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Feb. 23, 2023, 2:53 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The Trace puts a local lens on gun violence coverage with new bureaus in Chicago and Philadelphia

Staff at the nonprofit newsroom said news-gathering will look different in the local bureaus — “more democratic” and “community-driven.”

The nonprofit newsroom The Trace is experimenting with a new approach to its award-winning coverage of gun violence in the United States. After 18 months of planning, the single-issue site launched its first local bureaus — in Philadelphia and Chicago — this week with one community-focused engagement reporter per every staff writer.

Mensah M. Dean, a recent Pulitzer Prize finalist for work published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, will staff the Philly bureau alongside engagement reporter Afea Tucker. In Chicago, the coverage will be led by engagement reporter Justin Agrelo and reporter Rita Oceguera.

In its announcement on Wednesday, The Trace explained the two cities were chosen because they are places with “chronic” gun violence where city officials have faced “little accountability” for failing to effectively address the issue. The Trace plans to launch additional local outfits, and is already accepting suggestions.

In an interview, The Trace staffers stressed that news-gathering would look different in the local bureaus — “more democratic” and “community-driven.” The goal is to flip a pattern that’s all-too-familiar for people in neighborhoods affected by gun violence: a reporter shows up on your block on one of the worst days of your life, talks to the cops, lingers long enough to grab a few “telling” details, and then — poof! — you never see them again.

Joy Resmovits, The Trace’s senior editor for local impact, cited community listening — which she defined as asking people what information they need as a starting point for reporting — at places like The Seattle Times and Epicenter-NYC as engagement work similar to what she hopes The Trace can accomplish in Chicago and Philadelphia.

More and more outlets, Resmovits said, are “understanding that service work is useful and necessary in and of itself — and can also lead to scoops in more traditional stories.”

So — what does it look like in practice? Engagement reporter Justin Agrelo said his efforts in Chicago began with eight months of speaking with “everyone in the gun violence space” that he could find. That included people who had experienced gun violence themselves, community organizers in neighborhoods experiencing high levels of violence, health care workers, violence prevention workers, and more.

“A common theme that we heard was that the episodic crime story, which gun violence in Chicago often gets framed through, does very little for folks who have been affected,” Agrelo said. “In some instances, it makes them feel less safe, like when it reveals which hospital victims have been taken to.”

(That response is not unique to Chicago, either. The Trace recently covered a peer-reviewed study conducted by a trauma unit surgeon who wondered, after seeing her patients in the news, what effect media coverage might be having on them. The Philadelphia-based researcher Dr. Jessica Beard discovered a range of responses among survivors but, ultimately, came away believing that newsrooms should publish fewer one-off stories.)

Agrelo, a Chicago native who previously worked at City Bureau, said he’s been trained to think about how to “horizontalize” media as much as possible. That means he’s asking constantly asking himself, “How do we allow the folks who are closest to the issue lead the way? How do we — for lack of a better word — pass the mic and allow them to help set the news agenda?”

One of the first projects to come from the early months of his on-the-ground engagement work is a storytelling network for survivors of gun violence. Participants in the group (who will be paid a $700 stipend) will receive hands-on training in storytelling and the basics of journalism.

The nonprofit newsroom, which has long worked with partnering publications to distribute its reporting, has teamed up with local newsrooms in both cities. In 2021, for example, an explainer on benefits available to victims of violent crime was co-published by a newspaper (The Chicago Sun-Times), digital newsroom (Block Club Chicago), and Spanish-language publication (La Raza Chicago). The local bureaus hope to take these partnerships even farther. With the storytelling series, The Trace plans to publish the stories widely and, “because we know not everyone in Chicago has access to the internet,” through a print zine designed by local Chicago artists.

Like any nonprofit newsroom reliant on foundation funding, The Trace has impact goals. Like any newsroom, it’ll track audience metrics and, among its 24-person staff, has plenty of journalists hungry to break big stories. But, at least in their local newsrooms, staffers are reaching for other goals, as well.

“I am excited, as a reporter, to learn in this space that I’m entering,” Agrelo said, after I asked what the team would consider a successful first year. “Even just through my conversations over the past eight months, there’s so much that community members have taught me about reporting and framing and Chicago. [A year from now] I want to feel like I’m more comfortable or more equipped to tell these stories.”

“Impact works both ways, right?” he added. “I also hope that we can recognize and measure and track how this experience changes our reporting practices. I’d like us to think about impact internally, too.”

POSTED     Feb. 23, 2023, 2:53 p.m.
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