Politicians and pundits around the country love to talk about Chicago and especially its South Side, often couched in coded language about violence and crime. Chatham-born writer and reporter Natalie Moore is frustrated by the stereotypes and subtext that surround the region.
“‘The South Side’ ends up being shorthand for black poverty,” she said, in a phone conversation in February. “But there is diversity on the South Side. It is where most of the Black people in the city do live. But there’s more to it than what people think.” What does she wish people understood better? “That it’s the largest geographic part of the city, and it’s not a monolithic area,” she said. “But because we’re so segregated, and because we’re so bashed, a lot of people don’t ever visit the neighborhoods here.”
Dubbed the “South Side Lois Lane,” Natalie knew what she wanted to do from a young age. “I worked for my high school student newspaper at Morgan Park, and eventually became editor there,” she said. After graduating with a journalism degree from Howard University, she was hired by Laura Washington for an internship with The Chicago Reporter. She went on to work as a reporter at the Detroit News, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and the Associated Press in Jerusalem. But, she said, she always saw herself coming back to Chicago.
In 2007, Natalie finally made the move back to her hometown after working as a journalist around the country. She had just finished her first book, Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation, co-authored with her friend Natalie Hopkinson, and was looking for freelance work. A fan of public radio, but with no radio experience, she decided to reach out to WBEZ. “I never thought that I would be working in radio. I thought I would have a career in newspapers,” she said. “But I’ve always been motivated by who is going to let me tell the story that I want to tell.” It turned out they were looking for someone to head up their new South Side Bureau. “They said, ‘well, we have this job opening. You should apply.’”
She did, and she’s been diving deep into the people and stories of the region ever since. When we spoke over the phone, she had just been working on a story about Northwestern University’s prison education program at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security men’s prison in Crest Hill, Illinois. “I think if more people saw what prisons were like on the inside, it would lead to greater understanding of our criminal justice system,” she said. It’s just one example of the kind of reporting she’s come to be known for. But if you ask her, “I really think of what I’ve done here as a body of work. And it’s never about one story,” she said. “I try to have a balance. I like to be policy driven, but using storytelling accessibly to explain complex policies.”
Years of reporting on everyday life in the area fueled Moore’s acclaimed 2016 book, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation. In it she writes, “In covering neighborhood affairs and noticing the disparities in my own neighborhood life, I always circled back to segregation as the common denominator.” Though her work focuses on issues like segregation, inequality, and housing, she told me, “I also want to show the joy and the life that’s in these neighborhoods, and give a sense of place.”
A lot has changed in the weeks since we spoke, but the issue of trust between media and the communities they cover is as relevant as ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked Natalie what can be done to build, or rebuild, that trust. “I think news organizations need to be strategic about what they can and what they can’t do,” she said. She also pointed out that it’s important to be specific about what particular “media” we’re talking about. “In some ways, the news media is like Congress,” she said. “If you ask how they feel about Congress, they aren’t positive. But if you ask them about their individual rep, they’re going to have a different opinion,” she said. “I think if you start drilling down, you will find that there’s trust.”
Natalie was awarded the Studs Terkel Community Media Award in 2010. Although she didn’t get to know Studs personally, she said, “Studs is a legend in Chicago.” Moore has collected numerous awards honoring her work over the years. But, she said, getting an award that honors people who are working in communities was especially meaningful to her. “For a lot of journalists in this city, the Studs Terkel Award is the award that you want to get.”
I asked her why she thinks Studs still matters today. “He was a master interviewer and told stories of everyday people,” she said. “You know, life isn’t just about what a politician said. It’s important to get them on the record, but we also need to get the heartbeat of a city. It’s important to get those voices from neighborhoods and communities.”
The 26th Annual Studs Terkel Community Media Awards will take place on September 24, 2020. Nominations are now open, and have been extended through June 30th–go to bit.ly/Terkel2020 to review guidelines and nominate a community-driven Chicago journalist.
Voices of our Time is a series by blog editor Mareva Lindo, featuring interviews with past winners of the Studs Terkel Community Media Award. Previous pieces in the series have featured Tracy Baim, Dave Hoekstra, and Teresa Puente.