There go the neighborhood papers: Hard times at the Municipal Reference Library | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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There go the neighborhood papers: Hard times at the Municipal Reference Library

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They are sometimes looked down on as the stepchildren of Chicago journalism: weeklies (or irregularlies) with inexperienced reporters, biased editors, buffoonish editorial policies, exaggerated circulation claims, and ink that clings more to the fingers than the paper. At their worst, community newspapers prove all these claims.

Given that description, one might be able to understand the decision of the city's Municipal Reference Library, on the tenth floor of City Hall, to stop subscriptions to community newspapers. More than 30 papers have been canceled since the beginning of the year or are scheduled to be phased out, including the Back of the Yards Journal, Beverly Review, Booster newspapers, Southtown Economist, Southwest News-Herald, West Side Times, Hyde Park Herald, and Hegewisch News.

It 's not the kind of change that would cause widespread outrage. And those most affected--scholars and researchers--generally aren't the types to lead massive and noisy demonstrations. But the library's decision to let subscriptions to community newspapers expire creates a gap in the average citizen's access to information about the city.

At their best, community newspapers perform a service that's valuable beyond words. By concentrating on a limited area, the neighborhood papers can offer a depth that is generally beyond the metropolitan dailies. "The thing about the smaller papers is that they cover the neighborhoods," says one writer who frequently deals with neighborhood issues, "You can't follow the grass-roots happenings just by reading the Sun-Times or Trib. If you need background on local issues, they are a vital tool. If you want to know who the candidates are in an aldermanic election, you have to check the neighborhood papers. The metro papers just don't give that coverage."

A check of three random Municipal Reference Library aldermanic files backs up that claim. The most recent file on Bernard Hansen shows two stories each from the Tribune and Sun-Times, one from the Evergreen Gazette--and eleven from the Booster papers. Jesus Garcia's file contains one story from the Tribune, two from the Sun-Times, three from the All Chicago City News, and four from the local Lawndale News. William Beavers received only one Trib mention, but two from the Defender, one from the Southtown Economist, and nine from the Daily Calumet.

It's not just how often a politician is mentioned, but the way that pol is mentioned. Metropolitan papers, when they describe local officials, often do so in the blandest terms. But local papers often give a better sense (or at least, one writer's sense) of the personalities of those pols. Former Southtown Economist columnist Ray Hanania, for instance, described former 12th Ward Alderman Aloysius Majerczyk as the "Warlord" and 13th Ward Alderman John Madrzyk as "Mousy."

"Community papers have greater latitude," says Hanania, now a City Hall writer for the Sun-Times. "They can spend more time on a subject. Your area coverage is more limited, but you can look at people under a microscope. You can be more outrageous."

The difference in coverage becomes even more obvious when stories on neighborhoods are examined. The file on Jefferson Park contains 3 Tribune stories, 1 each from the Sun-Times and Edison-Norwood Times, 3 from the Harlem-Foster Times, and 14 from the Northwest Side Press. Logan Square had 9 Sun-Times and 11 Tribune articles, 1 each from the Reader, Harlem-Foster Times, and Crain's Chicago Business, and 31 from the Logan Square Free Press. Morgan Park received 7 Tribune and 2 Sun-Times mentions, plus 4 each in the Defender and Beverly Review, and 27 in the Southtown Economist.

"When it comes to citywide issues like the Board of Education, we generally stick with the dailies," says Clare Greenberg, who organized the library's clipping file many years ago. "But if you're talking about southside landfills, the Hegewisch News is going to have a lot more stories than the dailies."

"You don't live in a town of three million," says writer and activist Lew Kreinberg. "You live in a neighborhood. People need to find out what happens within the smaller areas. The Municipal Reference Library and its neighborhood newspaper collection have nurtured me and the work I've done for the past 25 years. Besides, the dailies tend to slant their stories to a downtown, prodevelopment point of view. You need the community papers to provide a balance by describing how projects have impacted on particular neighborhoods."

