Since May 2020, racial justice and systemic inequality have consistently been front-page news, thanks to daily protests against racism and police brutality. But Chicago journalist Laura S. Washington has been on this beat all along.
“I cared about this stuff a long time before a lot of people should have cared about it,” she said. Growing up in neighborhoods across the city’s South Side, “You grew up seeing so many inequities, and you want to right them and you want to change them,” said Laura. “The challenges that I had, growing up in a segregated community in Chicago as a working class young woman, turned into advantages, because it gave me an appreciation of how important it was to highlight those issues.”
But Laura didn’t always see herself as a journalist. “I had actually originally intended to go into the sciences and maybe become a doctor,” she said. But, “I had a teacher who was very inspiring, an Advanced Placement English teacher, who encouraged me in my writing and said I had talent.” She went to Northwestern’s Medill School for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism, and never looked back.
Since then, she served as editor of The Chicago Reporter from 1990-1995, then both editor and publisher there from 1995-2002; she’s been a commentator for NPR and WBEZ, a correspondent for WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, producer for CBS 2 Chicago’s investigative unit, an op-ed columnist at the Chicago Tribune—a little bit of everything. “I was doing multimedia journalism before they called it multimedia journalism,” she said. These days she’s a Chicago Sun-Times columnist, and a political analyst for ABC 7.
Over the years, no matter the medium, Laura said she sees her specialty as covering racial and social justice—not such a common thing when she started out in the field. “Some people saw that—even in our profession—saw that as a form of advocacy, that we were not true reporters,” she said. “And when people would say that to me back then, I would say, why wouldn’t anyone care about racial justice? Why does that make you biased or unfair, because you’re working toward fairness? And now I don’t think people see it that way anymore.”
In 1985, Laura was appointed deputy press secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor. I asked her what it was like to be part of that historic administration. “It put me on the other side of the pencil, so to speak,” she said. Mayor Washington’s administration was famously plagued by the Council Wars. Working as deputy press secretary, “that was the ground zero of Council Wars from the media side,” she said. “And because it was such a volatile, crazy time, it was like working in a war zone.” It was also enlightening. “In the two and a half, three years I was with Harold Washington, I learned more about how government works and doesn’t work from working inside that administration than I had learned as a reporter,” she said. “Because you’re there when the decisions get made.”
“Are we ever even going to be able to get back to that inadequate form of normality?”
I spoke with Laura over the phone in March, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Chicago. I asked her what she thought was missing from reporting around the virus. We talked about the increasing shift in journalism towards digital and remote reporting. “You’re going to lose populations, you’re going to lose stories and perspectives if you can only do it digitally. And we know all the reasons for that. So it’s reinforcing all the biases and inequities that are already in the system,” she said. “It wasn’t adequate enough before. And so, are we ever even going to be able to get back to that inadequate form of normality?”
Months later, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues without a clear endpoint, I emailed Laura to ask her about the most important stories in this moment. “The biggest Terkelian story, in my view, are the ways in which COVID-19, gun violence, civil unrest and the debate on racial justice are exacerbating the gulf between the haves and have-nots,” and separating us physically, geographically and socially, she wrote. She added, “We have seen plenty of problem-based reporting. What are the solutions? People are fearful and pessimistic about the near and far future. What are the hopeful solutions?”
Laura was awarded the Studs Terkel Community Media Award in 1999. “I was thrilled,” she said. “I felt a kinship with him, in that I knew that he understood and appreciated the communities that I knew. And, you know, in a city that’s as segregated and balkanized as Chicago that’s making a big statement.” Looking back through old photos of the Terkel Awards, I spotted Laura in just about every year, often in close conversation with Studs himself. They look like old friends. I asked if she knew him well. “I remember many times having a drink with him,” she said with a laugh. But she also got to see Studs in his element.
“He used to always take the bus everywhere,” said Laura. She lives in Lakeview, and Studs lived just north. “So I would often get on the bus, and he would have already been on the bus. And I would get on the bus and he’d say, ‘hey, come on back here and talk to me.’” But, she said, he’d also strike up conversation with just about anyone. “And a lot of the folks he talked to probably didn’t even know who he was. But it was all about being in the neighborhoods, being in the community, and finding people where they are.” He had an uncanny ability to connect with regular people, she said. “That made him a better reporter and a better journalist, that he was out there on the bus. Every opportunity he had to find people and talk to people, he was using it.”
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, Natalie Moore, and Monica Eng.