It’s a common complaint among
residents of less affluent and impoverished neighborhoods in cities: In the
mainstream media, their communities get depicted in one broad and distorted
stroke – as dangerous and victimized, instead of as complex networks of the
people who live there and strive for improvement.
Milwaukee is no different – except
that a couple of years ago, some neighborhood organizations decided to take
the matter into their own hands and contribute directly to changing the
journalism about their communities.
The result was the Neighborhood News Service, a non-profit outlet that posts stories on the
web about parts of town (and the people who live there) that are otherwise
“Our goal is to present a more
balanced picture of the central city neighborhoods we cover,” says Sharon McGowan, editor and project
Now two years old, NNS hasn’t just survived – it’s grown, expanding from
covering three neighborhoods to 17, and from having two paid, part-time
reporters to four. Besides the professional staff, interns, volunteers and
students add to the coverage.
Students come both from Marquette
University, which houses the service’s newsroom under a partnership between NNS
and Marquette’s Diederich College of Communication, but also from other
“We consider this a professional
news organization,” McGowan says. “But we also are mindful that we have the
opportunity to introduce young reporters to the value of covering the city.”
Whether the work of volunteers,
students, or paid staff, all stories
are held to a professional standard, with McGowan editing the content before
it’s posted. And though she doesn’t actually get bylines, she adds, “I tell my
own staff if I’m not ready to put my own name on it, it’s not getting
The news service grew out of the Zilber
Neighborhood Initiative and was spearheaded by the United Neighborhood Centers
of Milwaukee. Additional support comes from the Knight Foundation, which funds
various sorts of journalism projects, as well as the Zilber Family Foundation,
the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the
The service’s news stories appear on the NNS website, but from the
start, the intention was always to offer them as free content to any news
organization that would run them along with appropriate credit. WITI Fox 6 and
the service have had a partnership from the start, with NNS stories running on
the station’s website from time to time.
Recently the station went even
further. A couple of weeks ago, NNS wrote about Dante Chestnut’s campaign to
light bulbs to residents of higher-crime neighborhoods, who use them on
their porches to take a public stance against violence – and, it’s hoped, deter
crime in the process.
A few days later Fox 6 aired its
own story and linked to the original NNS story as well.
“I’m hoping that they’ll do more of
that,” McGowan says. “It exposes the people that we cover to a different and
recent NNS story was about Darren and Vedale Hill, who grew up in poverty,
went on to college, and now are opening an arts center for children in the
Riverwest neighborhood. At 3,200 hits, “it’s our most popular story,” McGowan
says. “People like these stories, and they want to know that they’re
The website Urban Milwaukee has begun running NNS stories. Community Strong, a new, glossy monthly magazine that targets
Milwaukee African Americans, has published one. WUWM’s Lake Effect has picked up on some NNS stories, too.
Community groups and neighborhood
associations also republish or link to the organization’s work. And McGowan
says she’s been in an ongoing “conversation” with the Journal Sentinel in the search for ways to bring its work to the
newspaper’s audience. Others are welcome to run NNS work, too. “All we really
ask of other news organizations is that they attribute the material to us.”
While founded to ensure that more positive news from the
neighborhoods it covers gets out to the public, NNS doesn’t simply take a
“feel-good” approach. “We also talk about the challenges” that city
neighborhoods and their residents face, McGowan says.
The news service is essentially an
Internet publication, but McGowan says that hasn’t been a barrier to reaching
its core audience in Milwaukee’s central city. “African American men are the
biggest users of mobile phones” as a point of entry to content on the Web, she
notes. NNS will soon be delivering its pages via new software that offers
so-called responsive design, making the site suitable for viewing on whatever
platform the reader is using, from a huge desktop screen to a tiny cell phone
The program also is hiring a
“sustainability consultant” to advise on how to raise funds for the long-term.
The organizers’ goals include being around a while, not simply flaming out
after a few years.
Having gained a footing and spread
its coverage, McGowan sees the operation’s next big task as overcoming, over the
long haul, pervasive, negative images of the communities NNS covers. That could
take much longer, she acknowledges.
“We hope people’s perceptions will
change,” she says. “That doesn’t change in six months or a year or even two
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Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Darren Hill.