A Chicago DNAinfo reporter laments lost opportunities to tell neighborhood stories
Editor's note: This article first appeared on andreavwatson.wordpress.com.
I lost my job and the entire world knows, but just in case you haven’t been on social media, haven’t read or watched the news, here’s a link to a story that explains what happened.
So I have always been a private person, which is why I was annoyed, at first, that the news surfaced the way it did and as quickly as it did. We literally found out just minutes before everyone else did. That feeling of annoyance and slight embarrassment only lasted a few minutes, however, because I realized that this thing had nothing to do with my performance. This was bigger than Andrea Watson.
Every single reporter at DNAinfo was a daily voice for the people. We told stories that oftentimes would get overlooked. The community relied on us as much as we relied on them. This, in some ways, was a partnership. Strong local reporting is something we’re seeing less and less of, but my team in Chicago woke up every single day on a mission to produce great neighborhood stories. We were respected for that type of dedication.
Writing has always been therapeutic for me, so as I’m still trying to process the craziness that happened only a few days ago, I have to go back to what I know. This post isn’t about anything political. I’m not here to bash DNAinfo or the owner. DNA was the best job I’ve ever had. This is about the amazing people I have met over the past three years and the stories I was able to tell.
When I first joined DNAinfo’s Chicago team, I was excited, yet a little nervous. Besides a semester in graduate school, I was used to covering city-wide news. Being told that I now had to specifically find stories that no one else had, in the same three neighborhoods, every single day, was a little intimidating. I was used to press releases and City Council, but now I had to build new relationships. I was up for the challenge.
I started out going to almost every community meeting so I could meet people. For me to tell stories that mattered to the people in Englewood, Chatham and Auburn Gresham, I needed to know what their issues were. I had to find trusted community leaders who were willing to bring me up to speed on the ongoing issues and the history in their neighborhoods. I scheduled coffee meetings, I met with founders of different organizations, big and small. I set appointments with aldermen. I told them who I was and I asked them questions. Those introductory meetings, as well as my work ethic, paved the way for me.
I had to build trust. People always ask how I got the stories I did. The answer is simple. I didn’t let my job or title change me. I’ve always been me. Most people in the communities I covered were a little skeptical about talking to journalists. They didn’t know me and there was always that fear that I would twist their words. I got it. I did what I had to so that they would feel comfortable with me. After I began producing quality work, the word spread. People began reaching out to me. I got tips, exclusives, original stories that other media outlets copied.
It wasn’t a competition. It was me giving South Side residents a voice. Even as I write this I feel the tears coming. I really loved my job. I don’t know if I would have felt the same way if I were assigned to another neighborhood. The best part of what I did was that I met so many amazing, talented, intelligent individuals that the rest of the world didn’t know. I shared their stories and every time I did that, I felt like I was helping change the narrative, the stigma that some outsiders have placed on people who live in the communities I covered, communities that families on both of my parents’ sides grew up in.
Neighborhoods like Englewood, which my mother, uncles, grandmother have lived in, have a bad reputation, although it’s improving. When I first started, people asked me all the time if I felt safe there. They asked if I was afraid. I hated those questions. I would always respond back saying, “I’m aware of my surroundings no matter where I go and no, I’m not scared. I’m fine.”
I have done a lot of stories for DNAinfo that required me to knock on doors, to show up at a crime scene the day after and talk to businesses, neighbors. I was really in the community.
I’ve written so many stories that it’s hard to say which are my favorites, but I will make a short list of the most memorable.
- I covered the aldermanic race in the 18th Ward. It wasn’t much of one when the former two-term alderwoman blew off each debate forum. That just made for a better story for me.
- The story I did on a local artist who used another artist’s work of Michelle Obama, without giving her credit, was a great story. It went national.
- I can’t forget the Earle STEM Academy chess team in West Englewood. I did so many stories on those kids that eventually they got to meet former President Barack Obama. I visited the school several times after 4 p.m. in the winter to interview them, take photos and listen to how much they love the game. I followed them for over a year. I still remember meeting this one girl and how the first time I met her she was very shy, then the next year she opened up a lot more. She had come out of her shell.
- I wrote about three young black women from Lindblom who were headed off to Harvard, Stanford and MIT in the fall.
- I can’t forget about the “Army of Moms.” That group has grown so much and has made a huge difference. Anything they do is news and I’ve always tried to be there to tell it. I remember when they offered a prom for those who either never attended their own or couldn’t. I went. I had a blast. I connected once again with the folks from the community. This has always been more than a job for me. It’s building relationships.
- Jahmal Cole of My Block My Hood My City has given me so many great stories. He has changed lives. The teens he brings to his program have not been exposed to anything beyond their neighborhoods. I’ve had the opportunity to tag along on so many trips: sailing, an intense crossfit class, cooking lessons, a jewelry making class, an Ethiopian restaurant, and I even traveled to Washington, D.C. with a group from North Lawndale. I was able to capture them trying these things for the first time. It was great.
- I met a 95-Year-Old World War II Vet in Chatham who tended gardens for his whole block, including his own.
The day DNAinfo folded was a sad day, especially for the South Side. I wonder what’s going to happen now. Will stories get left untold or will someone else step up? I applaud the work of other journalists in this city. I wasn’t the only one who covered those neighborhoods, but I think it’s safe to say that DNAinfo had a different model and that allowed us to really embed ourselves in those neighborhoods. We reported on all news. We didn’t parachute in because there was a child who was shot or the mayor was cutting a ribbon. We covered the new neighborhood restaurant, the homeowner who started a community garden and the young black woman who was raising money to help people in Africa. We did it all. No news was too small. There was no such thing. If it mattered to the community, we wrote about it.
This isn’t the end for me. I can’t say for certain what’s next yet, but just know that this was much more than a job. I will find a way to continue telling your stories. Stay tuned.