Newsroom experts

GateHouse editor: Reader advisory board plea prompts action, front page story for troubled community

By Dennis Anderson, Peoria Journal Star executive editor

Sometimes in Peoria it’s easy to become complacent about major crime news. In one week in mid-July, there were three murders. Word was the killings were retaliation for other crimes, but there was nothing concrete.

AR-307169861That complacency was shattered by an email from Robin Berry, the housing development director for Peoria Citizens Committee for Economic Opportunity. This year Berry and I have become friends through the Journal Star’s reader advisory group.

Berry was telling me a neighborhood cleanup project planned for the next day, July 24, organized by PCCEO, the Southside Community United for Change, Dream Center Peoria and the city was in jeopardy. During a reader advisory group meeting the groups decided to work together on the cleanup project.

Berry wrote to me:

“We may NOT have all 260 (teen volunteers) because of the recent shootings. We have asked the city manager to approve the resources for the police chief to put extra patrols in this area. We have also asked Elite to patrol the boundaries as well. The Dream Center will talk to the captains from the different churches who will talk to the parents and it will be interesting to see how many kids participate in this event.”

The reason for creating the reader advisory group was made clear with this one email: community members were reaching out to the Journal Star for help in making sure an important event went on as planned.

As a result, education reporter Pam Adams wrote a story published the day of the event addressing the concerns about violence and safety.

In the end, Berry reported full participation and a successful community cleanup, which was covered on the Journal Star’s front page the next day.

Berry followed up with this email:

“Dennis, thank you for being a wonderful blessing. This event happened because of your advisory committee.”

It was a heartwarming note.

Peoria’s South Side is struggling against crime and poverty. The neighborhood’s zip code — 61605 — is among the 100 poorest zip codes in the United States. Forty-eight percent of the 7,400 households in 61605 meet federal guidelines for living in poverty, compared to 17 percent of households across all of Peoria.

Until recently, when the South Side got coverage in the Journal Star, it was because of crime or we were there to cover a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner at a local center.

Only 5 percent of the Journal Star’s home delivery comes from the 61605 zip code.

Why? Because, frankly, the Journal Star hadn’t been doing a good job of covering the South Side. There are many positive stories to tell about the 16,000 people who live there. The Journal Star needed to find out about those stories.

We spent two months recruiting people to serve on our reader advisory group. We talked with business leaders, educators, social service agencies, churches and average citizens, telling them what we hoped to accomplish.

The South Side Mission, a 90-year-old community support agency, offered to host our first meeting, which was attended by nearly 30 people.

There was some apprehension in the room during the meeting. Some told stories of how the Journal Star only cared about covering crime in the community. But people said they were encouraged the Journal Star was showing willingness to engage people on the South Side.

The next month we met at Neighborhood House, and many of the people at the first meeting attended the second and there were some new faces as well.

“The success of any community engagement effort is not the first meeting but the second meeting,” I told the group. “I’m pleased to see a good turnout.”

Over the next few months, attendance has ranged from a dozen to two dozen people, and each time there have been new people showing up, people who were hearing of our conversations about what is happening in the community and groups sharing information on how they could cooperate on initiatives, one being the community cleanup in July.

We were also sharing packets of stories published in the Journal Star that were the result of what we were learning from the group. At the July 29 meeting, our packet included 15 stories we published since the last meeting, an average of about one story every other day.

Our efforts are valuable for us as newsgatherers as well as for the community.

One topic that comes up at each meeting is the community’s need to have positive role models for young black men. We learned at the July meeting that the Peoria NAACP is starting a mentorship program in the fall and the Journal Star will tell stories about men who are making a difference.

In the meantime, the Journal Star will continue to be a partner in the life of Peoria’s South Side.

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