It was the summer of 1985, and Chicago teenager Monica Eng was about to receive an offer that would alter the course of her life.
“My mom was dating Roger Ebert when I was a teenager and he said, ‘Does one of your kids need a job this summer?’ And I said, I’m not doing anything but watching TV all summer,” said Monica, when we spoke over the phone in March. “I was a sophomore at Lane Tech, and I started working in the features department of the Chicago Sun-Times.”
She started as a copy clerk. By then that meant bringing the latest editions of the newspaper up from the press room to the editor, plus answering phones, delivering mail, “basically whatever they needed in the newsroom,” said Monica. But before long she was asked to start writing about teen dance clubs in Chicago. “I just had a bunch of editors and reporters take me under their wing and say, here’s how to write stories,” she said. At the end of the summer, they asked if she wanted an after-school job. “So I went to Lane from, I think, 7:30 to 1 o’clock, and I worked from two to six every day at the Sun-Times,” she said. “For a 16-year-old kid it was a really good deal.”
After that first gig at the Sun-Times, Monica knew what she wanted to do. “It was life-changing,” she said. “I started a job that I loved, and I never wanted to leave newsrooms after that first summer.” Since then, she’s covered food, culture, and health in the city for The Daily Southtown and Chicago Tribune. She spent several years as an investigative reporter on the Tribune’s Watchdog team. But these days she may be best known as the resident reporter for Curious City at WBEZ, where she’s been since 2013.
For the uninitiated, Curious City is a radio program designed “to include the public in editorial decision-making, make journalism more transparent and strengthen multimedia coverage about Chicago, the surrounding region and its people (past or present).” Stories are bite-sized–anywhere from five to 20 minutes–and cover a lot of ground. “We sway between big universal themes and, like, ‘this one woman remembers this fried chicken from her childhood, and we’re going to try to replicate that recipe for her.’” That’s an actual episode you can listen to, if you’re curious. But it wasn’t just about a search for great fried chicken. “When we’re nostalgic about something from our childhood, when we try to capture something from another time, it’s not so much that thing, but it’s the moment. It’s the people, it’s the feeling we had at that time of safety, or love, or whatever,” said Monica.
I asked why she feels it’s important to make programs like Curious City, that center public input and transparency. “I’ve lived in a lot of newsrooms where it’s all what we call ‘stupid editor ideas,’” she said. “Your editor sees something on their commute in, and they’ll go ‘that’s a story.’” And whether or not it’s a story, you do it, she said. “This is the opposite.” She often tries to choose questions they’ve been asked over and over again, where there’s clearly a lot of public interest. “I like being able to respond to the public, and let them know we’re listening, and we’re not just in some ivory tower,” she said.
Monica has lots of ideas on how the industry could do better, and build more trust between journalists and the communities they cover. One of them is called The Follow-Up. “I did investigative journalism for a long time,” she said. Usually, once you’ve done a story, “You can maybe do a couple follow-ups. But your editor’s like, go on to the next damn thing. And that leaves a whole bunch of issues just dangling.” Monica submitted a grant proposal suggesting that WBEZ follow up on the most important investigations of the past ten years, reporting weekly on whether those things changed, if any legislation was passed, and if legislation made any difference. She suggested including information for citizens to get involved in the issues, and how to contact their local legislators. “That’s one of my ideas,” Monica said, “for building up that trust, creating more transparency and showing people, you know, here’s what journalism has to do with your life.”
Monica won the Studs Terkel Community Media Award in 2015. “It was such an honor,” she said. “Looking down at the names of people who had won it, it was just so many people I admired, not to mention Studs.” She added, “to know that there’s an award out there that celebrates those who amplify the quiet voices, it’s so important.” I asked Monica why she thinks Studs’ work and ideas are still relevant today. “I think his leftist spirit, and his openness towards others, and his desire to hear other people, and make them feel heard, is so important today,” she said. “I just wish we had more Studs Terkels out there.”
Voices of our Time is a series by blog editor Mareva Lindo, featuring interviews with past winners of the Studs Terkel Community Media Award, honoring community-oriented journalists since 1994. Previous pieces in the series have featured Tracy Baim, Dave Hoekstra, Teresa Puente, and Natalie Moore.