Others apparently share Kreinberg's view. Last June, for instance, groups as varied as the Better Government Association, Bethel New Life, Chicago Jewish Historical Society, Garfield Park Advisory Council, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Latino Institute, NAACP, Neighborhood Institute, and South Austin Coalition availed themselves of the Municipal Reference Library's services. "I would venture to say that a good number of those groups are using the neighborhood files," says Joyce Malden, the head librarian.

Malden acknowledges the value of the community papers. "Metro papers pick up issues. But they don't pick up the minutiae of the neighborhoods. The fact that 57th Street is torn up all the time and cars get ripped up traveling the street is something that you won't find in the Trib." The decision to discontinue the subscriptions, she says, was based on a lack of manpower and not the papers' inherent worth. "It's not a question of just ordering a newspaper, she explains. "The newspaper-clipping file involves marking, clipping, and classifying--a very labor-intensive process. It's a question of staff. In 1980 we had 24 persons on our staff. Now we have 19 and we're fighting to hold the line at that. What the budget office does is look at a vacancy, and when there's a vacancy, they cut it out. We just lost a person, the one who did the clipping and voucher filing. But right now there's a hiring freeze."

What can a researcher do to pick up neighborhood information, short of going to every neighborhood newspaper in town? "As of now, that is pretty much what he or she has to do," Malden admits. "Local libraries don't have the staff to maintain newspaper files. It would be a nice extra, but not something that fits easily into their budget. And even the newspapers themselves may not have files that a researcher needs. The staffs are often small and overworked as it is--without taking on the added burden of keeping separate files. Some aldermen may be good at neighborhood history and know that this has value." She then admits that no alderman is likely to keep for public display any story that portrays him or her in less than the best light.

"It's not that we are asking that much," Malden says. "All we need is a $14,000-a-year clerk." But even one low-level employee can be a large request if it's made by a cloutless city bureau. "The library is so low on the totem pole when it comes to funding that the budget officers are doing a courtesy just to listen to us," she says. "There's never a good time for the library. We get either 'Next year is an election year' or 'Something else has come up.'

"And even when the city has money, they don't spend it on us. Martin Oberman headed a City Council committee on local documents when the committees expanded a few years ago. He said 'I've got $50,000 in this committee's budget, and I'm not going to use it.' I suggested we use that money to film all local documents. But he'd made his stand about returning the committee's money, and there was no way he could back down from that stand."

The library has not yet tried getting foundation grants to pay for a clerical staffer. "Foundation money goes to medicine and social services. It's even difficult getting grants to the arts. Operating expenses for a municipal department is not a high priority for granting agencies," Malden says. "Besides, when grants are given, there often are many strings attached. The Chicago Public Library recently received a $60,000 grant for AIDS literature. It wasn't what they said they needed the money for. But sometimes you need to sidetrack in order to get any of the needed money. I suspect that it is probably more effective to put pressure on the administration."

City executives express sympathy but fall short of making promises. "We clip newspapers, but not to the extent of the Municipal Reference Library," says Joel Wirth of the mayor's press office. "I don't know that their nonclipping of community papers is irrevocable. There could be a change in the budget."

James Eldridge, liaison between the library and the mayor's office, says "We're looking at the situation. It's a service that we're investigating closely. We want to get someone into that library slot, at least on a part-time basis. I'm hopeful we can bring service back to the level where it was before, People have gotten accustomed to that service over the years, and when service is lost or curtailed it hits hard." Wirth and Eldridge voiced their lukewarm support for the library before their boss, Eugene Sawyer, lost the Democratic mayoral primary. No one knows what the new administration will bring, but Joyce Malden is not entertaining very high hopes for the immediate future.

"It looks like this year is a lost cause as far as getting personnel to justify resubscribing to community newspapers goes," Malden concedes. "We are going to use this year to build up support and develop a case for returning them next year. But it's a shame. The government has responsibilities to its constituency. One of those is to parade information. If you withhold information, you are depriving the citizenry. All libraries build on a foundation of information. And if you curtail part of that foundation, it's hard to build up what you've lost."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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