A model for meeting local information needs in challenging times

By prioritizing design and sharing resources, The Chicago Reporter has adapted its methods to provide fundamental coverage of the coronavirus crisis and social uprising while staying true to its mission.

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The relationship between audience and publication that ruled news media in the 20th century has been broken by the internet. That hasn’t lessened the need for great local news and accountability reporting. Oregon Public Broadcasting showed that in recent weeks by documenting unconstitutional arrests by federal forces in Portland. In Chicago, we’ve seen vital work from the likes of the TRiiBE, Block Club Chicago, and WBEZ, to name a few.

I’ve only been at The Chicago Reporter for a year, but in that time we’ve covered a global pandemic with a regional lens using an innovative model for content and resource sharing. We even found time to sneak in some more traditional, data-driven accountability reporting to go with it. 
Now, I’m happy to share that I’ll be taking some of these same approaches when I join The Marshall Project as a data editor next month. While I’m sad to be leaving as our work in Chicago is still gaining resonance, I think we’ve built a compelling model and a team that will continue to build impressive, timely editorial products.

In covering COVID-19 in Illinois, my role has been primarily to create space for the talents of two bright and talented people, my colleague Asraa Mustufa and WBEZ’s Paula Friedrich and a small army of contributors — Becky Vevea, Angela Rozas O’Toole, and Al Keefe from WBEZ, freelancer Will English, Brian Mackey from Illinois Public Media, Janelle O’Dea from the St. Louis Post Dispatch, translator Gisela Orozco, data viz hacker Alex Garcia, and many more. We created a suite of embeddable, bilingual (English and Spanish) editorial products driven by official data like Illinois Department of Health COVID-19 test and case counts along with purely reported data that deciphers complex policy.

I brought the tech savvy (steal our simple Lambda@Edge reverse proxy!) and a model of open data and distributed editorial products that I learned at NPR Visuals and honed mapping clandestine graves in Mexico to challenge official narratives about the scale and nature of forced disappearance.

Amy Cesal, a founding member of the Data Visualization Society, described reflected our design priorities to meet the audience where they are with the most useful information for where they live more eloquently than I can:

These choices are based on two assumptions: One is that our “competition” are not other local publications but social platforms and national outlets. If somebody is interested in coronavirus trends nationwide, they’re probably already following masterful work like The Washington Post’s COVID tracker but could probably use complementary, uniquely local data. The other is that we should make these products free,  allowing any publication to embed them so the audience doesn’t have to work very hard to find them. 

Our work has reached about 975,000 people about 1.5 million times in just over four months. Audiences are hungry for this kind of fundamental, accurate, and timely information. And experts are hungry for raw, easy-to-use data. School administrators have used it to make policy choices, Harvard researchers are using it to understand demographic disparities, concerned citizens post screenshots on Facebook, worried mother-in-laws use it as an excuse to send their loved ones a few more masks, and The New York Times links to our Illinois reopening plan tracker from their national app. Our work is embedded on at least 16 other web sites or apps, including broadcast giants like Univision Chicago, newspapers like the Chicago Sun-Times, niche blogs like Mykidlist.com, and even by the Village of Western Springs. 

A key feature of this work is that it is intensely local in content, design, and functionality. Our COVID ZIP code map automatically locates your ZIP code. We’ve integrated local census demographics to put the latest numbers in context. Our reopening tool automatically shows you the guidelines for the region you’re in. Our CPS and Illinois reopening trackers decode complex policies for parents and local residents.

This approach may represent the best investment in local news. If someone from The Chicago Reporter’s audience finds a bug, the Spanish audience on the Univision app reaps the benefits as well as “our” audience. When City Bureau launched a COVID-19 resource guide, we were able to extend its reach to news sites around Illinois immediately by creating links using the common data element of ZIP codes in our tracker.

There’s so much work that’s siloed or duplicated. With this approach, your donation to The Chicago Reporter, WBEZ membership, or newspaper subscription just goes a whole lot further.

This is what I meant when I said I wanted to make editorial products that are simple, hot, and deep when I first joined The Chicago Reporter. These products are simple in that they deliver fundamental information in a user-friendly way, hot in that they grab you by telling you about where you live, and deep in that they reward closer reading with extra context and easy-to-access data for experts.

I’ve also had the opportunity to apply these design-driven, data-powered techniques to more traditional reporting at The Chicago Reporter. I used data visualization to tell the stories of fundraising in the Illinois State’s Attorney race, examine the context of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s poverty initiatives, and to show racial and economic disparities in an Illinois program that intercepts outstanding ticket debt from state tax refunds.

Most recently, Josh McGhee, Matt Chapman, and I questioned official police narratives about arrests during the first days of the uprising that began after the death of George Floyd. After our story, CPD shut off access to its arrest data API. That led to an outcry from the mayor’s transparency task force and other members of civil society to provide robust access to anonymized arrest data. Much of that data is now available via the city’s open data portal.

The Chicago Reporter was founded in 1972, following a time of great social upheaval in the United States. When it launched, it described itself as an “information service.”

The Reporter has always adapted with the times. When Roy Larson, The Reporter’s second editor and publisher, took over in the early 80s, “he recognized that it needed to look better. We were one of the first organizations to do what was then called desktop publishing,” according to former reporter Jim Schrag. The Reporter went from a scrappy newsletter full of rudimentary tables to a glossy magazine with well-produced stories. And it broadened its lens to include both racial and economic injustice.

Almost 50 years later, we’re back to making scrappy newsletters and providing fundamental information services, only now we can reach hundreds of thousands of people who will be encountering our reporting on five inch screens while they watch the latest series on Netflix and worry how the federal government may escalate the racial, economic, and political crises in this country further.

Whatever is next in Chicago and Illinois, The Chicago Reporter will be right there with you, delivering the information you need to protect yourself, create accountability, and further justice in your community.