Ashley sits with Jessica on the foundation of what used to be the house that she grew up in. The house was condemned and torn down three years ago. Ashley said she never realized anything was wrong with her living conditions while she was growing up. When the water was shut off and she needed a shower or a hot meal or a warm bed, she just went over to Jessica’s house. At one point she remembers having 13 dogs, 30 cats, lots of fish, and a ferret that someone traded her mom for a joint. “It seems crazy looking back that we had so many animals yet we never had any food,” said Ashley. Photo by Hillary Wheat/Greeley Tribune.
To pass through Greeley, Colorado on the way to Denver, with a stop for lunch at the Red Robin, our town doesn't leave much of an impression beyond the slew of big box stores — Home Depot, Target, Circuit City, and Kohl's — that assault the eye. Though the land Greeley residents used to farm is being consumed by such "progress," some among us still carry the smell of cows, though not nearly as many as those who live in Denver might think. Peer inside these stores, and those of us shopping there are mostly white and appear to be middle class and conservative, whatever that looks like. But if a traveler doesn't turn off the highway and pull into Greeley, beyond all of these new homes and stores, this first impression will be quite misleading.
For years, the local newspaper, the Greeley Tribune, has invited readers to get to know their town and neighbors a little better, even if doing so makes them a bit uncomfortable. In a five-year span, the Tribune staff, once a month, presented readers with stories about poor and troubled youth who live in our community. In doing so, we often brought them face-to-face with conflicts that have arisen in the midst of an influx of Latino families.
I was a reporter on our first series of articles, which we called "Worlds Apart-Coming Together." During a 20-month period, we explored a range of gaps — social, cultural and economic, to name a few — that separate the life experiences of Greeley's Latino population and the Anglos who live in Weld County, where Greeley is located. I also worked as a reporter on several installments of the second series, "Faces of our Future," which was about problems facing Greeley's youth. Then last year, the newspaper published its third series in this project, this one focusing on poverty. Its title was "Living on the Edge," and on that one, I was the lead reporter and part-time editor.
Each of these series offered the newspaper an opportunity to focus on different aspects of these disparate experiences. In our opening series of stories, we covered such topics as bicultural relationships and marriages involving Latinos and Anglos, the impact of Latino music on the young in our community, and the thriving Latino homebuyer's market. Each of these topics explored the tension being felt by members of both communities. In our next series of articles, our reporters tackled such topics as obesity, teen pregnancy, and teenager's often-overstuffed lifestyles. By the time we embarked on our third series, we were ready to expand our reporting to include stories about the elderly, to look at how the schools are coping with their job of educating the young, and how middle-class families were only a few paychecks away from poverty's doorstep.
Despite their differences, in many important ways these series built on one another in their approach and also in what they strived to achieve.
In each series, our reporting illuminated the life experiences of people in our city and county whose lives too often are invisible to other residents. Readers of the Greeley Tribune were hearing about the gaps between the haves and have-nots long before Hurricane Katrina inspired some in the press to start focusing on these disparities. The installments in each series were each large projects that required weeks, if not months, to complete. These installments averaged six spreads, a dozen photographs, graphics, sidebars and a long main story. We are fortunate that Swift Newspapers, Inc., our private company that owns the Greeley Tribune and several other smaller newspapers, gives our reporters and editors the time, space and, occasionally, the travel budget to do these stories.
Each of our stories featured reporting on people's actual circumstances, rather than articles that conveyed comments about people's experiences. With every issue explored, we included a sidebar with information about this issue, but other photographs and words were primarily devoted to the storytelling about how people were struggling (and sometimes thriving) with various aspects of their lives.
The ideas for these series emerged out of staff brainstorming sessions — a once-a-year retreat where we would discuss our goals for that year. These discussions involved photographers, reporters, editors, copy-desk staffers, and our graphics editor. With all of us talking around the same table, the decision-making about what direction to move in involved everyone.
Once we'd set out the framework for each series, ideas for stories to tell came from people in Greeley as lead reporters conversed with community leaders and people whose lives were affected by the issues we hoped to cover. Out of those discussions emerged dozens of story ideas and, after months of additional meetings to talk more about these ideas and how they might be approached, we created a story plan to fit our schedule. It would be the reporter's job to find people whose lives could illuminate each of these topics, and what we discovered often is that in setting out to highlight a particular issue, our subjects led us to dig far deeper into it than we had thought was possible to do. In following a foster child, our reporter was able to share with readers the critical role that caring adults — in this situation the child's teachers and foster parents — can play in helping a child overcome some of the difficulties that often accompany poverty.
We are a community newspaper, with a circulation of 26,000 and a small staff. This means reporters had to keep up with their beats and daily assignments while the projects were being done. To help them, we presented the project story schedule months, and in some cases more than a year, in advance. This provided time to start early in locating subjects, finding sources, and reporting their story, which is the key to getting it done. For example, I spent eight months following a teenager through the last months of her pregnancy, the birth, and the first few months of raising her child. I could not have done that, and written nearly as complete a story, without having such advance notice.
Though many of these stories were tough to read and see — given the content of the topics we featured — in sidebars we offered informed guidance about solutions. An editorial about the featured topic appeared on the day of the story, and on the op-ed page we published columns written by community members involved with these issues.
As a community newspaper, those of us who work here have a huge stake in Greeley's future and that of Weld County, where we all live. As part of this project, we tried to offer some answers geared to the local circumstances that are resulting in these gaps in our community's fabric. And in many of our stories glimmers of hope emerged as the person featured showed by example how difficult situations were overcome.
As we expected, some of our readers didn't like the glare of this spotlight. Some of them complained that we did far too many stories on Latinos; others told us we were "too easy" on them, though we also featured Anglo families and youngsters dealing with similarly tough issues. The pregnant teen whom I profiled was Anglo, for example.
This reporting — and hearing these reactions — made us examine the choices we make each day in terms of whom we interview and the stories we report. We asked ourselves why, when a local Spanish radio station has a Christmas party, we tend to use quotes only from Latinos in our stories, even though Anglos are there as well. What these series have perhaps taught us most clearly is the value of looking deeply at a range of issues. For instance, in recent months we've published a story on Greeley's gang problems, exploring how drugs have made their actions more violent, how the gangs are affecting our schools, as well as how they are influencing the community's pop culture, from cars to clothes to music.
I have to admit I was glad when we finished our final series. At times, they wore me out. They are hard work, of course, and reporting on many of these emotionally gripping experiences left me feeling drained. I am, however, thankful for the opportunity we were given to let Tribune readers learn a lot more about the interesting and diverse city that all of us call home. Many of our readers surely shared an eye-opening journey similar to mine; before I started to report these stories, these gaps were unknown and unseen by me as well.
Dan England is a reporter and part-time editor for the Greeley Tribune who covers the outdoors and entertainment.