BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Chicago, public housing residents have a newspaper they can call their own. Residents Journal is written, edited, distributed and read by people who live in public housing. For its writers, the paper means power. For its 35,000 readers, the bimonthly tabloid is a crucial news source, breaking stories about the segregated, low-income communities that Chicago's big daily papers often ignore. On the Media's Ron Feemster has the story.
RON FEEMSTER: Ethan Michaeli, the publisher of Residents Journal, landed his first writing job right out of college at the Chicago Defender. He covered public housing at the 100 year old daily that serves the black community of Chicago.
ETHAN MICHAELI: The Defender, unlike most publications these days, has an editorial platform. It's a black perspective and there is a real sense of dedication and, and mission really at The Defender that you don't find at other publications.
RON FEEMSTER: His five years at The Defender gave Michaeli a new understanding of his parents' tales of segregation in the Jewish ghettoes of Budapest, Hungary. When he started Residents Journal, he recruited residents as reporters, inviting people to tell their own stories.
ETHAN MICHAELI: I think if you're a good journalist, you're going to find the stories that outrage you. [LAUGHS] It is so fun to write about stories that don't inspire your passion.
RON FEEMSTER: Mary Johns first walked into the office with a tale of bursting pipes that sent giant icicles cascading through the hallways and down the side of her high rise building. That was six years ago. Today, as editor in chief, she is creating a broader vision for the paper.
MARY JOHNS: We really like to focus on all low income issues. Chicago Housing Authority, because that was the initial mission. Then we follow health care issues, Medicaid for the seniors and, and how they have to decide if they're going to pay the rent or pay their medicines. And we write about welfare reform.
RON FEEMSTER: The paper's four staffers and most of the 30 freelancers have personal experience with the biggest issue in Chicago public housing: relocating tenants whose high rise buildings were demolished to make way for new developments.
BEAUTY TURNER: I told you I was coming to check it out.
RON FEEMSTER: Reporter Beauty Turner went through it. On this crisp winter day, she drops in on Ella Washington, a tenant who was moved out of public housing and into a hastily renovated duplex with an absentee landlord.
BEAUTY TURNER: I want to know what's going on with you --that's my story. My story is what's with Ella. Ella Washington. I want to know about the gas-- I want to talk about this nine hundred and some dollar bill. That's what we want to talk about. There's light bills that you got.
RON FEEMSTER: Beauty Turner broke a story of unpaid utility bills that was picked up by Chicago's daily papers and found its way to the policy think tanks of Washington, DC. A year ago, Turner reported that Commonwealth Edison never turned out the lights on people who skipped utility payments at Robert Taylor Homes, a legendary crime-ridden development where she lived for 11 years. The bills kept climbing, and ultimately they followed residents into the private housing market.
BEAUTY TURNER: Some of us are receiving Section 8 vouchers, and they're moving out into these big houses with high, extremely high light bills, and what you're ending up with is about six months down the road, Commonwealth Edison asks for their money; they don't have it. The relocation contract stipulates that they need their utilities paid and they end up homeless.
RON FEEMSTER: Author Alex Kotlowitz subscribes to Residents Journal which he calls his "eyes and ears" inside the developments run by the Chicago Housing Authority.
ALEX KOTLOWITZ: I used a story that appeared in Residents Journal and began to question the director about it and the head of media relations said to me "Oh, well you know that's just them" -sort of writing them off. A couple of weeks later I got a call, essentially an apology, that in fact they realized that what they had written was right on target.
RON FEEMSTER: Kathryn Greenberg, the head of media relations at the CHA, has come to respect the reporters of Residents Journal and to be careful when she takes their calls.
KATHRYN GREENBERG: Not that you're not honest with everybody that calls, but when a "Resident" calls, they sort of -- they know what they're talking about. [LAUGHS] And so I think that you have to listen to them-- you have to take it very seriously.
RON FEEMSTER: Residents Journal is a relentless critic of the housing authority, but it also publishes service pieces, including an occasional guide to the housing authority's daunting paperwork. For example the editors worked with residents to create an insert that explained a relocation survey. Meghan Harte is the CHA's managing director for resident services.
MEGHAN HARTE: It was the first step in helping CHA break down the relocation contract and the survey to a level where it makes it understandable to the resident. Some of the things that Beauty has done, she has called me and has really helped us deal with actual individual cases.
BEAUTY TURNER: What did you want to happen now?
ELLA WASHINGTON: The only thing I really wanted to do is have repairs done and my bills reduced and my repairs done....
RON FEEMSTER: Ella Washington leads Turner through the apartment pointing out problems in every room; paint chips that might be lead; cracked plaster; electrical problems. A faulty stove. Spongy floorboards in the pantry. Rats. No door knob on the fire door.
BEAUTY TURNER: Have you ever asked them for your moving papers?
ELLA WASHINGTON: I asked for moving papers. Every time I get the moving papers, it'd be a dilemma with the bills, my bills, the bills are extremely high.
RON FEEMSTER: Beauty Turner never writes that story, but it turns out she doesn't have to. When she begins making inquiries--
BEAUTY TURNER: Write this number down--
RON FEEMSTER: -- the landlord decides to make repairs. Ella Washington moves on with her life; Beauty Turner works the phones on a new story.
BEAUTY TURNER: Name Beauty - Beauty - like beauty shop -Beauty Turner. Okay? You got me? Okay. I got you.