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Media Versus the Machine: The Southwest Observer

This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

Every day on the Internet, the Southwest Observer faces off against Chicago’s machine mentality. Can an independent community journalism website aimed at some of the most parochial neighborhoods in the Windy City find success? Editor Mike Fielding is on a mission to find the answer.

Last month’s surprise closure of Chitown Daily News did not signal the end of independent community news in Chicago. Trouble is, some of the best community news efforts out there are still relatively unknown, even in their own neighborhoods.

Take the Southwest Observer. Launched in March 2007 as a hyperlocal news site covering Chicago’s far southwest Beverly, Morgan Park, and Mount Greeenwood neighborhoods, the site was named one of the city’s top-25 community-based websites by Community Media Workshop this summer. It was the top neighborhood-focused website to receive the honor.

So why don’t more people know about it? It’s a question I asked Fielding by phone last week.

“The fact that I left the neighborhood and came back is already a strike against me,” he told me. “The neighborhoods we cover are cautious and wary of anyone perceived as an outsider.”

A married, 36-year-old father of two living behind a white picket fence in the same neighborhood where he attended elementary and high schools, to other “outsiders” like me, that charge aimed at Fielding seems almost silly.

But he did leave the southwest side to attend the Medill School of Journalism, and a stint north of Madison Street is all it takes to be a pariah south of 95th. That hasn’t made Fielding’s estimable goal of exploring the “next generation of journalism” an easy task.

“Citizen journalism has an unfortunate stigma attached to it,” says Fielding. “What we’re attempting is community journalism. That needs a professional journalist editor, but doesn’t need to rely on a trained journalist staff.”

Fielding says because he hails from and continues to live in the neighborhoods covered by the Southwest Observer, he’s the right professional journalist to serve as the virtual paper’s editor. “The challenge is giving our readers the confidence to be able to participate and report the news in their community.”

Created and recently updated by Fielding’s Wisconsin-based partner and publisher (more fodder for the “outsider” charge), Steve Delmont, from a purely design standpoint, the Southwest Observer could still use some tweaking. The site’s traditional news and classified sections are easy to find. What’s harder, however, is to discern the difference among community news, blog, and public forum posts, all of which are available on the site–or, for that matter, to find them.

Lost in a mishmash of wordy yet imprecise navigation links are a neighborhood forum, neighborhood blogs, and a combined archive of all public postings. Equally confusing is a “news in the neighborhood” link that actually leads to an independent archive of forum posts. An Observer reader wishing to participate in the telling of community news would first need to spend some time figuring out how to do so.

Fielding says a major overhaul of the Southwest Observer site is on the way. Although another major overhaul of the Southwest Observer is not slated for the near future, many users have already figured out where and how to post their own written or multimedia content on the site. But even if the Observer solves its existing navigation problems, one big headache will likely remain: the Chicago machine–and its entrenchment in traditional, southwest side neighborhoods.

“Our motto at the Observer is ‘Anonymity breeds contempt,'” says Fielding. “We don’t allow anonymous comments because of the problems such comments have caused on other local websites.” Fielding recounted an incident where an unsigned comment on a southwest side blog spread a rumor that a popular local eatery was planning to close. The rumor almost brought legal action against the blogger from the eatery’s owner.

“However, because of the great number of city workers and ‘connected’ people in the communities we cover,” Fielding laments, “many people aren’t willing to sign their name to comments regarding neighborhood news, for fear of retribution. As a result, not as many people comment on the Observer as we’d like.”

Fielding says it comes down to a question of trust. By writing an authoritative, professional site that honestly covers community news, he and Belmont hope to overcome local fears that the Southwest Observer’s public content will be monopolized by neighborhood bashers and rumor mongers.

So far, that trust hasn’t come easily. Popular community print paper the Beverly Review maintains its distance from the Observer, though Fielding has made overtures to work together. “We also met with 19th Ward Alderman Virginia Rugai when we launched to try and establish trust,” he says. “Her office still won’t take our calls.”

In the end, Fielding says he’ll probably loosen up about allowing those anonymous comments. He believes at some point journalists just need to step back and trust that their readers have the intelligence to identify and write about news stories in their own back yards. “We’ve tried hard to establish trust through objectivity,” he says, “but maybe online viewers need more opinion from us, too? More personality? An edge to attract more community members?”

Surprising words from a trained journalist, perhaps, but Fielding has thinks it’s time journalism changed with the times, too. “For too long, we [journalists] have been patronizing to our audiences,” Fielding tells me. “It’s caught up with us now, and in some respects I think it’s too late to backtrack and fix that.”

As it is, Fielding supports himself and his family not through online–much less print–journalism, but with a job as an editor at a national trade publication. He tells me he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to entrust his income to the field of journalism again.

Still, considering he’s at the helm of a hyperlocal community news site that’s never received a dime of foundation or angel funding but still manages to be a thorn in the side of the local Establishment (politicians avoid calls from people they’d like to silence), his journalism skills seem right on the money to me. If he can learn to manage those anonymous comments, I have a feeling the Southwest Observer will find the amplified voice it seeks.

Perhaps finally even coming out the other end of Alderman Rugai’s office phone.

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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