by Payton Bruni
In 2015 the business website 24/7 Wall St. released a report that ranked Peoria, Illinois, as one of the 10 worst cities to live in for African Americans in the United States. Following the report, the Journal Star newsroom of Peoria launched City of Disparity, a year-long reporting project that examined the city’s disparities in education, income, employment, housing, entrepreneurship opportunities, and health care.
Project Goals: The City of Disparity series grew out of the Journal Star’s broader goal of showing the positive things happening in Peoria as well as the obstacles to success residents face, according to Journal Star Executive Editor Dennis Anderson. “As part of our work, we lead monthly meetings at agencies throughout Peoria’s South Side neighborhood,” Anderson said. “We talk about stories we should be covering, current local and national events, and any concerns people have with our news coverage.” A regularly scheduled meeting happened soon after the 24/7 report was released, and journalists decided they wanted to bring the report to this meeting. “Many in the group backed up the findings,” said Anderson. That convinced the Journal Star it was important to “look beyond the numbers.”
Tools and Technology: Journalists used a Facebook group, Journal Star Readers, to seek out potential stories to cover as part of the City of Disparity series and communicate with readers. The Facebook page also gives agencies and other members a chance to share their news and events. “We saw it as another way to get information out in an avenue that’s popular in the neighborhood, and it gives us a chance to say here are the things that are happening,” Anderson said.
Impact: Anderson said, “To me, if you could be something that gives the community a voice, that’s probably the best thing you could do as a journalist.” Through the community meetings held across Peoria’s South Side, Downtown and East Bluff neighborhoods, providing that voice is exactly what City of Disparity and the Journal Star accomplished. “A number of people who keep coming back month after month know that they have someone who is here to listen,” Anderson said. “It’s where we get story ideas and it’s a chance for people of all ages to interact with each other.” The monthly community meetings have been taking place for nearly five years now, and each meeting has attracted anywhere from 12 to 36 people wanting to share a story.
Organization Background: The Journal Star serves the entirety of Peoria, a major city in Illinois with a population of 112,000 people. The Journal Star has been operating for decades now and marked its 150th anniversary in 2005. The Journal Star is owned by Peoria Journal Star Inc., which is owned by GateHouse Media.
Project Resources: The Journal Star’s community outreach, and specifically the City of Disparity series, required staff members’ time to carry out the project. A different reporter was assigned to each of the 12 stories throughout the series. There was little financial burden to launch and complete the City of Disparity series because reporters tapped into pre-existing and ongoing connections with the community, specifically through the monthly meetings and Facebook group.
Here’s what worked
1. Pinpointing the important stories.
Research and listening to the community helped identity the relevant stories that needed to be told as part of the City of Disparity series. “Using FOIA and other data we collected, along with sources we gathered through our community outreach, we were able to tell our stories in a way that was meaningful to the entire community,” Anderson said.
2. Planning ahead and setting time aside.
Anderson said planning out the stories to be told in City of Disparity aided in the project’s success. He said that after the 24/7 Wall St. report was released, Journal Star staff members got together to discuss which topics needed to be addressed and when to cover them. “While we were talking about stories in January some of them weren’t published until summer or later in the fall,” Anderson said.
3. Being consistent in engaging with the community.
Consistently scheduling and hosting the community meetings was key to drawing in more people and building their trust in the Journal Star. “Early on, the people there were checking to see if we were committed,” Anderson said. “It’s very important that you’re always there, and when you get a phone call you answer it and if people have a concern you listen and act.”
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Measuring impact
Anderson said most the impact resulting from the City of Disparity series has been anecdotal. “There has been no scientific research or anything,” Anderson said. “We have not seen an increase in print or digital subscriptions from the community outreach. But what we have seen in a higher level of engagement from the community in the meetings and people inviting colleagues or community partners, and requests to be included in our distribution list and Facebook page.”
2. Seeking feedback from the city
“We wish we saw more feedback or involvement from the city of Peoria in regard to our stories,” Anderson said. “What we missed was a true ‘What’s next?’ component.” He said the city has yet to show how it plans to address the issues identified and acknowledged in City of Disparity, or to follow up on community meetings city leaders themselves had as a result of the 24/7 Wall St. survey.
3. Looking for change
Peoria has been on the 24/7 Wall St. list each year since 2015. Anderson said it has been frustrating to see a lack of improvement in the city. “We need to do more stories about why the community and the city haven’t brought about change. Our role is to continue to tell the stories that matter to the community.”
Here’s what else you should know
Award winning: City of Disparity won a first-place national award from the Associated Press Media Editors for Community Engagement.
Understanding the issue: According to 2010 – 2014 salary data, household earnings in the South Side neighborhood stood at $21,527 compared the city’s overall $46,062.
Connected readers: The Journal Star Readers Facebook group and email distribution list include over 170 members.