How the Chicago Sun-Times is deciding what’s news — by soliciting your input

At Steinmetz College Prep’s Parent University in Belmont Cragin last week, community members argued compellingly for and against the Sun-Times stories they did (and didn’t) want to see on the cover of the newspaper the next day.

One woman told us that she is tired of reading only about the “bulletin of failures” — especially all of the shootings and other crimes that the U.S. has failed to prevent. She voted for us to put a story about how Chicago organizations and volunteers are feeding migrants on the cover.

“Everyone has to eat every day, and it’s expensive,” she said. “I want solutions. How could we all be helping?”

Other community members who attended our public news meeting disagreed, with one concerned that the story would play into narratives about the costs of sheltering migrants without providing counterbalancing information about all the economic and other benefits the new arrivals to the city provide. One man argued strongly for our cover story to be about the new details we’d just received that afternoon in response to our public records requests about seven relatives killed in a shooting in Joliet and even suggested the headline we ended up using: “Daddy, why?”

Two others said they were particularly interested in our story about higher chocolate prices at Easter, saying the rising food prices affect everyone. Two community members pushed us to showcase a WBEZ story explaining the Republican challenge to mail-in ballots in Illinois, tying it to the then-yet-uncalled state’s attorney race (“People are wondering what’s going on. This is Chicago!”) — while another person worried that playing the story too big would spark unwarranted fears.

Hearing these different perspectives about what’s most important to our communities is why I and my colleagues were there at the latest of our “We Hear You” community listening sessions Thursday afternoon. At these events, Sun-Times and WBEZ journalists meet with neighbors one-on-one to hear their views. At Belmont Cragin, we also invited attendees to join the Sun-Times’ news meeting to help editors decide which stories would appear on Page One in the next day’s newspaper.

In the end, attendees helped us select stories for not one, but three different covers for our newspapers, over the next several days — including our heartbreaking story featured on Tuesday’s front page about a frustrated mother who lost her 3-year-old son to gun violence in 2022, a case that is still unsolved. They also tipped us to story ideas and provided useful context to improve some of the stories we were working on.

What matters most to Chicago is what matters most to us

This ongoing conversation about what matters most to Chicago area residents — and how we can provide you with information that helps you and our communities thrive — is key to our editorial strategy. Staying connected to you is how we ensure our journalism remains relevant, essential and trusted.

Perhaps that’s why when I think about the moments that have made me feel most fulfilled, they are all about connection. Last week, for instance, I delivered 200 copies of our latest bilingual La Voz section to eight community partners in Humboldt Park, met some 20 community members at our listening session in Belmont Cragin (which drew about 50 attendees) and received emails from a half-dozen readers who told us our stories had enriched their lives.

When I think about what I most want the Sun-Times to accomplish, it’s not awards or big viral stories that attract huge amounts of traffic or many likes on social media, although all of that is welcome (OK, I was delighted about our 35 finalists for Peter Lisagor Awards announced Friday). What matters most is having meaningful impact on our communities and our democracy. So we’re constantly thinking about how factual, empathetic and independent journalism can be a generative resource to help Chicago area residents make informed decisions every day, participate in our diverse communities and make the most of our region.

We see our impact in the flood of messages columnist Mary Mitchell received in response to her column about potential Medicare scams. One reader emailed last week to say that thanks to Mitchell’s reporting, she knew exactly what to do when her Medicare account was compromised.

We also see signs of impact when community members trust us with their stories or give us news tips, or when anyone feels our work is worth supporting financially, or talking about or sharing with others. When our reporters ask questions that lead to $1 million in payments to the city, or alert readers to household products that put children at risk so they can protect their families, or uncover fraud to the tune of $1.2 million in pandemic relief money. When we report on improper campaign contributions that lead to their return, or provide tips for how to complain effectively about a consumer problem — and help a Wicker Park barber get $23,686 refunded from his phone bill.

More than 4,000 stories and counting in 2024

All together, the Sun-Times has posted more than 4,100 stories since Jan. 1, which have informed 10 million visitors on our website alone. In response to what we’ve heard from you, we have changed and expanded our coverage, adding more solutions stories and “how to” stories, more perspectives and more context, and more uplifting, fun and inspiring stories into the mix as well. We’ve seen page views grow more than 40%, year over year, as more readers find more stories they want to read. We couldn’t have done it without you.

If you want to make my day, here’s how you can participate:

Thanks for keeping yourself informed and for helping to make our work so rewarding.

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