How One Newspaper Improved Its Coverage Of An Underserved Community

The Peoria, Illinois paper is doing so without hiring more reporters.
<span>This Mar. 6, 2009, file photo shows the Peoria, Ill., skyline along the Illinois River.&nbsp;</span>
This Mar. 6, 2009, file photo shows the Peoria, Ill., skyline along the Illinois River. 

The Peoria Journal Star, one of Illinois' most-read daily newspapers, knew it had a problem -- one familiar to many news organizations struggling with smaller staffs saddled with larger workloads.

The city’s South Side is home to 16,000 people who usually didn’t made it into the paper’s pages unless they were involved with a crime. The neighborhood certainly has its struggles -- it is home to one of the nation’s 100 poorest zip codes -- but many other positive stories were going untold. 

As reported this week by Jackie Spinner in the Columbia Journalism Review, the Gatehouse Media-owned paper moved to address the disparity in coverage by creating a reader advisory group earlier this year.

The group meets once a month to discuss ideas for future stories based in the South Side in addition to looking at how the paper has done in its coverage of the neighborhood the previous month.

According to CJR, between 12 and 25 people attend the meetings, including reporters and editors from the paper. The meetings are hosted by community organizations who have become involved with the group. 

Journal Star executive editor Dennis Anderson referenced an example of coverage stemming from the advisory group -- a front page story on a neighborhood cleanup project that attracted more than 250 volunteers in July -- in a piece published last month. The story was the result of Anderson’s correspondence with Robin Berry, the housing development director for a local organization and a member of the paper’s advisory group. 

Anderson is quick to note the paper is still covering the community’s problems with crime and poverty, but is now working to present a picture that also pays tribute to its residents’ creativity and resilience.


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