Cheryl Reed is a full-time investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.
She is also author of a book, Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns. Her most recent series of articles, which dealt with the economic gaps between blacks and whites, drew national attention and sparked widespread local discussion and controversy. She spoke to PRWeek about race, journalism, and the future of investigative reporting.
PRWeek: Can you explain the difference between the Sun-Times and the Tribune?
Cheryl Reed: The Sun-Times really covers Chicago. We don't really cover Illinois that much, we don't cover the nation. We cover what happens in Chicago and the suburbs, and mostly the city. The Tribune views itself as The New York Times of the Midwest. It has bureaus all over the world. The metro section is kind of considered second-class to the national and international reporters.
PRWeek: Do you feel like you don't compete with them as much as offset each other?
Reed: I think we do compete. Typically it's viewed as, we're the first ones on a story, and they're the ones that come in a week later and do the big blowout.
PRWeek: How did you choose the topic for your most recent series?
Reed: The managing editor said, 'I want to do a race series, and find out what you can find out, what's going on.' I mean, this is the most segregated city in the United States. Thirteen years ago we had undertaken a huge survey, which at the time I think was unprecedented, and we had looked at redoing that. It was just astronomical in cost. So we decided we wanted to something on race--where are we 13 years later, and what's going on? Have we changed? What are the issues in the city?
PRWeek: How long did that series take?
Reed: We do things pretty quickly here, that's the big difference between the Tribune and the Sun-Times. I would say we worked on it four to five weeks, pretty intensely.
PRWeek: How do you think the media at large cover race?
Reed: When we opted to do race [for my last series], we were not going to cover poor people because poor black people have been covered. They are always portrayed a certain way. We cover them to death. It's always sort of an institutional story.
We decided from the outset that we're not covering it that way. We'll cover middle class, upper-middle class, and actually wealthy blacks. I don't think that segment of the population is covered much. That's why the comments and the division between middle class and upper-middle class pitted against poor and those living in housing projects were sort of controversial. Because people don't normally hear that voice.
PRWeek: Do you think diversity, or lack of it, in newsrooms affects the way that media cover race?
Reed: I don't. I have very opinionated feelings on this. I think most of the blacks and minorities that we hire are very middle/upper-middle class. Most have gone to very good schools. They do not come from poor backgrounds. It's pretty rare to have a minority in the newsroom that came from a poor background, went to a community college or something like that, who can really relate to what's happening on that level. And so I think there's not a lot of diversity in thought and class between those minorities who are in the newsroom.
PRWeek: The newspaper sector is facing serious economic issues. How will that affect investigative reporting? Is it in danger?
Reed: Yes, I think it is. The Tribune, which is our competitor, is in the middle of layoffs. The LA Times laid off 85 people in the newsroom. You won't stop covering breaking news, so having people to work on projects for three and four weeks is a luxury. They certainly didn't always have that here, and that's at stake if we reach the point where we must have layoffs.
PRWeek: Do you think that type of reporting will migrate to the Internet and elsewhere, or just disappear?
Reed: I think really to do investigative reporting well, you need someone with a tremendous amount of skill, and you're not going to necessarily find that [among] people who are doing Internet stuff. You also have to have a lot of money. It's very expensive...I think people who are eliminated from those jobs will either end up going into private sector jobs, or teaching or something like that. I know at the Tribune those jobs are somewhat protected because of the skill base, but at a union paper like ours it would be based on seniority. So, whoever came in last [would be out first].
PRWeek: What qualities do you think make for a good PR pro?
Reed: Good PR people are the ones that know what you cover. I get tons of e-mail all the time about things I don't cover. And know the publication. I know I'd hear that all the time when I was a freelancer: "Well, we only cover Chicago." Know the person who covers the beat, know what they cover, know what they like.
The other big thing - give us a couple of weeks. Someone is calling me today about something [tomorrow]. My week is taken up. I think a lot of times PR people put things off way too close to the deadline. They think because we're a daily, we don't deal with things two and three weeks ahead. That's not true.