Ben Joravsky: Covering City Hall From the Outside

Editor’s Note: This is the 27th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Ben Joravsky knows Chicago.

He probably knows it better than most everyone else because knowing what goes on behind the scenes and out of public view is his business.

He began working as a freelance writer for the Chicago Reader in 1985 after specializing in investigative work for The Chicago Reporter, a monthly newspaper devoted to covering racial issues. Throughout his career, Joravsky has worked to uncover information that wasn’t readily available to the public so he could illuminate certain situations that were affecting the life of Chicagoans.

His approach is one that seems simple — convey a larger story by telling his reader about one person’s struggle within the system. His column, The Works, doesn’t consist of columns in the traditional sense: They’re pieces of investigative journalism that have made a difference in people’s lives for more than 20 years.

His columns that were honored with a first-place AltWeekly Award include one urging preservationists to be more effective, another on the government’s misreporting of where property-tax money goes, and another that showed how wacky the city’s property tax bills are by comparing those of various Chicago officials.

You’ve been doing this a long time. How automatic is the process of reporting pieces like this?

Not that automatic, but I wish it were. There’s a lot of phone calling, trying to get a hold of people. The stories I write can get very convoluted. Even the ones that seem insignificant can get convoluted. This morning, I was covering a zoning dispute. Now it’s of great importance to those involved, but to the rest of the universe, it might seem insignificant. So you have to show people that don’t live on this particular block how their government is working in these types of situations and how, if they’re not watching, the same thing can happen to them.

You have to give the details to explain the situation, but not give so many details that you lose people. It’s a very difficult balance to maintain and that’s the challenge in this type of writing. I have to master each and every issue that I write about. I have to know it backwards and forwards because even information that may seem useless can be essential when you sit down to tell the story.

What makes a good column topic?

Number one, you need a universal issue that draws people in. But sometimes you don’t have a universal issue, but the story is full of interesting, colorful characters whose voices alone are worthy of capturing. Those characters you can only get in Chicago. Then you also look for any unifying issue that merits being told. And then there are times when you get really lucky and get all of these elements in one piece.

This story you’re working on now, for example, how does it fit into this criteria?

There is a fundamental, important issue here — notification. There have been plans to build a huge mansion in this neighborhood, and no one was notified. Notification is an important issue to the people of Chicago because how would you know if the government isn’t telling you something that you’re supposed to know. It’s happening often in this city, and people have no idea. The best way to get something done in Chicago is to avoid telling anybody anything and go about your business.

Is there one particular column that brought about a change you are proud of?

It’s so rare that you can claim a change in the system because the system is so impervious to criticism. This is a one-party town controlled by the mayor who is almost hostile to requests for change. There are a couple of occasions that come to mind where change came about, but only because the city was embarrassed into the change.

In one instance there was a Vietnam memorial created for veterans in 1981 that went missing. It turns out the city was repaving the road where the memorial stood, and the road workers threw the memorial away. I told the story by focusing on one veteran who was affected by the memorial’s disappearance. The city wound up building a more elaborate memorial, and in speeches and on plaques acknowledged the existence of the previous memorial. Without the story I don’t know that a new memorial would have been built or if the fate of the old memorial would have ever come to light. You can’t just knock something down because you’re in charge. You have to recognize there are consequences regardless of who you are.

In another case, officials were treating Millennium Park like this precious, spoiled little brat. They were so protective that they made a silly policy of not allowing professional photographers to shoot in the park and then requiring them to get a permit. After the story, the permits dropped out of sight. That’s how it works; things like this sort of fade away.

Your columns are definitely hard-hitting. How do they play with the city’s political power structure?

They don’t. There are some segments of city government that show me some hostility. Some city publicists don’t return my phone calls. But that stuff largely doesn’t matter to me. I operate outside the city’s power structure. I don’t have a desk in city hall. I’m not cultivating city hall sources. My stories come from people who call me up and say, “You won’t believe what happened to me.”

For the most part, the powers that be ignore me, and I just go about my business. I don’t need insiders to get my stories. City officials have come and gone over the years, but I’m still here. 

Are you able to write any differently for an alt-weekly than you’d be able to do for a daily?

Absolutely. I think the biggest reason is the weekly deadline. I don’t have the deadline constraints that daily reporters have. There’s also more freedom to dig into a story. I don’t have to follow the news every day. I can go about my business without keeping up with the latest press release. I also get more space to tell a story. So many stories, especially in the dailies, are so difficult to understand because their space is so limited. It’s almost like you have to be able to read shorthand to understand the story. The ability to tell an in-depth story is probably one of the biggest advantages I have over the mainstream guys.

Charlie Deitch is a freelance writer and a part-time staff writer for Pittsburgh City Paper. He lives near Pittsburgh, Pa.

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