at Sandalwood Healthcare, a majority-black facility in Little Rock. A lawyer for the nursing home declined to comment on Chapple’s’ care due to privacy concerns, but said that Arkansas Office of Long Term Care found no deficient practices resulting in actual harm to Louise Chapple. Sandalwood had one of the lowest listed levels of registered nurse staffing in the country in 2012, according to government website Nursing Home Compare. Nursing homes across the country had higher listed staffing levels on a public government website than the daily average staffing levels the Center for Public Integrity calculated through its analysis of annual financial documents. The staffing discrepancies were particularly high for registered nurses. In more than 80 percent of nursing homes across the country the daily listed level on public website Nursing Home Compare was higher than the daily average level of care, the Center found. Louise Chapple died in mid-November, 2014. Jeff Kelly Lowenstein has done a year long national investigation into nursing home staffing, racial disparities and government backed mortgages. Photo by @jonlowenstein #nursinghomes #elderabuse #senior

A photo posted by Jon Lowenstein – NOOR (@jonlowenstein) on

In a recent interview, Jon said he started using his iPhone as a way to share his work documenting life on the south side of Chicago. He liked how “instant” it was, he said, familiar and similar to the Polaroid film he favored, and how it gave “access to people very quickly to photography.” After a while, people started asking him if he was on Instagram. He decided to jump aboard in 2013.

The platform, he said, “became this space for true dialogue. Now I was able to build my own audience for it and share in a different way.” And that audience is significant–he has 154,00 followers on Instagram. (That’s larger than the Washington Post’s photo account).

It made sense, said Jeff, to try to reach that audience with stories that both brothers were passionate about telling.

“I saw how for a while he was really approaching his work like a beat,” Jeff said. “He was working the Instagram beat of the community of the south side, of immigration. I felt that there was a tremendous opportunity for people who might not get investigative data, resources, and findings and to dialogue with them through the captions and comments of Instagram. If we put this together people will not only look at the images, people will really engage with the material. There’s a hunger for this kind of material, for people making connections.”

The Lowenstein brothers are not the only ones using Instagram to tell long-form stories—or stories that go beyond an image. Other examples include Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden walk, the Every Day Climate Change project, and Virginia Quarterly Review’s social media experiment in non-fiction.

But one thing that makes the brother unique is that they are a team, a photographer and a writer, “like the old days when magazines understood that having a tight word-image duo who were in sync was a very strong asset,” said Nina Berman, a NOOR documentary photographer and associate professor at Columbia University. 

Berman also applauded the dialogue the Lowensteins foster on Instagram. There, she said, “they make an effort to respond to each comment thoroughly, which is very special.” And those responses are often questions or invitations to further engage—something more journalists should emulate, Berman added.

Fernando Diaz is a senior editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting in California and former former managing editor of Spanish-language Hoy Chicago, which also published the nursing home investigation. The brothers’ Instagram collaboration, he said, “is an elegant and effective example of distributed publishing.”

“For so long, publishers have wanted or needed to draw audiences back to their website,” Diaz said. On Instagram, the Lowensteins show “what’s possible when you go to the where the community is literally and geographically by incorporating the people into the conversations alongside those photos.”

The brothers don’t only collaborate on big projects. They’ve also used Instagram on a smaller scale, with Jeff bringing data to discussions sparked by images Jon makes of Chicago’s violence.

And they have already started thinking about their next project, using Jon’s photographs and Jeff’s reporting to document what life is like 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. visited the city.

“There have been some changes, but really a lot of the things King was talking about–housing and police violence–are still going on are still very alive and are not really contextualized that well on Instagram,” Jon Lowenstein said. The project fits with his interests as a documentary photographer, he said—interests emphasized by many of the recurring hashtags in his Instagram feed (#southside, #violence, #poverty, #immigration, #corruption).

It will be interesting to see what they come up with–and to watch whether more journalists follow their lead. 

“Everyone we talk to in the investigative community sees the potential,” Jeff Kelly Lowenstein said. “I think that we are just in this very interesting moment where the audiences that individuals have are getting to the point where they are of value.”

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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.