Rethinking the “Joravsky Effect” in Chicago

July 9. Ben Joravsky, at right, is an exceptionally able investigative reporter – probably Chicago’s best – at the Chicago Reader, the city’s largest free-distribution weekly newspaper.  Below is a July 9 letter to the Reader editor by Micaela di Leonardi, a professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University, in praise of his recent coverage of two huge stories: Chicago’s Olympics bid and its privatization of the city’s parking meters.  Prof di Leonardi’s take on the “Joravsky Effect”BenJoravskyA got me thinking about what this effect would have to be in order to have a Joravsky Impact at City Hall.

Local Heroes

To the editor:

Would anyone—except maybe Mayor Daley and a number of local developers—deny that Ben Joravsky is a Chicago journalism treasure? Most recently, his simultaneously outraged and sprightly accounting of the ripoffs of parking meter privatization and Chicago’s Olympics bid have kept us all informed and seriously pissed off. But has anybody else noticed the Joravsky Effect? The Tribune and the Sun-Times have finally started doing some muckraking! They’re actually covering developer deals and, dare I say it, TIFs! Of course, we always have to go back to Joravsky for the big historical and political-economic picture.

Give that man a raise!

Micaela di Leonardo

Professor, Anthropology, Performance Studies, Northwestern University

In response, I fired off this response:

To the editor:

It’s all well and good, and certainly true, to hear Micaela di Leonardo call Ben Joravsky “a Chicago journalism treasure”. But her enthusiasm about the impact of his reporting leaves me wanting something more – a lot more. Who cares, I’m thinking, if the “Joravsky Effect” she speaks of triggered some muckraking at the Sun-Times or Tribune? Bottom line, what’s the use of reading good reporting if Chicagoans living in a closed political system can’t do a damn thing with it?

The Joravsky Effect is a nifty concept. But I would ask Ms di Leonardo to consider an axiom of digital age journalism. In an age fueled by demand for interactive media experiences, what journalists report matters less than what citizens can do with their reporting. The Joravsky Effect, to have real impact, must be realized (and monetized) in media platforms that Chicago presently lacks: ongoing, universally accessible public forums designed to give all Chicagoans an informed voice in weighing the pros and cons of any issue of citywide importance.

Wow. Think of it. A city that actually uses modern interactive media to help citizens and government make decisions on the basis of solid information dug up by not only by intrepid reporters like Ben Joravsky but by ordinary Chicagoans as well!

Now that’s a city worth living in. What’s more, a citizen-participatory media is in the cards for Chicago. Why? The answer is staring us in the face. The miracle of digital technologies gives Chicago the chance to create ongoing public forums and civic dialogs, print and electronic, that make citizens and government responsive and accountable to each other in solving the problems, resolving the conflicts and maximizing the opportunities that will shape the city’s future.

From a purely economic standpoint, these civic dialogs will tap massive demand for interactive media experiences, including pent-up demand for interactive political experiences. They will reach out to all 2.5 million Chicagoans, most of us presently marginalized and disempowered when it comes to city politics.

The very existence of this huge “market of the whole,” combined with the ability of modern communications technologies to tap it, makes civic media dialogs like these not just inevitable but imminent.

If all this is so, why aren’t Chicago media execs, foundations, civic groups and university departments of journalism and communication racing to create true civic dialogs before Rupert Murdoch steps in and stiffs us all with exploitative travesties of them? Good question, but soon to be moot because disruptive change is in the air and Chicago’s digital future will differ radically from its analog past. What matters now is to see that the city’s economic, political, educational and cultural futures all hinge on Chicago’s determination to create them before the exploiters do.

BTW, Ben Joravsky deserves a raise, as Ms di Leonardo suggests.

Steve Sewall, Chicago Civic Media Project

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