Budget-battered newsrooms at daily newspapers have led to what critics call “news deserts” in many U.S. urban centers. But the GateHouse Media-owned Peoria Journal Star, where budget slashing reduced editorial staffing by close to a third, built an online oasis in its Central Illinois community from its shrunken newsroom.
In this Q&A, Executive Editor Dennis Anderson details how he and his team, with support from the paper’s publisher, did it.
About a year after you joined the Journal Star as executive editor in 2012, you met with your newspaper’s consumer sales and marketing director, Norb Gray, to see how the paper’s print subscriptions were distributed throughout the city. What did you find out that stunned you?
I learned that about only 5% of the paper was distributed in the predominantly poor and black South Side, which is a significant part of the city’s 114,000 population. We had to do something. People connect with a newspaper when they see themselves in it. When you looked at the Journal Star then, we weren’t doing that.
The 61605 ZIP code comprising the South Side, whose population is almost 60% African-American, is the second-poorest in Illinois, and 49th poorest in America. This is a neighborhood that needs help and attention.
From what you discovered about the disconnect between Peoria’s biggest and poorest black community and the Journal Star, what did you do?
We made it our mission, working with our publisher at the time, Ken Mauser, that we would reach out to the people of the South Side and make sure they had a place where they could tell us about the good things happening where they live.
They are a community like any other. They have families. They have jobs, they go to church, they go to school, they are a neighborhood, and we needed to tell their stories.
Like a beat reporter, I met with community leaders, social service agencies, and others to get to know the people I needed to know.
You began holding monthly readership meetings. How did they go?
At our first meeting in March 2014 at South Side Mission, about 30 people showed up. We were there with our publisher and circulation director and a couple of people from the newsroom and me. Over lunch, our visitors were very upfront about how they saw the Journal Star. They told us about their past experiences with the newspaper, sometimes from years ago, and those experiences weren’t good. People stopped reading us because we weren’t essential to their lives. We just weren’t there. But I knew after that first meeting we had a really good chance to reach the neighborhood.
What happened next?
About 18 people showed up at the second meeting at the South Side’s Neighborhood House. They were there to make sure we were committed. Too often, I was told, people would reach out to the South Side and never return. We made a commitment and agreed to meet monthly at agencies throughout the neighborhood. We listened, and people shared story ideas, which we have followed through on.
About a year into your meetings, the business website Wall Street 24/7 published a story about “The Worst Cites for Black Americans.” Peoria was one of the cities. How did your South Side audiences react to that?
Members of our community group reacted immediately, saying the report was accurate, that there was a lot of disparity between their neighborhood and others throughout Peoria.
We decided we would explore how Peoria wound up on this list, to explain the details behind the numbers. We spent a year doing our series “City of Disparity.” We looked at health care, jobs, businesses, housing, education, crime and arrest records, among other topics.
If you live on the North end of Peoria, you’re living a totally different life than people on the South Side. We took a close look at the differences.
An important part of “City of Disparity” is told not through a textual recitation of facts but visualizations that vividly show the contrasts between the very poor and mostly black 61605 Zip Code on the South Side and the affluent and mostly white North Side—like this image. Did this require a lot of work in research and design?
The reporting took a lot of work, but our community outreach the previous year really came through in terms of sources, and real examples of the numbers we were seeing and reporting. We also filed several FOIAs with the city and state to get the data. Our Graphic Artist Michael Noel and Assistant Managing Editor Adam Gerik did outstanding work on the graphics and online databases to make the numbers digestible but compelling for our audience.
One of the members of your South Side black readership group, Robbie Criss, had a family crisis with Peoria police. Because he now knew you, he called you in his emergency. What’s the lesson of that call?
Robbie Criss’ two teenage sons were arrested at gunpoint in a school park, Robbie told me on the phone. He was mad and frustrated. He said his sons were arrested because they “looked like” suspects in an armed robbery. His sons were detained and later released. Criss and his sons later got an apology from the city. You read about this happening across America. But when you see it happening to people you know, that’s the story we can tell locally in the Journal Star. The community knows we will listen and tell this story.
You and your team put together “City of Disparity” with a much smaller editorial staff than you had when you came to the Journal Star. How did you do more with less?
Our staffing has experienced similar reductions you likely have seen throughout the industry. But we pride ourselves on planning daily enterprise, which is led by Managing Editor Sally McKee and Assignment Editor Chris Kaergard. After a staff meeting to plan the series and topics for the year-long project, we included the series in our Sunday planning, making sure reporters, photographers and designers had time to work with the content to make sure it was some of our finest work.
How did “City of Disparity” play out with the Journal Star’s affluent and mostly white audience on the North Side?
We received a lot of feedback locally and from people who left Peoria years ago, thanking us for the coverage and sharing their experiences. But we also heard from some readers who thought we were spending too much time telling these stories. I even saw one comment from a reader calling us the “Black Journal Star.” That told me people were paying attention to our coverage.
What happens on the South Side matters to the entire community. Resources spent there are paid for with tax dollars from throughout the community, so everyone should pay attention and be involved in helping to make positive change there.
What has been the response of the city government to the series?
Two years ago, the city led community dialogues, but nothing has happened since then. The city has yet to come back and report to the community on what it’s going to do about what it has learned. The people on the South Side haven’t heard any response. We need to go full circle.
We’ve told the city the Journal Star can be part of sharing the news. We have not been invited to take part.
How did “City of Disparity” affect the Journal Star’s new drive to get digital subscriptions?
We haven’t increased subscriptions, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing these stories. This is about community engagement, not just circulation. People are able to see themselves in the newspaper, and that helps to lead to life-long fans of the newspaper. In that sense, our work has been a success.
What were the print circulation and digital traffic numbers before “City of Disparity,” and what are they today?
Our audited print circulation in 2012 was 51,720 daily and 63,510 Sunday. Today it is 32,493 daily and 39,613 Sunday. Our monthly digital traffic in 2012 was 4.6 million pageviews and 590,748 unique visitors. Today it is 4.2 million page views and 543,815 unique visitors.
The loss in circulation coincides with the challenges our industry faces on the business side. From a newsroom perspective, our way to combat this is through stronger engagement and being the community’s watchdog.
You have talked with editors around the country about what the Journal Star has done with its “Disparity” coverage. What’s their reaction?
They want to be more involved, and that’s encouraging. But I hear too many of them complaining about what they used to have. That’s not productive. Few newsrooms in our communities across the country have what we have in terms of news professionals. We have to talk about what we have now and how best to use those resources instead of what we used to have.
The Journal Star was named “GateHouse Newspaper of the Year” in 2013, and Dennis Anderson was honored in 2016 as “GateHouse Editor of the Year.” In 2017, the Journal Star won two Associated Press Media Editor Awards for First Amendment and Community Engagement for its “City of Disparity” series.