October 1st, 2017

There are plenty of newspaper journalists out there who do understand the dictum of Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley:

Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.

Cleveland’s Plain Dealer is seldom in such company.

Dennis Anderson’s piece in The Guardian, Our newspaper was irrelevant to Peoria’s South Side. Here’s how we changed that, tells how to do journalism right. Anderson, executive editor of the Peoria Journal Star writes:

On an evening last September, I received a call from Robbie Criss, a member of a readership group my publication, the Journal Star in Illinois, started three years ago to improve coverage of Peoria’s South Side, a neighborhood where many residents struggle with poverty.

Criss told me his two teenage sons were arrested in a park at gunpoint and were brought into the Peoria police station because they “looked like” suspects in an armed robbery. About five hours later, after police determined the young men had nothing to do with the crime, they were released.

Criss was furious and I could barely understand him during the call. He said the only reason his sons were detained was because they were black. The police department completed its investigation of the incident and found that while the teens were detained in a proper manner, some professional standards were violated. Police would not explain in detail what they meant by that. However, during our coverage of the story, the police department apologized to the Criss family.

Not too long ago, the Journal Star wouldn’t have received a call like the one from Criss. Frankly, we weren’t a factor in the life of the neighborhood. We were told by some that they believed the only reason we went to the South Side was to cover crime, or when free meals were handed out to the needy during Christmas or Thanksgiving.

Sound familiar? Here’s how the Star Journal set out to change:

As part of our work, I lead monthly meetings at agencies throughout the neighborhood, such as South Side Mission, Neighborhood House, Helping Hand Resource Center and Dream Center Peoria, and share the more than one dozen stories the Journal Star writes each month as a result of our growing community source list. We talk about stories we should be covering, current local and national events and concerns people have with news coverage.

Can our Pee Dee change? Maybe. Change, however, has to start at the top with editors courageous enough to say no to sports boosterism and feel-good stories of the wealthy, by the wealthy and for the wealthy. I have no doubt that there are reporters still writing for the Plain Dealer eager to write the kinds of stories that Anderson describes. Sadly, most are probably marking time until they can get out of Cleveland and start writing real stories.

Once again, the loss is ours.

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