A few weeks ago, the Better Government Association and our partners, WBEZ, completed a major investigation that exposed unsafe elevators at Chicago Housing Authority buildings, which house thousands of seniors.
As we planned how best to publish our findings, I had a scary thought: The people most affected by this issue — the seniors who live in public housing — might never see these stories. My second thought was a question: How can we change that?
It’s a question journalists don’t typically ask ourselves, but one that — as Engagement Editor at the BGA — I’m empowered to explore. Part of my job is to understand how people are or are not interacting with our work and to identify methods and tools that can improve how we serve them.
“It’s absolutely crucial that both of our elevators are operating,” said Wayne Sivels, 68, who lives in Zelda Ormes Apartments. “We can’t get along without them.”
But as an online-only outlet, many residents like Sivels wouldn't see our stories. Many seniors who live in public housing tend to be on the other side of the generational digital divide and lack access to the internet. To get around this, we decided to go back to basics: we printed hundreds of copies of our investigation and hit the streets.
How we did it
The BGA’s reporter on the story, Alejandra Cancino, and I, along with one of our editors, John Chase, chose five CHA senior buildings as test cases: Caroline Hedger, Zelda Ormes, Lincoln Perry, Patrick Sullivan and Vivian Gordon Harsh apartments. Near each of those apartment buildings we placed copies of the stories in diners and restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, health clinics and doctors' offices, and service organization offices. We tacked copies to bulletin boards and left them on magazine racks — anywhere we thought seniors or their families might find them.
A few weeks ago, we circled back with one community. Alejandra and I were invited to the monthly resident council meeting at Caroline Hedger to talk about the story and take questions. We also were able to hand deliver copies of our stories to people who otherwise might not have seen them.
Finally, thanks to a grant by the Community Listening and Engagement Fund, we used GroundSource to set up a phone number specifically for people to text us their own experiences with elevators in Chicago. GroundSource is a mobile tool that allows newsrooms to communicate with the public through text messages.
That tip line is still up and running: text the word Elevators to (312) 275-4964 if you’ve had problems with elevators in the city, in CHA buildings or otherwise.
This is the first time the BGA has taken an approach like this to audience engagement and outreach, and I’ve learned a lot that will inform how we do this for future investigations.
For instance, we only reached a fraction of the 88 buildings owned by CHA. Our small team has limitations, but I think the response and impact paid off.
Another limitation was the language barrier. A sizable portion of Caroline Hedger residents primarily speak a language other than English. Reaching these members of the community in their native language wasn’t something we were able to do with this investigation, but it raises more questions about access and outreach that I’ll be thinking about going forward.
I consider it a win if we are able to engage members of the community who otherwise might have been shut out of our reporting – even if it’s only a handful of people. I believe this kind of targeted, specialized outreach is necessary to build a meaningful community and to effectively serve (and expand) our audience. We still have a lot of fine-tuning and troubleshooting to do, but we’re getting closer.
Do you have any questions, comments or suggestions for me? Ideas for how to better reach you and your community? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.