Magda Panetlis talks about working with Stephen Franklin, who runs Public Narrative’s ethnic and community media project. Franklin, who speaks five language and trains journalists around the world, also teaches and works with the more than 170 outlets that cover Chicago’s diverse communities. The project helps these journalist juggle the demands of being small businesses but also helps them to better listen to their audiences and how best to cover the ever-difficult issue stories — such as racism, education, violence, health, disabilities, housing and segregation.

A 3-year-old child died on a plane from Chicago to Poland. This, Magdalena Pantelis instantly knew, was a story her readers would care about.

But she needed more detail to write about it for the Polish Daily News, the nation’s oldest daily newspaper in Polish, founded Jan. 15, 1908.

She needed to contact people who would know and could bring humanity to the story.

Pantelis turned to Facebook, because she has hundreds of links throughout Chicago’s Polish community. Her links lead to links, that lead to people and eventually stories about a world with roots as thick as the deepest trees.

Taping those roots to hear the Polish community and know what it wants to say is one of the strategies Pantelis decided on after becoming the newspaper’s general manager in 2013.

At the time, Pantelis said the Polish Daily News would provide stories that relate to people. Something that’s been at the heart of what of most experts say is the formula for successful community engagement and ultimately, a successful newspaper.

“We shifted to lead stories about the community. We shifted to things that the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times were not interested in that much about but were the stories that have the most impact on our community,” she explained.

And so, the newspaper offered stories and series that became a mirror for Chicago’s Poles, a community, whose ranks have been inflated beyond reality because so many generations have continued to identify.

What are the numbers?

In 2000, Illinois had nearly 1 million people with Polish heritage, according to a report on the U.S. Census by the Polish American Association. Pantelis said there are over 300,000 persons in the Chicago area who speak Polish at home.

Changing the content of the newspaper she leads was one major step for Pantelis. Cutting expenses and trimming employees was another. The five-day a week publication has a 22-person staff. Pantelis also improved the website, making it more inviting to a growing audience.

The changes have made a difference.

The paper’s finances improved. Its print circulation remained steady and the paper’s website added 85,000 online readers, she said. Its daily paid circulation for a 20-to-24-page tabloid is 2,500. But it can grow to as much as 15,000 when it publishes a full 72-page newspaper.

The Polish-language newspaper, Dziennik Związkowy, revitalized itself by writing stories that readers cared about and promoting the work.
The Polish-language newspaper, Dziennik Związkowy, revitalized itself by writing stories that readers cared about and promoting the work.

An Immigrant Story Evolved
Like many in her community, Pantelis is an immigrant. She was a news anchor for a local television station in Tarnow, Poland, where she also studied the sociology of culture and news media. She was on her way to a doctorate degree.

But her vision for her future looked beyond Poland to the U.S. “I was amazed by America as a country of opportunities. My generation was not a generation that had to migrate,” she said.

She came here for professional reasons in 2005 and she’s worked for a variety of media, starting with a Polish radio station, 1080AM, an online Polish news outlet, InformacjeUSA, and then Polstat or TVPolish, a Polish own satellite TV station.

She got to know the market and she said it helped to come to the networking events and classes the Community Media Workshop’s put on for ethnic media. “It was a great source of information, excellent exchange of experience. I also remember learning a lot — so much important concrete information about how to run a publication that I was able to put into practice.”

She knows her online edition must draw Chicago’s Polish community’s attention. It’s a concern that still drives her, and it’s an issue all those in the ethnic news media face. “We are trying to create more interest in what’s happening in this country,” she said. For that, she said she was grateful for the Workshop’s most recent speed-dating information event with the New American Media, covering the latest frauds facing immigrants.

It’s not always easy for her reporters to get the Federal Trade Commission on the phone, she said. “So, this was very important to us as well. It was precise information on what to do if you are a victim and what not to do.”

The challenges, indeed, are many for a newspaper that has marched through more than a century of changes. The Polish community has sprawled far and wide. Some young Polish-Americans are not fluent in the language, some do not feel the urgency to connect — again, all familiar territory for news outlets serving immigrant communities.

And yet, there’s been progress, significant progress, she said.

“It’s been a huge challenge,” she said. “But I think we’re bringing a lot together. … We used to hear people say there wasn’t anything to read. But now they say, ‘Oh there’s original content that affects their lives.’ ”

A conversation with Magda