On June 3, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot agreed to a 15-minute virtual interview with Austin Weekly News.
She spoke about her controversial decision to provide interviews exclusively to journalists of color on the occasion of the 2-year anniversary of her inauguration, local media, the Loretto Hospital vaccine scandal and Invest South/West.
AWN: I read the letter you emailed to various newsrooms throughout Chicago calling on them to diversify. I appreciate you for bringing the issue to the forefront, but although you mentioned large legacy outlets like the Chicago Tribune and Crain’s, you did not mention smaller, neighborhood-based and/or non-traditional outlets, where Black and Brown journalists are much more likely to have positions of influence or even own.
How can the city ensure that small, hyper-local publications like Austin Weekly News, where minority journalists are more likely to be editors and publishers, owners and in other positions of authority, get equitable access to your office and to other city agencies?
LL: By doing what I did, it started this important conversation about the lack of diversity in the mainstream press.
I’m hoping something really good and powerful comes from that,” the mayor continued. “I know that I’ve talked to a number of Black journalists, in particular, who … are really taking it to the mainstream media and really picking up the baton, if you will, and running with it to say, ‘You’ve got to diversify your newsrooms.’ That is a demand that’s got to be addressed.”
I started this conversation because … this year I’ve probably done close to 55 standup press conferences and I rarely see diversity, a small handful. It’s almost all white reporters for the mainstream press.
You know, one of the things that we started pre-pandemic and we’re going to pick up again as we move out of it, is going to the hyperlocal neighborhood press and I hope you’ll participate. I think we did that with some success in recognizing that a lot of the small, hyper-local media outlets don’t have huge capacity — maybe in many instances have freelancers and part-time folks, but it’s really important to me that we reach people in neighborhoods.
AWN: Jacqueline Serrato, the editor for South Side Weekly, tweeted that her outlet had requested an interview, but despite them being a haven for Black and Brown, they were denied. Can you explain why that happened?
LL: I don’t know anything about that. When we started this conversation, we got deluged with requests that we are still working our way through. I’m not aware of anybody getting denied.
AWN: Are you familiar with HB 134, a bill filed by Sen. Steve Stadelman that recently passed both the Illinois General Assembly and that would create a statewide Local Journalism Task Force? And do you think a similar task force on the local level would be helpful?
LL: I’m not familiar with the legislation, but clearly we’re in a time of transition when it comes to the media and we’ve been in this place for a while. The consolidation of media outlets, less and less people getting their news from traditional media sources, so this is a really pivotal time in the transition from what was to what will be and a lot of this is market forces. There has to be space for local journalism.
You remember DNAinfo? That was wildly popular, because they took a hyperlocal approach on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. I think we all know why that publication went away, but I think that opens up an opportunity for publications like your own … So, we’ve got to think about how we create those kinds of spaces. I think it’s critically important.
AWN: Here on the West Side, we’ve reported quite extensively about your Invest South/West initiatives, particularly the redevelopment of the Laramie Bank Building in Austin. There were some community stakeholders who felt that the community engagement process related to the Laramie project was not sufficient.
For instance, only 37 of the roughly 100 people who attended the community meetings took the community survey, which was used as a key criteria in selecting the developers who were chosen. And it’s also not a guarantee that all of them were Austin residents. Can you address some of these concerns that people had with the community engagement process?
LL: We are doing and will continue to do a level of community engagement around these opportunities to restore the hidden gems of these communities. That, to me, is critically important.
From the start of Invest South/West, which launched on the West Side in October 2019, we’ve literally done hundreds of community meetings all across the Invest South/West geography. The goal was to hear from the community, what the needs were, did we get the area right, the corridors right.
AWN: Are you satisfied with the level of attendance at those meetings?
LL: There’s always room for improvement and you never quite ever get it perfect, but I think the effort has been there and we’ve reached literally thousands of people through these community activations that have been going on for quite some time.
So, regarding the West Side, we looked at the Laramie State Bank, which is this beautiful building that’s been abandoned for years, maybe decades.
So the idea was, give us your best ideas about how to revitalize this particular structure in the surrounding area. Obviously, we wanted to know the budget, but really we wanted to know what was the vision for employing local residents, what was the vision for empowering and putting together a design, architecture and building team that was Black and Brown, and that was very explicit in the RFP. It was never done before.
So while, obviously, the folks who were not successful have a lot to say, I think that what we’re gonna see coming out of this, is an extraordinary investment on the West Side, that we hope will catalyze and draw other investments in that area.
AWN: How is the city holding Loretto Hospital accountable for giving out vaccine doses to people outside of Austin, which was first reported by Block Club Chicago?
LL: Just this week, we’ve indicated to them that they are suspended from participating in the vaccine program. The reality is, since we started seeing these challenges that arose after February and March, Loretto was out of the vaccine business for a time and then got back into it with heavy oversight from the Chicago Department of Public Health, which continued to do a very deep dive audit into what was happening at Loretto.
That audit found a number of challenging problems with Loretto, not the least of which is that over 2,500 doses of vaccine are unaccounted for, meaning Loretto has a responsibility as a provider in the vaccine program to document every single dose that’s used, whose arm it went into, demographics about the person, and then report that up into a state record-keeping system.
When we did our audit, Loretto didn’t have records to account for over 2,500 doses. That’s a significant issue. We notified them this week that they have been suspended from the vaccine program.
We’re not going to ever leave the West Side community in the lurch. We’ve had other hospitals and other providers pick up the slack, as Loretto has gone through various stages and we’ll continue to do that. We’re going to do that with a lot of mobile and pop-up vaccine distribution opportunities on the west side.
AWN: Returning to the lack of coverage during your news conferences, can’t the city leverage its resources to urge the private sector to, say, invest in a fund that would help pay for more City Hall coverage by non-legacy neighborhood outlets — such as Austin Weekly News, the TriiBe, Block Club Chicago, City Bureau, AustinTalks, etc. — where minority journalists are concentrated and more likely to be in leadership roles?
LL: “I believe there would be interest on the part of the philanthropic community, which is involved in a conversation now around journalism in the media,” she said. “I could talk to a couple people I’ve had these conversations with and really float your idea, which I think is a great idea. And if they’re interested, I would put you together.”