Martha Irvine is, in the world of journalism, a consummate pro. A native of rural Michigan, she has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and has been reporting for the Associated Press for 24 years, based in the Chicago bureau. That could make her what some call “old-school.” But Irvine has grown with the times. She started her career as a reporter and writer, then layered in the multi-media skills that are essential to 21st Century journalism. Her formal title at AP is National Writer and Visual Journalist.
Despite all that, she says she still prefers to think of herself as a “storyteller.” She uses her notebook and cameras to explore the lives of young people, as well as subjects like education, poverty, crime and pop culture. Among her many honors is a Studs Terkel Award, which is given to journalists who tell the stories of everyday people. This is from her bio on LinkedIn:
My first job out of undergrad was at a newspaper in Australia. My first story there was about a fight over internally illuminated signs in the historic town of Beechworth, Victoria. Much to my surprise, the editors gave me a byline for a two- or three-paragraph story.
I thought I was writing an extended photo caption, so I nearly hid under my desk when I heard one annoyed colleague loudly ask — “Who’s bloody Mahhhtha Irvine?”
Thank goodness, it’s only gotten better from there.
And I still love what I do.
And her website bio notes this:
She was the first girl to break into to the local boys’ baseball league in her hometown —- not because of any great talent, but because somebody told her she couldn’t do it.
Through her ivoh Restorative Narrative fellowship, Irvine is profiling a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, telling the story of the people who are determined to recover from the 2008 housing crisis, and to protect the place they call home.
Irvine spoke with ivoh this week about the origins and goals of her project. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little about your project and what inspired it?
When I travel and people learn I’m from Chicago, they often ask about one thing: the violence. They know about the “South Side,” or think they do, largely because of the stories we, the media, tell about it. Yes, there are awful things that happen here and, as I tell people, the trauma on the residents of the city’s South and West sides is something the rest of us almost never experience. But there is so much more that happens there.
And so I wanted to tell a deeper story about the South Side — about residents who are fighting for a neighborhood that was decimated by the 2008 housing crisis. It is a story about resilience and about the coming together of people from very different backgrounds, many of them judged harshly by society — undocumented immigrants and former gang members among them.
You do multi-media storytelling? How do you envision this project being presented?
The project will be presented in multiple formats — print, video and photos. I have reported and shot most of it, although my colleague Emily Leshner also came into town to shoot with me this month and may do so again. We also are collaborating on the videos, shorter versions of which will likely run on social media, especially Instagram.
The plan is for the package itself, in all three formats, to run later this year on the APNews.com site and on the AP News app, and to be distributed to our news members across the globe. It will be produced in such a way that they can run the pieces together or separately — as is the case with all our stories. We never know who will pick up the story until they do so. But distribution online, in newspapers and on television and radio stations is usually far and wide.
Is this different than the reporting work you usually do for the Associated Press? Does the ivoh fellowship allow you to stretch?
I am lucky in that I have one of the best reporting jobs at the AP. While I could be thrown at any kind of story or project, I do always try to have one up my sleeve that is my “passion project.” While I have an editor who’s generally supportive of that (as long as it doesn’t detract from my other work), having the fellowship is invaluable for several reasons: I’m surrounded by like-minded people who see this work as important; the fellowship gives my work “cred,” even within my own news organization; and the funding has allowed me to spend a good bit of my own time on the project — and to buy some camera gear that I would not have gotten otherwise (and that ups my shooting game).
What are the main challenges you’ve encountered on the project?
The main challenge has been getting people in the neighborhood to trust me. This isn’t unusual in neighborhoods like this. But it’s particularly tricky in this era of “fake news,” when journalists’ credibility is being questioned more than ever. As always, I just keep showing up. I’ve also learned, when needed, to shift focus to other people who have more time to give.
Have there been any surprises along the way? Anything that delighted you or took the project in a direction you didn’t expect?
The person who continually surprises me the most is the person who’s become my main character for the print piece. He is a former gang member who spent many years in prison for murder, who then converted to Islam and vowed to change his life as a “returning citizen.” For the past several months, he and a crew of young men with similar histories have been rehabbing a home that he and his wife will move into this summer.
He is quiet and reserved, but as I’ve gotten to know him, I have seen glimpses of warmth and character — how he lights up when he sees his grandchildren; how he quietly slips a few bills to his nephew, who is trying to get his life back together; how he mentors the younger guys who are working with him, repeatedly preaching to them to “let the streets go,” but ultimately getting their attention by leading through example. This is a man who was once feared on those streets — but who also knew he had it in him to be a better person.
What are you most hoping your project achieves, and why does that matter to you?
I want to show people another Chicago and to take them into a world they might never see. This is a story that deserves to be told — and we all benefit when we go beyond preconceived notions and stereotypes.
How does ivoh’s Restorative Narrative work inform your understanding of your own story work?
I think it’s really important for us to consider the impact our work has on the world around us. During our first workshop, the discussion we had about the impact of the story about a school shooting survivor really hit home with me. I had read the story and thought it was really well done in the way it showed the young woman’s pain and the messiness that follows an incident like this. But when I heard more about the story’s impact on the young woman, her family and the community, I think I understood the concept of Restorative Narrative better than I had.
It doesn’t mean you avoid the messiness, of course. But we have so many stories about the breaking apart. I think we need to think more about the impact those stories have and how we might tell them in a different or, perhaps, more complete way — and certainly one that doesn’t add to the tearing apart.