By: Mark Fitzgerald This year's list of winners of the George Polk Award reads like a roll call of elite newspapers, including The New York Times, The Miami Herald, The Sun in Baltimore, The Oregonian in Portland -- and the Lakefront Outlook from the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago.
The Lakefront what? From where?
"We' re the little newspaper that could," says Daniel J. Yovich, the reporter who conceived the story that won the Polk Award for local reporting for the weekly that distributes 10,000 copies in the historic African-American neighborhood.
The award-winning three-part series entitled "Power, Politics, Privilege" is a compelling and scrupulously documented story of how a powerful longtime Chicago alderman 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.
Largely because of the Outlook's stories, Ald. Dorothy Tillman, who virtually never faced serious opposition in her 23 years on the Chicago City Council, was forced into an election run-off scheduled for April 17.
But the story of the Lakefront Outlook itself is nearly as compelling as the Polk entry for which it won.
There's reporter Yovich, at 43 at least a decade older than his colleagues on the tiny diverse newsroom staff. He composed a detailed, eight-page action plan on how the weekly could investigate the powerful alderman and the white elephant cultural center named after the beloved first African-American mayor in Chicago, Harold Washington.
"He brought a lot of experience to the staff," says Erin Meyer, who contributed to the series and now works for The Daily Reporter in Greenfield, Ind. "In the community of Bronzeville, everybody knows what's really going on, but a lot of that knowledge is not exactly substantiated by facts. Yovich wrote the action plan to get the facts."
There's owner Bruce Sagan, a one-time wunderkind featured in the Feb. 3, 1958, issue of Time magazine for having transformed the Hyde Park Herald -- the Lakefront Outlook's parent paper -- into a crusading weekly, and for having just purchased the Southtown Economist, the south suburban Chicago paper now known as the Daily Southtown.
Two decades after selling the Southtown -- but keeping the Herald and launching the Lakefront Outlook in 1998 -- Sagan, now 78, says of the Polk Award: "How wonderful in my last years. To be in that list is remarkable, truly wonderful, and I owe the staff a great deal of thanks because they're the ones who did it, not me."
Led by editor Wellner, who joined the papers right out of the Peace Corps, the Lakefront Outlook staff is made up of just four people, including reporter Kathy Chaney, who covers Tillman as part of her regular beat. She took the most heat from the legendarily prickly alderman -- who once famously waved a gun around at a heated public meeting. Always wary of the paper's reporting, the alderman's office shut Chaney out entirely during and after the reporting of Tillman's nepotism.
Then there's the 23-year-old intern who turned out to be the paper's secret reporting weapon: Kalari Girtley is legally blind, having lost 90% of her vision when she was 6. Her work helped connect the dots of the nepotism between the cultural center, the alderman, and support businesses including the venue's primary caterer.
Girtley was not known to the Tillman staff and relatives, so when she called asking about wanting to hold an event at the center, she wasn't immediately rebuffed. She confirmed many of the links exposed in the series.
"I FOIA-ed, I got documents, I did everything I learned in journalism school for this story," says Girtley, referring to the many Freedom of Information Act requests made by the newspaper. Having shared in a very prestigious award in her first position at a newspaper (Girtley graduated from the University of Illinois just last May), she adds happily: "I love being a reporter. I love reporting. I've learned a lot here."