Opinion: Local News Organizations Slow to Invest in Neighborhood Economics Reporting

Neighborhoods, like the cities they inhabit, are built on hard economic truths: jobs, housing, public transit, water, sewage, power and communications connections, shops, theaters and other entertainment, even houses of worship (they, too, must be solvent).

We take all these for granted.

If we don’t have them, we don’t want to live there. Look at Chicago, where I’ve resided for many decades and whose problems are perhaps typical of newsworthy situations in many other cities. There’s been a long-term drain of population in the struggling Chicago neighborhoods of Englewood on the South Side and West Garfield Park on the West Side. Yes, crime compounds their problems these days, but the solution isn’t just policing, it harks back to basics: jobs and housing.

How does local, neighborhood journalism cover such continuing blights on a city? Is there enough scrutiny of the economic and financial factors at work?

All good journalism must necessarily extend to money matters. They’re vital to the life of all communities, large and small. People care—they have to care—about money. A paucity of economic news surely contributes to any perceived shortcomings in local coverage, exacerbating the community’s sense that local news is out of touch.

A paucity of economic news surely contributes to any perceived shortcomings in local coverage, exacerbating the community’s sense that local news is out of touch.

Realistically, however, if the local news organization is operating with a bare-bones budget and a tiny staff, it’s probably not able to hire a business reporter — schools and public safety will come first. In fact, this is an argument for not-for-profit news shops, able to solicit support from foundations, charitable individuals and the general public, with the lure of tax deductions. So far, experience shows that subscriptions and advertising alone (which a not-for-profit can still solicit) aren’t likely to do the trick.

To be sure, the economic underpinnings of a community, in particular its weaknesses, often boil over into local politics. Suddenly they’re more comprehensible, more visible and more readily covered by news organizations. A current furor in Chicago’s low-income South Shore and Woodlawn neighborhoods over the feared rent escalation threatened by the coming of a huge project, the proposed Obama Presidential Center, is a case in point.

So what does it take — or better, what should it take — for a neighborhood’s changing economic facts of life to become a news story, even before they become political? In other words, when does an economic problem, or progress, warrant recognition by the press, and thus by the community?

This is the right time to ask that question in Chicago, for our many mayoral candidates are all for helping our neighborhoods, to make them safer, cleaner, stronger, to somehow improve their residents’ quality of life. How will they do this? Details are very, very sparse.

This political deficit may be explained in part by Chicago’s paucity of financial resources as it struggles to cope with huge debt and pension obligations foisted on the taxpayers by previous political “leaders,” but the fact is that improving street cleaning or garbage pickup or street lighting or policing can’t do the whole job. The key to a better neighborhood is at bottom economic: better jobs, better housing, better shops and entertainment, all calling for greater private investment, ideally fostered by wise and supportive city policies.

For a news angle, let’s start with real estate. Drive north through the prosperous Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods on one of Chicago’s major internal arteries, Clark Street. Lively and bustling. Busy local shops, restaurants, theaters, pubs, gyms, realtors, doctors, other offices. Pedestrians crossing everywhere. An urban delight.

But soon after Wrigley Field, in many blocks appear empty storefronts that perhaps are in transition but if persistent will constitute neighborhood black eyes.

Sometimes nothingness is news. Especially if it continues. News reflects change, and languishing storefronts may signal a problem — for the landlord and for the community.

Sometimes nothingness is news. Especially if it continues. News reflects change, and languishing storefronts may signal a problem — for the landlord and for the community. How does a neighborhood newspaper or website grasp it? Rents too high? All retailers are under pressure. Is it Amazon? At some point should a once-healthy but lagging commercial building be replaced by affordable housing or some other modern structure? How much would that cost? Would the nearby bank, likely just a branch of New York or Cincinnati or Charlotte or Toronto, be willing to take on the risk of a loan? Might local people be employed?

In other words, what are the economics?

The other side of the real estate coin is gentrification. It’s often treated as a dirty word. It connotes dislocation of current renters and owners who can’t keep up with rising rents, prices, real estate taxes. But gentrification is natural, and desirable, in the life of a vibrant, healthy city. It means new investment, better quality housing and shops, favorable surroundings for starting a small business, higher tax revenues for the city.

It’s gentrification that Chicago’s Woodlawn and South Shore are resisting in the face of the Obama Center. Another prominent current example in Chicago: the very popular, 2.7-mile elevated bike and pedestrian trail called the 606 (the first three numerals of  all of Chicago’s zip codes) on the North Side, has sparked a jump in nearby real estate rents and prices, notably in the Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods. Now some residents want the City Council to somehow control or limit this healthy appreciation. They want the Council to deliberately blunt the economic bounty of gentrification, for the limited benefit of existing renters.

Today, as always, the typical journalist is a verbal person, averse to business and finance and economic intelligence. The political squabble, the racial conflict, the social justice issue, they’re more obvious, more manageable.

Thus the 606 political story has overridden the economic. Is this good for the city — or just for those nearby residents? It’s certainly not good for landlords or for real estate developers and investors, the folks who often grease the skids of economic progress.

This is a great story. Or at least it should be.

But therein lies the rub. This kind of story opportunity is likely to be a challenge for a neighborhood news organization. To recognize, report and write such a story requires a journalist with a modicum of training, or at least an instinct. Today, as always, the typical journalist is a verbal person, averse to business and finance and economic intelligence. The political squabble, the racial conflict, the social justice issue, they’re more obvious, more manageable. Yet most of them have economic roots or ramifications. Economic (read, money) stories often require more insight, more digging, more time. Consequently they’re the kind of story most likely to be overlooked by a local news organization.

Yet these stories abound. Everywhere. Especially in a city neighborhood.

Finding them and covering them will remain a challenge for local news, an unrealized opportunity, except in that newsroom directed — and trained — by the editor sensitive to the workings (or failings) of the local economy and confident of his team’s ability to tackle the financial story.

About the author

Joe Mathewson

Associate Professor

Joe Mathewson is an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and a former practicing attorney. His previous positions include U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, press secretary to Illinois Gov. Richard Ogilvie, Cook County commissioner and director of several community banks.

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