A new publication springs up in a former news desert outside Chicago

Tales of local news dying are abundant, but against the odds of today’s media landscape, there are many new ventures taking root. Harvey, Illinois’ Harvey World Herald is one of them.

A southern suburb of Chicago, Harvey is a small town of just about 20,000 people, according to the last census. Harvey is also a majority-minority city, with two-thirds of its population identifying as Black and another third identifying as Latino. About a third of adults 64 and younger live at or below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is almost 50%.

It’s against this backdrop that Amethyst J. Davis, a Black queer woman who grew up in Harvey, chose to launch the Harvey World Herald just six months ago. The publication was named to the Tiny News Collective’s first cohort, a group of six organizations working to bring local news to their respective communities. As part of this program, the Harvey World Herald and the other five organizations were awarded $15,000 by the Google News Initiative, which also paid for their first year of membership with Tiny News Collective and LION Publishers.

Davis returned to her hometown in the summer of 2020 after five years away, and like many people during that time, was trying to figure out ways to stay safe from the coronavirus. “I had the hardest time finding information on navigating the pandemic,” she said, which was a major driver for starting the publication.

In August 2021, Davis sent out an audience survey to people in the Harvey community (with a focus on current residents) to glean the most important issues. Davis posted the survey to public Facebook pages residents had created and also emailed the survey to several community organizations. Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 was on the top of the list, as was political coverage.

The soft launch of Harvey World Herald was two months after that, when only the paper’s social media channels, its landing page and the weekly newsletter were made available. During that phase, Davis focused on business and economy, as “big needs I identified from the survey.”

The hard launch was on January 31 this year, and the website now features stories on more than just the pandemic, politics, and the local economy. Stories about education and the local arts and culture scene are also being added. With just under six months under its belt, the Harvey World Herald has more than 140 email subscribers to its free newsletter, with a 68% open rate. Visitors to the website, which is also free, are nearly split between new and returning visitors, according to Davis.

Just today, the Harvey World Herald was named as part of the inaugural cohort of the Black Media Product Strategy Program from J+ and the Center for Community Media’s Black Media Initiative at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. This six-month, tuition-free program will train Black-owned newsrooms to build product strategies for digital transformation, audience growth and sustainability. “A lot of Black-owned newsrooms struggle with product thinking and development,” Davis said, adding that this opportunity is a way for the Harvey World Herald to grow and develop sustainably. She added, “We look forward to building community with other Black publishers along the way.”

But given the literacy and digital issues in Harvey, Davis anticipates needing a print version of the Harvey World Herald at some point. “We’re 100% digital, but a lot of our 35-and-older readers ask about a newspaper,” Davis said. “The digital audience is not the same as a print audience.”

I spoke to Davis recently about her background, why she saw a need to launch this new publication, and how she runs this (thus far) one-person show. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Working as an administrator made me a better listener, because people, students, faculty even, only came to see me if something was going wrong. Literally, nobody ever came to see me if anything’s going right. I found the City Bureau Documenters program in Chicago, and it was so dope because they they really live out the ethos of making journalism and democracy more accessible.

As I’m getting into it, I got into self-publishing on Medium. I was thinking about different stories, but I kept coming back to Harvey. I was like, “Man, Harvey just needs its own news outlet.” That motivation really kicked in in the summer of 2020. I went home, got off the train in Harvey and realized the world has changed, but the town is the same as I had left it five years before. I was also trying to get a sense of what was going on with Covid and other stuff in the community and had to find information. So, that also drove home the point that Harvey definitely needs a news outlet, and why not build it from the ground up?

Leave a Reply