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News from the Other Half
The Neighborhood News Service shines a light on city life.

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 mostly ignored.


“Our goal is to present a more balanced picture of the central city neighborhoods we cover,” says Sharon McGowan, editor and project director.


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 schools.


Sharon McGowan
“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 published.”


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 Argosy Foundation.


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 give blue 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 broader audience.”


Another 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 happening.”


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 one.


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 years.”



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Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Darren Hill.

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