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"Hey boss, I've got a double murder in an Englewood gin joint. Do you want anything on it?"
"Nah, it's blue. You can give me a 4-hed [a three-paragraph story] if you want."
A "blue" crime belonged in the police blotter but not the headlines, having taken place in one of the neighborhoods Chicago's dailies chose to ignore. Times have changed—somewhat—and Mullen was reminiscing because evidence of the change was laid out before us: he and I are members of the committee that each year picks the winner of the Anne Keegan Award for superior journalism, and among the entries our committee had gathered late this winter to consider was a bunch from DNAinfo, the news website launched in Chicago in November 2012.
The Anne Keegan Award was created three years ago to honor the kind of journalism the late Tribune columnist and feature writer specialized in—observant, compassionate stories about people you probably had never heard of, "the little guy." The DNAinfo stories fit the bill. The site's reporters hit the bricks, talking to parents and sweethearts and BFFs, and introduced to Chicago the victims of the city’s endless parade of homicides—most of them "blue" crimes that in another era wouldn't have been reported.
Mullen and I and the other judges were impressed. The stories demonstrated effort and commitment. They didn't win—this year’s Anne Keegan Award was given to the AP's Sharon Cohen for three stories, in particular her tale of an army psychologist who couldn’t conquer his own demons after returning from Iraq and finally shot himself—but they did DNAinfo proud. I decided to write a story saying so and contacted the website.
Oddly, nobody there wanted to talk. Not the reporters I asked, not writer-at-large Mark Konkol, who'd e-mailed me the stories he wanted the Keegan judges to consider, and not managing editor Shamus Toomey. Unwilling to acknowledge on the record that DNAinfo had even focused on homicides, Toomey sent me a statement that said merely, "Covering the neighborhoods of Chicago is our mission at DNAinfo.com Chicago. We aim to be the best source of neighborhood news in Chicago, and covering victims in neighborhoods is just part of what we've done."
It’s tough to cover a major journalistic initiative that the initiator won't admit to. I put off my story more than once, and might never have written it at all if I hadn't recorded—and eventually watched—the third installment of the CNN series, Chicagoland.
Mark Konkol, moonlighting as Chicagoland's narrator, is speaking: "Here's a tragic reality of Chicago's murder statistics. Three-quarters of its victims are black, in a city where African-Americans make up a third of the population."
The screen cuts to a DNAinfo reporter behind the wheel, driving into a ‘hood. "Reporter Erica Demarest's job is to put a human face on murder victims who otherwise might just be a statistic in Chicago's running tally of homicides,” Konkol narrates. And then we hear from Demarest: "One of the main things I do is this project called 'The Human Toll' where we profile every single murder victim in the city," she says. 'Usually, when a little girl gets killed, or a straight A student, that gets a lot of coverage, and everyone else gets ignored. At DNA we cover everyone."
Thanks to Chicagoland, I'm now certain those stories were part of a formal project and the project had a name, "The Human Toll." Chicagoland has been roundly ripped as a long love note to Mayor Emanuel, but it gave DNAinfo a lovely moment too. Perhaps a reason the news site has been reluctant to talk to me about something it did well and deserves praise for is that "The Human Toll" is history. Despite the impression Demarest leaves us with that the project's ongoing, on Monday I confirmed that it ended when 2013 did.
Last July, I discover, Toomey did a little boasting about "The Human Toll" on WBEZ. All 35 reporters and editors who work for DNAinfo lend a hand, he said; "it's an exhaustive project." So more credit is due DNAinfo, I guess, for deciding not to bask in the glory of the difficult challenge it gave itself after it dropped the challenge as too much trouble.