"I am pleased to introduce myself as the DNAinfo Chicago reporter for Logan Square and its surrounding areas," begins the letter, which is signed by Darryl Holliday. "DNAinfo Chicago is an award-winning, online neighborhood news source focusing on Chicago's neighborhoods. . . . I am excited to be covering individual communities and providing residents with extremely relevant and quality journalism that improves their daily lives . . ."
And so forth and so on.
Alas, keeping a low profile isn't nearly as simple as just staying off the Internet. For instance, "if you pay taxes your name's on a data base," Holliday would explain when I contacted him. "Every household in Logan Square got a letter from DNA, not necessarily from me personally." Did anybody make it clear to you the letter wasn't welcome? Sure, said Holliday. "Someone said her autistic granddaughter got one and she can't read it."
I told my colleague I'd see what I could find out. But if neighborhood news services now promote themselves like corner pizzerias; and if reporters now double as marketers—well, the life we chose is a desperate life and everyone in it is hustling to survive.
I did tell my colleague this:
"For what it’s worth, I think Darryl Holliday is one of the most interesting journalists in Chicago. He combines reporting with graphic arts. The Reader has published one of his stories."
"How to Survive a Shooting—as told by Nortasha Stingley" ran in November 2013 on our cover. Holliday did the reporting and writing; he interviewed Stingley, whose 19-year-old daughter had been shot to death near their home in Grand Crossing, and blocked out the story; Erik Rodriguez drew the panels. I missed that issue when it was published but caught up with it a year later when Holliday applied for the Anne Keegan Award. I'm one of the judges.
The Keegan Award, named after the late Tribune columnist, honors writers whose stories "give voice to the voiceless" and are distinguished "by compassion, character and courage." Holliday entered with three pieces of graphic journalism. In addition to "Shooting," he sent us "Compartment 13," an encounter with homeless men and women camped under a Kennedy Expressway viaduct, and "Life After the Second Set," about a man who's lived his life in a wheelchair since he was shot eight times. Jamie Hibdon drew both the other stories. "Compartment 13" originally ran in CityLab.com, a national website on urban issues maintained by the Atlantic, and
the South Side Weekly, a free newspaper based at the University of Chicago, "Second Set" on medium.com's graphic site, the NIB.
Holliday didn't win the Keegan. We weren't sure how to think about the stories he sent us. The Keegan is an award created for individual writers, not for collaborators. And his format was something we'd never had to deal with before. But this isn't to say we weren't intrigued and impressed. The comic-book form can be amazingly subtle and potent.
"We can approach stories in a different way through comics," says Holliday. "I think a better way, yes, because imagery—especially sequential imagery—is really powerful. People are better able to process information when it's shown to you in images. There are certain things you can catch with images you can never catch with photography. We can highlight, pull out, change perspective." It's becoming, he says, "a legitimate way of doing journalism."
Raised all over because his mother was an air force lifer, Holliday, who's 29, graduated in 2011 from Columbia College, where he met Rodriguez, and interned that summer at the Sun-Times. A short item in the Sun-Times about weddings in the Cook County Jail intrigued him: "I was sitting at my desk thinking, 'What does this look like?,'" he tells me, and imagined bars and guards and wedding dresses. So he roped in Rodriguez and they attended some weddings, created a comic, and posted it on Gapers Block. "We've come a long way since then," Holliday says.
Hibdon joined the team a couple of years later. "I decide what we do and then we work as a group," says Holliday. Who draws depends on who's busier, he tells me: Hibdon has other freelance duties; Rodriguez is a staff illustrator for the Tribune. Everything they create winds up on their own website, Illustrated Press Chicago, after first running on the site of the Reader, Newcity, CityLab, or whoever bought the story. They self-published their first collection of stories, a tiny edition that appeared in late 2012. The second book will be commercially published, and it's due out early next year.
The Association of Alternative Newsmedia didn't share the Keegan judges' perplexity at how to respond to Holliday's comics. AAN has come up with a series of "Outside-the-Box" awards, and last year in the "Innovation/Format Buster" category gave first place to Holliday and Rodriguez's Reader story, "How to Survive a Shooting." And earlier this year Chicago's Community Media Workshop gave Studs Terkel Awards to Holliday and Illustrated Press. The winners, said CMW, "show that storytelling excellence is alive and well in Chicago."
Holliday says he's grateful to his bosses at DNAinfo for supporting his outside work instead of telling him to cut it out; but he hasn't done any graphic journalism on his day job. "I keep them pretty separate," he says. For DNAinfo, he covers neighborhood stories and signs letters to home owners that end, "I'm excited to work with you. . . . I look forward to meeting you soon." That's going the extra mile right there.