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March 16, 2022, 12:20 p.m.
Business Models
Reporting & Production

A new publication springs up in a former news desert outside Chicago

“This community has largely dealt with news organizations that parachute in and write stories on education without speaking to parents, or they write stories about crime without speaking to residents. “

Tales of local news dying are abundant, but against the odds of today’s media landscape, there are many new ventures taking root. Harvey, Illinois’ Harvey World Herald is one of them.

A southern suburb of Chicago, Harvey is a small town of just about 20,000 people, according to the last census. Harvey is also a majority-minority city, with two-thirds of its population identifying as Black and another third identifying as Latino. About a third of adults 64 and younger live at or below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is almost 50%.

It’s against this backdrop that Amethyst J. Davis, a Black queer woman who grew up in Harvey, chose to launch the Harvey World Herald just six months ago. The publication was named to the Tiny News Collective’s first cohort, a group of six organizations working to bring local news to their respective communities. As part of this program, the Harvey World Herald and the other five organizations were awarded $15,000 by the Google News Initiative, which also paid for their first year of membership with Tiny News Collective and LION Publishers.

Davis returned to her hometown in the summer of 2020 after five years away, and like many people during that time, was trying to figure out ways to stay safe from the coronavirus. “I had the hardest time finding information on navigating the pandemic,” she said, which was a major driver for starting the publication.

In August 2021, Davis sent out an audience survey to people in the Harvey community (with a focus on current residents) to glean the most important issues. Davis posted the survey to public Facebook pages residents had created and also emailed the survey to several community organizations. Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 was on the top of the list, as was political coverage.

The soft launch of Harvey World Herald was two months after that, when only the paper’s social media channels, its landing page and the weekly newsletter were made available. During that phase, Davis focused on business and economy, as “big needs I identified from the survey.”

The hard launch was on January 31 this year, and the website now features stories on more than just the pandemic, politics, and the local economy. Stories about education and the local arts and culture scene are also being added. With just under six months under its belt, the Harvey World Herald has more than 140 email subscribers to its free newsletter, with a 68% open rate. Visitors to the website, which is also free, are nearly split between new and returning visitors, according to Davis.

Just today, the Harvey World Herald was named as part of the inaugural cohort of the Black Media Product Strategy Program from J+ and the Center for Community Media’s Black Media Initiative at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. This six-month, tuition-free program will train Black-owned newsrooms to build product strategies for digital transformation, audience growth and sustainability. “A lot of Black-owned newsrooms struggle with product thinking and development,” Davis said, adding that this opportunity is a way for the Harvey World Herald to grow and develop sustainably. She added, “We look forward to building community with other Black publishers along the way.”

But given the literacy and digital issues in Harvey, Davis anticipates needing a print version of the Harvey World Herald at some point. “We’re 100% digital, but a lot of our 35-and-older readers ask about a newspaper,” Davis said. “The digital audience is not the same as a print audience.”

I spoke to Davis recently about her background, why she saw a need to launch this new publication, and how she runs this (thus far) one-person show. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Shraddha Chakradhar: Tell me a little about your background. How did you end up back in the town you grew up in, and starting a local publication?

Amethyst J. Davis: I’m a pivoter. I don’t have a traditional news background. In college, I was doing policy research, largely in policing policy and strategy in housing policy development. I was gonna get a PhD and then work for the city of Chicago. But there was a hiring freeze implemented and I was in New York City at the time going to school at New York University. So I decided to pivot and work for the city of New York. But that ultimately led me to another plan, which was working for NYU as administrator, because NYU offered me more money.

During that time, the beginning of the pandemic, I’m in the throes of working from home and trying to find things to keep myself motivated. The Chicago area, where I’m from, has a rich literary tradition. So I got back into reading and writing and deciding to pursue journalism.

Working as an administrator made me a better listener, because people, students, faculty even, only came to see me if something was going wrong. Literally, nobody ever came to see me if anything’s going right. I found the City Bureau Documenters program in Chicago, and it was so dope because they they really live out the ethos of making journalism and democracy more accessible.

As I’m getting into it, I got into self-publishing on Medium. I was thinking about different stories, but I kept coming back to Harvey. I was like, “Man, Harvey just needs its own news outlet.” That motivation really kicked in in the summer of 2020. I went home, got off the train in Harvey and realized the world has changed, but the town is the same as I had left it five years before. I was also trying to get a sense of what was going on with Covid and other stuff in the community and had to find information. So, that also drove home the point that Harvey definitely needs a news outlet, and why not build it from the ground up?

