Harvey World Herald’s founder wants to give voice to community

When she saw a need in her community, Amethyst Davis, 26, didn’t turn away. As traditional newspapers around the country are facing decline, the Harvey native realized there was a local news void in the south suburb and decided to fill it.

She started the Harvey World Herald, joining the ranks of alternative hyperlocal, independently owned outlets that are changing the media landscape in Chicagoland.

Examples include Judith McCray’s podcast “Change Agents,” which brings together emerging journalists of color and community activists and organizations to tell untold stories through a community lens. Sylvia Snowden of CAN TV has made public access television a platform where local leaders, politicians and media figures talk about Chicago issues regularly. And Tiffany Walden and Morgan Johnson of The TRiiBE have been reshaping the narrative of Black Chicago since 2017.

Like those other outlets, the Harvey World Herald is led, owned and operated by people of color. And Davis has been named one of the Field Foundation’s 2023 Leaders for a New Chicago for her work.

The publication’s vision is to “pass the mic to those with a voice but without a platform, fill information gaps and help the next generation of storytellers shape and own their narrative,” Davis said.

It’s a vision that Sonal Soni, a former WBEZ intern and City Bureau fellow, shares as the Herald’s freelance race, equity and culture reporter. Soni, who uses they/them pronouns, said the citizens of Harvey deserve to stay updated on what’s happening in the community, and Soni’s goal is to amplify residents’ stories and let them speak for themselves.

“Throughout my time freelancing for the Herald, I’ve gotten a sense of the local community and the overall desire to foster local support among neighbors as well as their drive to return Harvey to what it once was — a thriving place to live, work and visit,” Soni said. “After learning so much about Harvey’s past, I believe that these stories deserve to be shared not just among the suburb’s residents, but to everyone. While Harvey is smaller than Chicago, residents’ efforts are strong and mighty.”

Davis had the idea for the publication in 2020 and launched the operation in January 2022. She has been the sole full-timer. This year, the Harvey World Herald brought on additional contributors: It currently has 10 freelance reporters and one freelance fact-checker.

While strategizing about community engagement continues, Davis is thinking about getting a bricks-and-mortar office to further build inroads with small businesses and churches in the community. According to Davis, the response to the local news outlet, which publishes every other week, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I had a teacher reach out, reading our election coverage and say, ‘It’s just really great to have a nonpartisan journalism voice in Harvey,’” Davis said. “We do a lot to highlight great things the kids are doing, community events. We are now in a position where people come to us, instead of us having to continuously go to them. …

“We’ve got people sending in documents, recording things on their block that they’re seeing, and they’re sending in the videos. People can tell this is a newsroom built by the community, for the community and we’re committed to doing this work with the community.”

The Tribune spoke with Davis about building a newsroom, media literacy and winning one of the Field Foundation awards, which are centered in the areas of art, justice and media/storytelling. They are part of Field’s ongoing efforts to address racial justice and systemic bias in Chicago’s marginalized and underserved communities. Winners receive $25,000 for their personal use and $25,000 for the affiliated organization’s general operations.

Davis will use a portion of the funds to get a car so she doesn’t have to do her newsgathering on foot. “For me to come home to Harvey and build this newsroom, it required that I drained two savings accounts and the retirement fund I had,” Davis said. “So most of the money with the award, I’m not touching.”

The following conversation with Davis has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What was the switch that flipped for you, that said, “I should do this in 2020″?

A: I went to New York City for college and was in New York for about five or six years. Much of what I was doing in undergrad was policy research, specifically policing policy and strategy, which is what I was intending to do coming out of school. I worked in administration at (New York University), my alma mater, and then the pandemic hit and I got placed on the social media team for my department.

I was just trying to find all sorts of resources around social media management and strategy on the internet and I wound up going down a rabbit hole of social media to media to journalism, where I stumbled upon different webinars and think journalism is kind of interesting. I applied to all these unpaid journalism internships and got rejected from every single one.

The job was encouraging us to take time off; I took a week and came home to Harvey, and it looked the same. I’ve always told people for much of the despair and the heartbreak that 2020 ushered in all over the globe, that was business as usual for Harvey. I had been away for some years, and I was trying to figure out what had taken place since I had been gone. I had the hardest time trying to figure out anything. The community center closed in 2019. I was like, are they gonna reopen that anytime soon? Did the city have an outdoor dining plan?

And it clicked — two birds‚ one stone. Pursue journalism. At this point, I had come across documenters at (journalism lab) City Bureau. I was a documenter. Documenters at City Bureau pay and train folks to go to public meetings and cover them. They also teach you website scraping, fact-checking and show you how to use all sorts of different resources to help build your journalism acumen.

Documenters make you realize all the barriers we build to journalism don’t have to be there. Documenters did a lot to shape my standards and expectations of what journalism could be, how we really could do something that works for the public good. For me, that was a very critical energy to be around because if there are problems, my immediate thought is: “What are we going to do about it?” So, I came home and built a newsroom, because we clearly needed one.

Amethyst Davis waits to get video recordings of City Council meetings at Harvey City Hall on July 6, 2023.

Q: Why is something like the Harvey World Herald necessary?

A: We’re at a time in this country where we need to sound the alarm. When you look at things on the news like book banning, attacks on voter rights in the U.S., when you look at the blatant spread of disinformation coming from political figures, people who are violating laws left and right and seeking public office, securing public office and people who just keep them in public office — there is now more than ever the need for an independent press.

We need public buy-in if we are to ultimately get the public to recognize how journalism, the free press, is the cornerstone of a democracy that we are watching being attacked.

What is it going to take for people to see us as assets in their community? It’s going to take a lot of interrogation on how this larger institution has been structured. Now you have a situation in which entertainment blogs, social media, people see them as authoritative sources of information as opposed to a local reporter. It’s already bad enough that you have these newsrooms left and right going under.

We have to start drawing home to the public what it is that we do, how we do it, and also interrogate how we’ve done whatever we’ve done so that people in the face of a crumbling democracy can really start trusting media, feeling connected and being seen in journalism — feeling as if it allows them to take action in their community.

Q: Older folks may be more traditional and younger folks may have been burned or been neglected by the media. How do you bridge the generational divide in your work?

A: A few ideas: Developing volunteer programs where people of all ages in Harvey can get involved with our newsroom, keeping everything free to keep everybody on an equal playing field to get information. I’m also thinking about building out documenters here in Harvey, to develop a program that allows us to pay and train residents to attend public meetings and build up their news media literacy, and try to structure that in a way that brings in the 20-somethings because they really do care about their community. The single mother of two who wants to feel like she’s giving back to her community and helping to build it up so that her kids can grow up in a thriving Harvey. Formerly incarcerated people who are trying to come back into their community and acclimate, they too need to know what is going on in their backyard.

I also want to do a community advisory board so we have direct input from residents in the work that we do, much more participatory, really listening to folks. We have to do a better job of explaining journalism to people — our reporting process, our fact-checking process.

Becoming more open within these newsrooms can help by being proactive in terms of helping people build news literacy so that they can become better news consumers. In the face of artificial intelligence, newsrooms being more intentional about developing news literacy programming to help the public be able to determine what’s fact and what’s not is going to be a big help.

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