ProPublica’s Midwest newsroom won two Sarah Brown Boyden Awards and was a finalist for three others Friday as the Chicago Journalists Association honored the best journalism in the city and Northwest Indiana.
A series of stories about the history of disinvestment on Chicago’s West Side took the top prize in the features category. In “Disinvested: How Government and Private Industry Let the Main Street of a Black Neighborhood Crumble,” reporters Tony Briscoe, Haru Coryne and Mick Dumke examined the decades of failures to address the challenges facing a once-thriving retail strip in the East Garfield Park neighborhood. Conventional wisdom held that Chicago’s Madison Street had simply never recovered after rioting in 1968, when scores of buildings in the area were damaged or destroyed, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But the reporting team unearthed a very different truth. This once-vital corridor was the victim of decades of government disinvestment and private sector neglect.
Though city officials pledged to repair riot damage, they never did. Government programs tried to attract private investment, but commercial development consistently bypassed Madison Street. As the area declined and residents moved away, the city demolished scores of blighted buildings in a bid to improve public safety, which left the street with fewer storefronts for entrepreneurs to occupy and a glut of vacant lots. In the resulting vacuum, vacant properties became little more than commodities for speculators, who let land sit empty for decades.
A second story, by Dumke, focused a tight lens on the complicated and revealing tale of one well-known business on Madison Street, a beloved soul food restaurant, documenting how years of financial challenges and an unsuccessful intervention from the city left it sitting empty like so many other buildings in the neighborhood. The final piece in the project, also by Dumke, explored the reverberating issues of race and politics on Chicago’s West Side through a grippingly told investigation into the long-unsolved murder of the West Side’s first black alderman.
“A Crisis of Undiagnosed Cancers Is Emerging in the Pandemic’s Second Year” by Duaa Eldeib won first place in the health/science category. Eldeib’s in-depth story examined the consequences of the pandemic on cancer care in the United States and how it was exacting an even greater price from those whose race and economic status already made them vulnerable.
To understand the gravity of what was at stake, Eldeib chose to tell the story of a widespread phenomenon through the experiences of three people, each of whom illustrated a different facet of the crisis. Teresa Ruvalcaba, an essential worker and mother, didn’t feel safe taking time off work to go to a hospital for care during a pandemic. Sergio, her son, shouldered most of the responsibility at home and at work, putting his plans for medical school on hold so he could help care for his mother and siblings. And Dr. Paramjeet “Pam” Khosla, Teresa’s oncologist, was, like many doctors around the country, attempting to handle the unprecedented strain on the health care system. Eldeib spent months attending doctor’s appointments with Teresa, shadowing the oncologist in the clinic and getting to know Teresa’s family, earning the trust that ultimately allowed a very private family to share its triumphs, regrets and fears in the hope that its experiences would help others.
Eldeib received more than 100 emails and calls from readers, some saying that the story prompted them to reschedule delayed doctors’ appointments and medical screenings and others, including doctors and researchers, saying the reporting was the first to confirm fears they had as early as last year.
The CJA also named the “Grace” series by Jodi Cohen and Eldeib as a finalist in both the public service and best series categories. A comprehensive analysis of Illinois’ COVID-19 spending by Ash Ngu, Cohen and Jennifer Smith Richards of the Chicago Tribune was named a finalist in the investigations category.