In 1967, Austin Journal — a now-defunct publication that once circulated in Austin when the community was mostly white — ran an advertisement. The word “safety,” sprawled in bold type, helmed the upper portion of the ad. Of course, safety in the context of Austin, and throughout most of the West Side of Chicago, had very different connotations back then.
When the West Side was mostly white, safety was something advertised in the local paper by a bank selling itself based on the strength of its deposit insurance. Back then, safety meant the safety to invest without fear of losing your money.
Now, if the word safety were published in bold lettering in Austin Weekly News, the context would not likely be an advertisement — let alone one for selling financial security.
In Austin today, when nearly 90 percent of its residents are black, safety implies being free of violence and crime.
A local paper deposited in this context of perpetual crisis, unlike a white newspaper, has an extra burden to acknowledge the symptoms of this crisis (the individual crimes, victims, suspects), but also to ground our reporting in a historical understanding of what causes the symptoms in the first place (structural racism) and to layer our reporting in the perspectives of the people we serve.
In addition, media outlets in black and brown communities are strongest and most valuable to their core audience when they are critical counterpoints to the dominant, often racist, narratives about blacks perpetuated by mainstream media organizations.
For instance, when Andre Chatman, 23, and Carey Hollis, 28, were both murdered on the 5800 block of West North Avenue in March 2015, the local TV news outlet reported the symptoms. Two black men killed (likely) by other black men. Police were still investigating. No suspects in custody. The only perspectives in the article were those of the police and the coroner.
This report, taken alone, is fodder for Fox News talking points that perpetuate dangerous myths about black life, such as the myth that black people are quicker to protest police-involved shootings than they are to protest or speak up about black-on-black shootings. That black parents are either absentee or dysfunctional. That black people cannot articulate their own suffering.
Austin Weekly News reported on the two murders a week after the TV news did, but our story was about a press conference that a group of clergymen had convened at the site of the shooting. The ministers were calling on the police and lawmakers to do more to prevent the dissemination of the kind of semiautomatic weapons that resulted in the two deaths. They also spoke out against the perpetrators, urging them to turn themselves in and for those who saw the crime to tell what they saw to police.
The mother of one of the murdered men recited a poem about her son. She had feared for his safety for a while. She did not sugarcoat the life he lived. She shared her pain.
Through our reporting, the reader at least gets a glimpse of a three-dimensional life. They get a glimpse of much larger, systemic forces that constitute the kind of invisible, structural violence that often goes unexamined and unacknowledged in conventional media reports.
We have a duty to counter the mainstream media’s narrative of what life is like in crisis-ridden communities like Austin, but we also must go beyond a step beyond contrapuntal crisis reporting.
The British philosopher Alain de Botton, in “The News: A User’s Manual” (2014), writes:
“Unless we have some sense of what passes for normality in a given location, we may find it very hard to calibrate or care about abnormal conditions. We can be properly concerned about the sad and violent interruptions only if we know enough about the underlying steady state of a place, about the daily life, routines and modest hopes of its population.”
Publications in struggling black and brown communities must not only counter the narrative of mainstream organizations, we also have to calibrate our crisis reporting with reporting on the “steady state” of the places we cover.
The problem is that in communities hit with structural crises — from extreme poverty to shuttered schools — covering those “routines and modest hopes” can sometimes be difficult, particularly with scarce resources.
To be frank, in our attempts at calibrating crisis coverage (i.e., crime, protests, vigils, etc.) with “steady state” coverage (birthdays, parades, human interest profiles, etc.), Austin Weekly News sometimes finds ourselves stuck on repeat (hence, the sense that some of the same people and places and events comprise the bulk of our stead state coverage).
This is why we opened ourselves up to City Bureau’s critical, pioneering experiment in local journalism. We want to cover more people, incorporate more voices and highlight more great things in this beautifully imperfect community of ours. Resources are tight and personnel are few, but it’s not enough to throw up our hands in defeat. We have to try. Even if it means failing. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.