The road to producing ‘real’ journalism.

For nine months my partner Becky Schlikerman and I conducted an investigation into the committees of the Chicago City Council.

What we found were repeated violations of the Illinois Open Meetings Act – business being conducted without majority quorums (the minimum number of alderman needed to vote) and minutes that were inadequate or nonexistent. Read our story published in May 2008 on ChicagoTalks here, and the sister story on the Beachwood Reporter here.

From left: Erica Christoffer, Suzanne McBride and Becky Schlikerman

From left: Erica Christoffer, Suzanne McBride and Becky Schlikerman

Our investigation was honored with a 2008 Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award on Aug. 28 for best investigative reporting my an independent online news outlet. I was told by multiple people that this award is one step below a Pulitzer. That blows my mind. I am truly honored.

The project was guided by Suzanne McBride, co-founder of ChicagoTalks and professor of journalism at Columbia College. The initial impetus for the story developed out of talks between Suzanne, Jay Stewart, formerly of the Better Government Association, and Steve Rhodes, long-time journalist and founder-publisher of the Beachwood Reporter.

I literally became involved in the investigation on my first day of grad school at Columbia College. (Listen to Erica’s Vocalo Radio interview on the joint investigation.)

Let me rewind for a second: I previously worked for a newspaper in the Twin Cities for five years covering several local government entities. The two city councils and school board I regularly wrote about worked in a culture that today I would characterize as open and accessible. All public meetings were recorded and archived (later added to the cities’ Web sites). Press were welcome at the council and board “work sessions.” Minutes were published in a uniform and timely manner, and were available online. Agendas were distributed well in advance. Agenda packets, with full copies of the items being considered at the meeting, were available for both the public and the press. Honestly, I took it all for granted. I believed they were doing their jobs.

Personally, I loved reporting on government and community issues. But I wanted more. So I left my position in July 2007 to pursue my MA in journalism at Columbia College (graduated May 2009).

Back to that first day of grad school – Suzanne was co-teaching my local government reporting class with Curtis Lawrence. The class largely operated like a traditional newsroom where we’d go to meetings, press conferences and conduct interviews during the day, then go back to our “office,” a.k.a. “the grad room,” and write our stories on deadline. On that first day, they marched us down to Chicago’s City Hall to cover a committee meeting. I was certainly in for a surprise.

There we were in the grandiose marble building modeled after ancient Greek architecture, a pretty far cry from the suburbs of Minneapolis. We enter the council chambers – it looks more like a state building. But were is the agenda packet? Why do we have to go on a wild goose chase to get a copy of the agenda? Don’t we get copies of the items up for vote? Why is it so hard to hear what people are saying? Half the aldermen aren’t even facing us, so it’s difficult to see who is talking.

While the other grad students are feverishly taking notes, I’m totally frustrated. Suzanne likes my frustration because she’s frustrated, too. She invites me to meet with her about the investigation idea.

Later that week, I’m on conference calls with Suzanne and others planning out what committee meetings I’ll be covering. I did the work under a graduate assistantship position. We weren’t really sure what I’d find. Becky’s investigative reporting class at Columbia started attending committee meetings as well. We’d just go and listen, take notes, take attendance of which aldermen showed up and what they all voted on. Soon after, Becky and I teamed up under Suzanne’s guidance, as the trends of poor transparency and lack of attendance started to unfold.

Presenting our investigation at the 2009 Society of Professional Journalists Convention.

Presenting our investigation at the 2009 Society of Professional Journalists Convention.

By January 2008 we had attended dozens of committee meetings, some lasting three hours, others three minutes. Becky and I started searching for minutes of those meetings and past meeting to make comparisons to our data. What we found was astonishing: Only five of the city’s 19 committees were keeping adequate minutes that adhered to the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Some committees tried to pass agendas off as minutes, others only audio recorded their meetings – which made it difficult to discern who was talking as any given time. Other committees had no minutes. Some committees even told us we couldn’t look at the minutes and would have to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) request.

Now tell me this, how would an everyday citizen obtain access to such records? How can they be sure how their aldermen voted on an issue… or if they even voted? The city is sure to take roll call and establish that a quorum is present at full council meetings. But why not committee meetings? In the stages when legislation is truly shaping, aldermen were largely absent. This only leads one to suspect that the decision-making process surrounding various ordinances is conducted behind closed doors.

Many people asked me what impact our stories had on the committees. Unfortunately, very little. Aldermen were straightforward with us, saying that business in their wards trumped attending committee meetings. I would like to follow up on the minutes situation and see if any uniformity has been adopted in the past year.

Change comes slowly to the city of Chicago. And transparency is poor at best. This explains the continuation of many of the city’s deep-seeded issues. But I am an optimistic realist. I still believe in good, nonpartisan, non-commentary investigative journalism. I also believe if enough people are aware of an issue, they have the power to demand change. Does that mean change will happen? Maybe. But at least they can demand it.

award6I thank Suzanne for her guidance, encouragement and belief in this project. And I thank Becky for her talent, camaraderie and partnership.

Fin.

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