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March 6, 2017

"Objectivity Isn't Objective:" South Side Weekly Leadership Talks Past, Future of Paper

The past year has been a big one for the South Side Weekly. The South Side–focused publication increased its staff, inaugurated new special issues, and received coverage from Harvard’s Nieman Lab for its investigative work with journalism start-up City Bureau.

Editor-in-chief Jake Bittle was supervising it all. Bittle, a fourth-year student, will soon graduate and pass the torch: the Weekly recently held elections to select its new editor-in-chief, third-year Hafsa Razi. The Maroon sat down with the two editors—old and new—to discuss the Weekly’s mission, its changing relationship with the University community, and why they think objectivity is obsolete.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Chicago Maroon: Jake, what do you see as the South Side Weekly’s mission and why is Hafsa a good person to continue it?

Jake Bittle: As I see it, our mission is to provide in-depth, accurate, and humanizing coverage of areas of the city that don't receive it from other media outlets. Whether it’s a deep dive on the CPS budget or a sit-down interview with an artist or a dancer or musician from the South Side of Chicago, I think the point is to both spotlight these things that are going on in these neighborhoods, and also then to point out inequities and injustices in those very same neighborhoods.

Hafsa is the best person to do this because she has shown an incredible sensibility for finding stories and seeing them through to their end. She knows the South Side of Chicago, she knows where the stories are, and she really understands the component of the paper which is founded on teaching.

CM: Hafsa, what direction are you looking to lead the paper in?

Hafsa Razi: I don’t necessarily see myself as taking the paper in a totally new direction, but more of continuing and strengthening what we’re doing to meet some of the goals Jake talked about. Making sure that we continue to be a teaching paper, as he said, a place where people of any and all experiences and walks of life can walk into our newsroom and find a way to contribute. Then there’s our mission of providing justice-oriented coverage up the South Side and also of making our paper more representative and diversive within our own staff.

CM: What does the Weekly being a teaching paper mean to you?

HR: The Weekly strives for citizen journalism, which by my definition means you don’t need to be someone with a journalism degree, you don’t have to be someone who’s a career journalist. People have knowledge from their experiences. If someone wants to come write for us, if they have an idea, they can walk in the door and we’ll meet them where they’re at. I love that about the Weekly.

CM: Jake, what are some of the things you’re proudest of from your time at the Weekly?

JB: Three things. One, I think that within our staff we’ve created a couple really important new positions that have made the staff function a lot better. The second thing is that we produced a lot of really kickass stories! We’ve had a lot of really, really amazing investigative work done with data. And then the third thing is that I think this past year, we’ve developed relationships with writers and contributors who are not from the University of Chicago.

CM: How do you guys see the paper’s relation to the University of Chicago?

HR: As an institution, we effectively don’t have a relationship. We became a nonprofit two years ago, in 2014, and we ended our RSO status in 2015. A lot of our contributors are University of Chicago students, so in that sense we have that connection to the community of people.

JB: Our editorial staff is around 80 percent students, and the contributor base, in terms of people who have written in the last year, is like 65 to 70 percent students at the U of C. That sounds like a lot, but two years ago it was 100 percent on both. We’re taking small steps, but they’re steps. I don’t know anyone who’s ever thought that it was a good arrangement to have all University students writing about the South Side of Chicago.

CM: There’s a long tradition of objectivity in journalism, where writers are sort of supposed to keep themselves out of the paper. Do you guys think there’s a place for writers’ identities in their stories?

JB: One hundred percent, yeah! For sure. People might come for us for saying this, but we at the Weekly really think that journalism suffers when it leaves out voices. I think that objectivity just isn’t objective. The idea of a view from nowhere, or a neutral view, on a story is not possible. I mean, just in choosing what to cover, you’re making a decision.

I do think that there should be a distinction between an opinion piece and a piece of reporting. But even when you get to reporting, we see our reporting as oriented toward justice. We don’t put objectivity before us as an ideal, but we do have fairness as an ideal. The idea is not to leave a perspective out, but to understand that when you put some perspectives together in a story you’re going to foreground one. It’s just the way that happens. This is a progressive newspaper. And a lot of the non-profit funded journalism institutions, they won’t say it, but they’re progressive outlets too. We don’t really abide by this sort of old-world sacred view of objectivity, and we do think that in a newspaper, identity, and perspective have a place.

HR: Papers that do place the ideal of objectivity front and center, for them identity matters too, but they just don’t say it or acknowledge it. Your identity and perspective affects how you write, it affects the language you use, it affects what you see or don’t see. To a degree it’s inevitable. And there are ways to push back on that—what Jake said about fairness, we put that into practice when we edit stories and direct writers and fact-check. Your identity will impact your reporting, but your reporting still has to be backed up by facts.

CM: Jake, do you have any advice for Hafsa as she takes over for you as editor?

JB: What my predecessors told me and what I would tell Hafsa is that in the midst of all the different projects and dynamics that you have to deal with, it’s really important to stay excited about the actual journalism. If you just stay excited about the coverage and you stay hungry for the next story and the next investigation, that’s the first thing, and everything else follows from there.

CM: Hafsa, do you have a message for Jake?

HR: No. (laughs) Just kidding! I came into the Weekly three years ago, and sometimes I lose track of how much has changed. I give a lot of credit to Jake and to our current and past leadership teams, because it has taken a lot of work and a lot of risk-taking to get us to be what we are and have the goals that we have. And I’m really excited to do this!

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