By: Mark Fitzgerald
This year’s George Polk Awards includes a Cinderella story.
Among the elite newspapers, broadcast news organizations and documentary-makers honored with the highly coveted journalism honor is the Lakefront Outlook, an eight-year-old weekly given out free in the historic Chicago African American neighborhood of Bronzeville.
While other Polk awardees count their newsroom by the dozens and hundreds, the Outlook staff consists of a Editor Brian Wellner — who divides his time also putting out the long-established Hyde Park Herald — plus four reporters and a sightless intern who proved invaluable in nailing down critical points in the winning investigative articles. The 11,000-distribution paper hardly has the mass audience of Spike Lee, the film maker whose HBO series ?When The Levees Broke? won a Polk for television documentary.
The Outlook?s staff fits comfortably in a tiny room in a small building just down the street from the University of Chicago campus in the Hyde Park neighborhood. If they pop Champagne to celebrate Tuesday, the ricochet from the cork could be dangerous.
Talking about the award Monday just ahead of Tuesday’s public announcement, the Outlook staff was clearly proud of their achievement — but just as clearly, it hadn’t quite sunk in.
“We haven’t had the lunch yet, maybe then it will be real,” reporter Nykeya Woods said with a laugh.
The Outlook won the Polk Award for local reporting for a three-part series that extensively documented how a powerful long-time Chicago alderman had turned a cultural center meant to symbolize the rebirth of Bronzeville into a rarely-used venue that bleeds money while serving mostly as a source of jobs and contracts for her family and political friends.
“The (Outlook) team exposed the (Harold Washington Cultural Center) as a money-losing operation that was staffed by (Third Ward Alderman Dorothy) Tillman’s family, friends and political cronies,” the Polk Award announcement noted.
Since the series ran in December, it has transformed the political dynamics. Tillman, who has been on the Chicago City Council for more than 20 years, is in the political fight of her life in the Feb. 27 non-partisan aldermanic elections. “One of the ways to tell the impact of the job we did is to look at the editorial endorsements of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times,” said Daniel J. Yovich, a key reporter on the series. Both papers noted the investigation of culture center in endorsing an opponent of Tillman.
Yovich laid out the strategy for pursuing the story in an eight-page memo last fall. Everyone contributed to the story, including Erin Meyer, who now works for the Greenfield (Ind.) Daily Reporter.
“We had the right team — at the right time,” Editor Wellner said.
Reporter Kathy Chaney covers Tillman as part of her regular beat, and she took the most heat from the legendarily prickly alderman, who once waved a gun around at a heated public meeting. “They’re always telling me, it’s not personal just business — so I had a chance to tell them that,” she said. Tillman refused throughout the reporting to talk the Outlook, and has instructed her staff not to cooperate with the paper in the months since, Chaney said. Tillman could not be reached for comment Monday.
If the Outlook had a secret weapon it was 23-year-old intern Kalari Girtley, who graduated from the University of Illinois last May. Girtley, who is legally blind, is a face and name that the Tillman office and the alderman’s family and cronies did not know. She was able to get information about the nepotism in the cultural center’s catering contractor, for instance, that the contractor had refused to provide to staff.
“I FOIA-ed, I got documents, I did everything I learned in journalism school in this story,” Girtley said, referring to the many Freedom of Information Act requests the newspaper made.
The person perhaps proudest about the Polk Award has his office down the hall from the newsroom. Owner and Publisher Bruce Sagan is a long-time newspaper man who started his career a half-century ago at the legendary Chicago News Bureau and for years owned the Daily Southtown in the city’s South Side. He kept the Herald when he sold the daily to the Pulitzer family chain (who later sold it to Conrad Black’s Hollinger International), and created the Outlook eight years ago as he saw Bronzeville coming back from a long era of urban decay.
His Polk reaction? “How wonderful in my last years,” he said. “To be in that list is truly remarkable, truly wonderful — and I owe the staff a great deal of thanks because they’re the ones who did it, not me.”