Chakradhar: How did you build up your background in journalism?

Davis: I used 2020 and my tuition remission [through NYU] to take evening courses in news writing and feature writing and multimedia storytelling, just to get some more training to be a reporter in the community. I was also doing the research on how to start a news outlet. Every night after work, for months on end, I would be on a computer doing research about membership models and revenue streams, audience growth, and taking my classes at the university and trying to figure out how to start a newsroom.

I came across the Tiny News Collective, which helps people from historically excluded backgrounds pursue media entrepreneurship. I applied in the spring [last year] and got in.

Chakradhar: How long had Harvey been a news desert? Do you remember having reliable sources of news growing up?

Davis: The local paper collapsed about 40 years ago. Much of what we had in the interim was really armchair reporting from commercial news media in Chicago.

Chakradhar: Why now? Especially given the local news environment?

Davis: I always say that for every news desert in America, there’s an opportunity to build an institution that works for the public. That institution does not exist here in Harvey. And we know that media at this point — for Black and brown communities, especially — local news media is built for clicks and for profit and not for the public interest. But if the institution isn’t there, you can build it and build it the right way out of the gate.

And why now? Harvey, like any community, needs local news. I need to know about Covid-19. I need to know about the state of the economy. But the city is experiencing a whole bunch of shifts. We have a new mayoral administration after 16 years under arguably one of the most corrupt politicians in Illinois. So, there’s a political shift that’s occurring and questions about whether we’re going to get ethics reform or transparency.

We have a clean slate, so why not use it? Now more than ever, we need to be thinking, “What does it mean for the city going forward?” We are nestled right underneath the third largest city in America with lots of entrepreneurial news outlets. With that proximity, day in and day out, I see the possibilities of where we are, and get inspiration about how we can reimagine journalism. It is possible. Good in the newsroom isn’t easy, but it’s certainly worth it.

Chakradhar: Who do you turn to as models for what to do?

Davis: These are a few news media outlets in Chicago that, through their own storytelling mediums, provide me some inspiration about some different ways we at the Harvey World Herald could build and grow out over the years and scale this in a way that actually pours into the community.

City Bureau in Chicago, for instance. I was telling the program manager for the Documenters program that not only did they help me by giving me tools, but they also set standards and expectations about what a newsroom could be. News doesn’t have to be extracted, and there are parts of journalism that are not worth saving like crime reporting, for instance. In journalism, we could do something like public safety reporting, which is completely different. It’s a different language with possibly a different framing for ways we can really use that sort of news to rethink and reimagine safety.

I also think about WBEZ Chicago and the work that they do covering issues like crime and education. It is public media in a way that actually fosters connection with the community.

Chakradhar: What about on the opposite end of the spectrum: Is there something you’re doing at the Harvey World Herald that is a departure from other outlets?

Davis: I want to carve out a niche for us, where when people think Harvey World Herald, they think young people. It’s a slow process, but this is something I’ve started to do, like in the branding. The name Harvey World Herald comes from the nickname of “Harvey World,” which is something that young people gave the city like a decade or so ago, in an effort to sort of seek a greater sense of identity or you know. Our colorway — purple, white and black — is a nod to the city’s only public high school. And the thing about Harvey is that they love this high school to no end. There are purple and white churches, purple and white sidewalks. People who went to the school in the 50s and 60s where their regalia around the city. Even the newsletter is a nod to a mural in the city. Our newsletter is called “The Renaissance Letter,” which is a nod to a mural called the Harvey Renaissance. But it’s also a double entendre because it also speaks to the revival of the local news.

In the long term, some of the things that I envision Harvey World Herald having is a Youth Advisory Council. I’ll be 25 next month and next year, I’ll be closer to 30 than I am 20. So, the Youth Advisory Board is going to be really critical to make sure we’re hearing from the kids in the community directly about what issues matter to them and how they think we’re covering issues pertaining to young people. I want to make sure we have a paid summer internship program for the kids where they can learn journalism and get published.

Chakradhar: What have been some of the challenges you’ve encountered as part of this venture?

Davis: Harvey is a very word-of-mouth city. So, just trying to get the word out that Harvey now has a local news organization has been a challenge. But trust is also a new thing in the community, because Harvey is oftentimes associated with political corruption and crime. That, coupled with broken promises around development over the years and from people in decision-making capacities with these hidden agendas. Often, I tell people that I feel like Harvey doesn’t even trust itself. So if someone comes along and says, “Hey, I’m trying to do something positive for everybody,” I’ve been met with, “Who are you? Who runs this? Are you even from here? You have no relationship here. Who’s funding you? Are you funded by the politicians?” This community has largely dealt with news organizations that parachute in and write stories on education without speaking to parents, or they write stories about crime without speaking to residents.

