| Last June, two African American motorists, including
Northwestern football player Robert Russ, were shot and killed by Chicago
police officers in one weekend. Later, when the Chicago Tribune asked
for an opinion piece on the incident for its "Perspectives" section, the
person they asked -- to no one's surprise -- was Laura S. Washington (J78,
"The distressing part is that we've had these discussions again and again over the past 30 years," she says about the shootings. "It's nothing new: The very uneasy relationship between police and citizens has always been there. ... We have to stop having the same conversation over and over again if we're going to advance."
As editor and publisher of the Chicago Reporter, an investigative monthly magazine covering race and poverty, Washington is one of the most widely quoted and consulted Chicagoans when it comes to urban affairs in the city and around the country.
Don Terry (GJ80) of the New York Times calls up the Reporter veteran of 14 years when he's writing a story on race relations "for a more balanced, cool-headed opinion.
"Her whole day is spent thinking and writing about these issues," he says. "That puts her at the head of the game."
Washington first became interested in the politics of race growing up on Chicago's South Side in several mostly black communities.
"My mother was very politically active," she recalls. "She didn't hold any offices or positions, but she was always involved in political jobs at her work and in the community. She instilled in me a very important sensitivity to being an African American and the need to be an activist to improve opportunities and life for African Americans."
It wasn't until Washington was a senior in a South Side high school that she even considered journalism. She had wanted to study medicine until an English teacher suggested she try journalism instead.
"If I'd been a doctor, I would have been a doctor in a black community," Washington says. "As a journalist, I felt there would be a way for me to better society -- and not just for African Americans, but for all people who are disenfranchised, people who are disadvantaged."
Washington's tenure at the Reporter began with another tip from a teacher, this time a Medill professor who knew of her interest in racial issues. After he sent her to the library to look up the Reporter, which she had never heard of, Washington eventually ended up interning at the monthly during graduate school. She returned as a reporter after graduation.
Tom Brune (J75), who was the Reporter's managing editor at the time and is now a reporter in Newsday's Washington, D.C., bureau, remembers her as "very bright and very eager to do something special. We had discussions about how in journalism there are certain kinds of formulas and formats that you use. She was impatient with that; she wanted to do something better."
Washington left the Reporter in 1985 to serve as deputy press secretary for Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor (and not, in response to the question many ask, a relative of hers).
While working for the mayor, she learned a lot about how government operates and how decisions are made. The experience gave her a solid appreciation for what public servants have to deal with every day.
"When you get inside, you discover that these decisions are very complicated and fraught with peril," she says. If "mayors -- or any other public officials -- make mistakes or may not be as responsive as you think they should be, it may not be because they've got something to hide or because they've done something wrong. There are a lot of issues out there that they've got to balance."
Washington left the mayor's office with this knowledge and with the one thing every reporter covering government craves, something she describes as "relationships of trust that maybe some other journalists don't have. I actually worked with these people in government; they see me as a human being and not as a scary reporter who's out to get them."
After a short stint as a television producer, she returned to the Reporter as editor in 1990. She also became publisher in 1994.
If Washington had chosen a larger, more mainstream publication, "she'd probably be a columnist and on the editorial board," says consulting editor and Medill senior lecturer James Ylisela Jr. "Or they would have made her an editor. She might have been the city editor, and she would have been great. But I'm not sure she would have had as much impact."
And impact, especially when it concerns race, is the name of the game to Washington. "I think that race is a human fact of life that we're always going to have to confront," she says. "There aren't enough journalists who understand that race really is a thread that runs through every major issue and challenge in our communities and that we've really got to confront it. It's not necessarily the reason behind everything, but it's often at play. My job is to keep that out there."
Thus, when Washington reads the news, she is always asking what it will mean for the poor and for minorities in Chicago. Much like the Reporter, she states facts and identifies concerns but leaves the solutions to others.
On welfare reform: "There's this perception out there that we're solving the problem because a third of the people have come off [the welfare rolls], and the others are soon to follow. Most of the people who've come off welfare are people who are better trained, have a little more skill and more background. They tend more often to be white. The African Americans, especially single mothers who've never worked, are still on it and will be harder to get off."
On public housing: "All of the buildings [in Chicago] are coming down, but there's not much discussion or analysis about where these people are supposed to be going."
On business: "Corporations and businesses in this city are doing so well now, but what are they doing in terms of being inclusive in their policies, in terms of their programming? What are they doing to reach out and help communities?"
At this stage of her career, Washington doesn't investigate these issues personally, but she guides her reporters and interns with the right questions and comments as they make the phone calls, do the interviews, examine the documents and write up the results.
She is also responsible for ensuring the Reporter's investigations reach as wide an audience as possible. Because the monthly's circulation is small, its investigations don't automatically create large splashes.
The key often lies with other Chicago media outlets that use the Reporter's stories as points of departure. Deborah Nelson, an investigative reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times from 1985 until 1995, used research from the Reporter in her work.
"They'd do a story and the fact that they did that story was news," she says. "The Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times have greater resources [to do investigations], but they wouldn't even know about the issues without the Reporter doing top-quality research in the first place."
Although the publication has seen much of that research effect change in the public sector, Washington still would like to see more done.
"Too many of our stories and too much of the great work that our staff is doing sits on a shelf and gathers dust because the policy makers don't react because the public doesn't react," she says.
"We've always traditionally been a publication that's relied upon the media to help us get our stories out," Washington continues, "but I'm trying to push that even further to figure out other ways to keep the pressure on the public figures and other people whom we are raising questions with through our stories. We have to find ways to keep that pressure on so they do respond."
Washington also encourages her reporters to revisit their old stories to see what may have changed. Then she prints the updates in the publication.
"For a journalist, that doesn't seem as sexy, because you always want to do something new," she acknowledges. "But if public types know you're going to come back again and again and again, it's more likely that they'll respond."
In December, Washington will start a sabbatical, undertaking a larger project to boost the Reporter's effectiveness. The recipient of a nine-month Community Service Fellowship from the Chicago Community Trust, she will travel around the country to study the relationship between community organizations and the news media.
"I'm going to look at ways to get community activists and the media together to do journalism that makes change," she says. "This is not to say that media people should be out there doing community activism, but there's a rich resource in community organizations and people in communities that's not being tapped into by the media because they don't know where they are, or they don't understand how to reach them. Or the communities themselves don't realize what they have in terms of information or contacts to offer."
By studying different programs that currently exist, Washington hopes to find ideas that she can bring back to Chicago. "Personally it's important for me to feel like I am making a difference in society," she says. "I always want to do work where I feel that is happening."
Claire Sufrin, a senior at Yale University, worked as a summer intern at the Chicago Reporter and at Northwestern magazine.