By: Karen Kring, CJA Member
On September 15, we learned about remarkable Journalists carving their own paths in Chicago media! The program can be viewed here.
Panelists were Mina Bloom of Block Club Chicago, Nader Issa of The Chicago Sun-Times, Angel Idowu of WTTW-Chicago PBS, and Ankur Singh of Cicero Independiente. Veteran journalist Maudlyne Ihejirika served as moderator.
Mina Bloom lives in Logan Square and covers Logan Square, Avondale and Humboldt Park for Block Club Chicago, a descendant of DNAInfo, where she worked previously. At DNAInfo, she was a “runner,” aka general assignment at first, before being assigned a few neighborhoods. Previous to DNAInfo, she freelanced and worked at her day job with Groupon. She’s loving Block Club’s mission and doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
Angel Idowu just started as the arts correspondent for WTTW’s Black Voices and Latino Voices shows after joining WTTW in July 2019. She believes art can be anything that is a form of self-expression. Previously, she was a general assignment reporter and producer for a CBS affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi. She’s an alum of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and Beloit College, but she got her first taste of journalism at Mother McCauley High School.
Nader Issa has been covering Education for the Chicago Sun-Times just over a year. He started just in time to cover a teachers strike, an historic school closing, and racial injustice protests. With the Sun-Times since 2017, he worked as a general assignment reporter covering a variety of stories, such as the Chance the Snapper alligator saga, Chicago’s criminal courts, and violence. His first assignment with the paper was on the breaking news desk during the overnight shift, midnight until 8 a.m. Nader grew up in Lombard and is an alum of Loyola University. He originally thought he’d be doing sports for the Sun-Times.
Ankur Singh co-founded Cicero Independiente, a bilingual, independent news outlet for Cicero residents. It’s been in existence just over a year. He didn’t study journalism, and stresses that he is not a professional journalist and still has a day job. He went to high school in Bloomington, Illinois, then attended a small liberal arts college in Arizona, where he studied to become a teacher, and since high school, has been engaged with media literacy. During his senior year, he moved to Nogales, Arizona on the U.S.-Mexican border, where he taught media literacy to 7th– and 8th-grade students. He attended Medill for grad school, moving to Cicero when he got a job for a nonprofit there, but soon saw the need for community news, so he and others created Cicero Independiente, run by part-timers.
Panelist Q & A, paraphrased:
Q: Given the nature of the media landscape these days, what is your biggest challenge as you consider your next move in the industry?
Mina: I’m encouraged by the digital outlets springing up, offerings options which are almost overwhelming. I see a lot to be excited about.
Angel: I feel up until this year, race has not been discussed widely. I don’t know what my next move will be, but I now feel I can go anywhere with my career and not be seen as a biased journalist due to my coverage of race.
Nader: Top of mind for me today is that my news outlet aligns with my values. Many legacy outlets don’t align with my values based on what and how they cover their community, and the atmosphere in the newsroom. Based on the values principal, are there independent outlets that are more aligned? Will I need to create a news outlet? Lots of possible paths.
Ankur: I didn’t find any jobs that aligned with my values, so I started Cicero Independiente. But I find keeping it sustainable to be the biggest challenge.
Q: How has the pandemic and America’s post-George Floyd reckoning with race reshaped your work?
Mina: Our world has changed. We (at Block Club) report every day on how our neighbors are being affected by the pandemic, while not just reporting doom and gloom. Due to the nature of our times, we are prioritizing stories that have moral force and will make a difference. Having journalists of color in the newsroom is crucial. Interviewing people of color is important.
Angel: Influenced by the pandemic, my arts coverage shifted — from the exhausting “How are you coping?” — to more often asking, “How are you being innovative?” She feels her pieces are meant to offer a short break from the heaviness. Since the start of the reckoning, she’s feeling more comfortable with celebrating Black culture in her work, and just being herself.
Nader: During this pandemic I’ve covered how schools are supporting their communities during the pandemic as education centers, shelters and food pantries. and the debate over going back to school during the pandemic because of the supports they offer. I reported on one student who’s homeless, and now she has to scramble to get what she needs. “I’ve learned a lot.” I’m challenged to find positive news angles, “because every thing is so depressing.”
Ankur: The pandemic exacerbated problems Cicero already had. Cicero was one of the suburbs hardest hit by the virus. It was super overwhelming. Cicero has been a hot spot for social unrest. It’s been hard to cover.
Q: Mina, tell us how you scooped everyone on the Chance the Snapper story.
A: Block Club got an early morning tip from its tip line. Editor Shamus Toomey wanted to make this story a priority, but I wasn’t feeling it, thinking. “It’s probably a plastic bag.” I covered it hard though. Park employees were not willing to share the photo they had of the alligator, which in the end didn’t show much. Eventually a good photo was made by a reader. It became a bigger story when the police, animal control, the Sun-Times, and Alligator Bob showed up.
Q: Nader, what are some of the top stories you’ve done that went viral?
A: My most read work have been those with unique angles. I credit using direct language regarding race for making a difference. One big story was a post mortem on the teachers strike, which fleshed out the politics involved. Service Journalism — which answers the questions about where can you get services — is news that our readers need and is always widely read, like one that I did on a food pantry being looted and alternative places to get food.
Q: Ankur, what impact has Cicero Independiente had on its community?
A: Previously there was no independent news source in Cicero, so I feel the outlet has had a lot of impact. It follows town government by going to town meetings. Its features are rich too. Publishing in Spanish makes a difference … as well as in Spanglish. We’ve gotten to experiment and try new things, which is a lot of fun.
Q: Angel, share with us two or three of your stories most meaningful to you.
One that spoke to me was before the pandemic. I reported on an African arts collective which promotes making, collecting and showcasing Black art at home. “No two stories are the same.” Another was about an anonymous artist named Don’t Fret, and then there was the one I did on a Balinese dancer out of Evanston.
Q: For journalists of color: How are legacy media outlets supporting and promoting your voice? And how do you prevent burn-out, working in primarily white spaces?
Angel: Hiring is supportive. To prevent burnout, I had to learn to pick my battles. Remember that advocating for yourself is okay.
Nader: Making sure your own voice is supported by yourself is important. If something is off, speak up, say something. Organizations promoting and supporting our voices is a work in progress. Not letting micro-aggressions get on your nerves matters. Keeping your mental health strong also matters. I try to disconnect from Twitter for a week every so often.
Q: As early career journalists, what do you think needs to change in Journalism for the field to continue to be a strong pillar in our society?
Mina: We need to make sure we are uplifting all kinds of people and their voices. We want our stories to reflect our communities. We also have to be diligent about social media and debunking misinformation being shared. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” is still a thing.
Ankur: I don’t have a good answer for that. Historically, Journalism has not served working-class communities of color. Figuring that out matters.
Q: What tips do you have for recent Journalism graduates?
Angel: Work on standing out. That which was working last year will not work this year. Be true to yourself. Use social media smartly and creatively.
Mina: Become an expert on what you like to cover, like the guy covering the cannabis industry. In other words, don’t aim to be a general assignment reporter.