Every day, I’m on the phone with folks or showing up in the community in-person day in and day out to build trust with people. It’s definitely been a slow process and huge challenge. Only now, after all these months, I’ve been seeing people come forward and share their stories with me. And it’s in terms of sending in tips and sending in information, but also just being responsive when I reach out when writing a story.

A selfie of Davis after a recent snowstorm working on a story on public transportation renovations coming to Harvey.

Chakradhar: Because you’re having to do so much to educate people about Harvey World Herald, do you consider what you have to do journalism and then some?

Davis: I am currently the only full-time staff member. I have to be reporter, managing editor, director of community engagement, director of outreach and development, and I’m the one sitting down at the end of every month with the budget. I’m going to be the one going door-to-door to local businesses to let them know that there are digital advertising opportunities available with the newsletter and the website.

I feel it, you know, to wear many hats, and I often have to tell myself to not get too comfortable doing any one thing because I have to be so versatile to totally manage a newsroom by myself.

Chakradhar: Let’s talk about that some more. With the exception of a few stories, almost every single byline on the site is yours. How do you make that happen?

Davis: I don’t have a current publishing schedule. That’s still something I’m trying to work out and get a better handle on. What I currently try to do is to stick to reporting for Monday through Thursday and use Friday as a planning day and for business stuff as well. It’s a struggle. It’s not easy, definitely. Like over this the weekend, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be working. But consistency and setting those standards and expectations are the biggest things for people in the community.

Chakradhar: There isn’t currently a paywall on the website. Is that something that might change? What are your plans for bringing in revenue?

Davis: This is a community where a third of folks live below the poverty line. There are people who sell their refrigerators for money because they’re not even using them to begin with because they don’t have food at all. In this context, I just do not see a world in which the Harvey World Herald is not free. The stories on the website are free, the newsletter is free. In my in my world, especially if we’re talking about using the language of the public good, the Harvey World Herald should always remain free.

It is going to take big lifts in order to meet that demand. The current financing I see is that most of our money is probably going to come from philanthropic organizations and advertising, and then the smallest chunk of that is maybe going to be individual donations and subscribers. The long run plan would be for that to shift to individual donations. We’d be 70% reader-funded and less of our funds would come from philanthropic organizations or advertising. I recognize it is going to be a big lift to go from point A to point B. I just do not think there’s going to be a universe in which there are going to be people who don’t see it as a slap in the face to have to pay for local news when you’re going around talking about building a new institution for the public good.

Chakradhar: Are you generally feeling optimistic about the future of Harvey World Herald?

Davis: From a reporter’s standpoint, I feel pretty confident about what we’re going to be doing. From an audience growth standpoint, the newsletter growth has been on a slow incline coming out of the hard launch. As far as the financial outlook, I’m really hopeful. Through the Tiny News Collective, they set up sessions with funders where I’ll be able to get up at the table and get more money. In the absence of that, I really would be very, very worried.

But I’m also hopeful about the financial outlook setting because there have been so many people and organizations that have reached out to me directly to start building relationships. And that’s going to be very important to get the organization out there in other spaces to get more money.

The financial outlook from an individual perspective and building membership — I’m a little bit worried because I still have to do the work of thinking through how we build a really strong subscribing, membership model, to start getting folks to contribute monthly. Currently, the folks who are who signed up for monthly donations are from outside the community, so that is already a reflection of the problem.

Chakradhar: What lessons do you have for others who might be considering a similar venture?

Davis: It is a marathon. It is not a sprint. And that is something I have to keep telling myself, too. Sometimes I get dejected only because I have this vision of what this looks like down the road, and maybe because I’m an Aries, maybe because I’m so attached to the fears and the long-term vision.

I have to remind myself that you don’t just get there overnight. It takes work, but it’s work over time and patience and grace that you have to extend to yourself. Honestly, I keep having to give myself a pat on the back for even having an idea and daring to pursue it because that’s what entrepreneurship is and it can be a lonely road.

Photo of Harvey postcard by Steve Shook used under a Creative Commons license. Headshot of Amethyst J. Davis by Miguel Silva.

POSTED     March 16, 2022, 12:20 p.m.
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