"Chicago is a beautiful place, but also a place that has been through a lot of trauma. That provides fertile ground for me as a journalist:" An Interview With Robin Amer

Photo by Alissa Pagels

Photo by Alissa Pagels

Journalism in Chicago has deep roots. Some of the city’s most celebrated writers, like Studs Turkle and Mike Royko, established themselves here, writing as much about City Hall as they did about the regular guy. And the city’s rich legacy in print journalism continues today with two daily papers and a number of neighborhood publications. But being Chicago, with all the corruption the city is known for, journalism here comes with its own challenges. How do you write about something the city doesn’t want you to know?

Robin Amer is an investigative journalist who got her start at the Medill School of Journalism, NPR, Vocalo, and WBEZ. She is currently the creator, host, and executive producer of “The City” podcast by USA Today, which explores the issue of urban corruption in 1990s Chicago. Here, she speaks about her background, how the podcast came together, and plans for season two.

Read The New Chicagoan’s review of “The City” here.

Tell me about your background. When did you know you wanted to be a journalist? Have you always written about Chicago?

When I was a teenager in the late ‘90s, I fell in love with radio storytelling via This American Life. I remember hearing Sarah Vowell’s piece about being a moody, goth teenager spray painting Legos black, and being totally transfixed—I had never heard anything like it before. 

I interned at NPR the summer after high school, and in college joined forces with a band of fellow TAL obsessives to make similar kinds of stories. I thought of myself as a radio documentary maker. It wasn’t until later, once I started to appreciate the tools of old-school reporting more, that I started to self-identify as a journalist, and later, after I went back to school at Medill, as an investigative reporter. 

I have not always written about Chicago, but I have always been inspired by place, and Chicago is a particularly inspiring place to me. I moved here in 2007 to work for Vocalo and then WBEZ, and I wanted to be here both because the radio community was so amazing, and because Chicago as a city really inspired me. It’s a beautiful place, but also a place that has been through a lot of trauma, and that provides fertile ground for me as a journalist. 

How has working in and writing about Chicago influenced the way you write?  

That’s a great question! For starters, I think there’s a grittiness about Chicago that has affected the way I write. I see it in the work of other Chicago writers who’ve inspired me, like Stuart Dybek. Even though he’s a fiction writer, when I first read his collection of short stories called The Coast of Chicago, I said, I want to do this, but with radio stories. I think Chicago has also really affected my work as a reporter because it’s made me very conscious of the ways the past affects the present. You can’t escape the city’s history, whether it’s de-industrialization or segregation. Pretty much every story I do ties back to those two issues. 

Also, I am constantly amazed and inspired by the work my friends and colleagues make in Chicago. There are too many to name here, but just to name a few: Tonika Johnson’s Folded Map Project is genius; Darryl Holliday, Bettina Chang, Sarah Conway, Alison Flowers, and so so many others at City Bureau and Invisible Institute continue to open up opportunities for new voices and provide critical accountability reporting; the resurgence of Block Club Chicago from the ashes of DNAinfo fills a crucial information hole; David Jackson and Gary Marx at the Tribune always knock it out of the park with their investigations; Maya Dukmasova at the Reader pulls no punches; and there’s a fantastic new suite of podcasts like Making Oprah and 16 Shots coming out of WBEZ. I love being part of this community, and I’m so proud of the work everyone is making, especially given how difficult the media funding landscape continues to be.

In your experience, how is the journalistic landscape different in Chicago than in other cities? Is news covered differently here than elsewhere?

That is also a great question, but I’m not sure I have a good answer! 

You recently launched the podcast "The City" with USA Today. Season one examines an illegal dump in Chicago's North Lawndale community that sprouted up in the 1990s. When did you first hear about the dump and know it was something you wanted to dig into? (No pun intended) How long has this podcast project been in the making?

I’ve now been working on this project for more than three years—since I won the WNYC Podcast Accelerator competition back in September 2015. But I first heard about this story a decade ago, when a colleague at Vocalo told me about an undercover FBI investigation that resulted illegal dumping in black and Latino neighborhoods. He had some of the beats of the story wrong, but the overall story really stuck in my brain. I later came across the story again in a book called Garbage Wars by David Naguib Pellow. He described how this undercover investigation stemmed in part from a dump that eventually grew six stories high, and when I read that, I could not get over it. How could that happen? How could a city allow an illegal dump, located across the street from an elementary school, and a church, and peoples’ homes, to get that big? I became convinced that if you could answer that question—How could this happen?—that it would tell you a lot about how a city like Chicago actually works. 

Also, the story involved secret FBI tapes. To a radio person, this was a no brainer. It was a story I had to pursue. 

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Every episode has been deeply researched and very well written. What was the research process like for the podcast? How did you piece something like this together in a way that makes for a podcast series?

Thank you! As you can tell from the show credits, making this podcast was a team effort. I started reporting three years ago while working on the pilot episode of the show with WNYC, with help from a producer, editor, and intern. After I sold the pilot to USA Todayand was able to hire a team, we really got cranking and did the bulk of reporting in about five months—which sounds like a lot but was really, really fast for something like this. Me and reporter/producers Wilson Sayre and Jenny Casas and our interns did more than 60 interviews; collected more than 30,000 pages of court documents; and after failing for two years to get the FBI tapes via FOIA, successfully sued the FBI for some of the tapes we wanted. 

To piece the story together, we worked with a really gifted editor, Sam Greenspan, and story consultant, Ben Austen. (Sam is the former managing producer of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible, and Ben is a long form magazine writer and editor who is winning all kinds of awards right now for his book High Risers, about the Cabrini Green public housing project.) We were really focused on using the best tape and creating a compelling story where we could follow a central cast of characters over the course of ten episodes, and spent many months hashing out the best way to do that. 

I can’t really tell you more about how we did that without spoiling the end of the show. But I can tell you that we talked a lot about how, even though we were an investigative show, you’d never hear us say something like, “According to documents obtained by The City…” or, “A three-year-long investigation by The City finds…” We wanted to put storytelling first, with our investigative findings as the payoff for listening.  

Season one is now four episodes in. What can listeners expect for the rest of the season? How many episodes are planned?

We’ll have a total of 10 episodes, with new episodes coming out every Monday between now and November 19. Again, no spoilers, but I can tell you that the story is about to get really bonkers in Episode 5, and that we’ll have, among other things, some original data reporting later in the season that will help contextualize what happened in Chicago vis a vis what’s happening in the rest of the country.

Do you know anything about a possible second season of "The City"? (I would be more than happy to break this news if you can say anything about it). 

Yes! We’ve been actively reporting Season 2 since February. It will be set in another city, where the USA Today Network owns a local news outlet. (In addition to USA Today, the network owns 109 local newspapers.) We plan to reveal the city for Season 2 in the final episode of Season 1, and then release Season 2 in 2019. 

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