Chicago Bureau gives Medill students the chance to report on juvenile justice

The first United States juvenile court was established in Cook County in 1899. And while the movement for juvenile justice may have its roots in Chicago, the topic itself is underreported. At least it was, until Assistant Professor Eric Ferkenhoff launched The Chicago Bureau in 2012.

Eric Ferkenhoff

The Chicago Bureau, a mostly student-produced website, is the only Chicago publication that regularly covers juvenile justice. In its short lifespan, the website has published more than 400 articles, with local, national and international focuses. Some stories have been picked up by The Atlantic or featured on the home page of Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. In less than two years, a site run by Medill undergraduates has become one of the most respected names in juvenile justice reporting. The Chicago Bureau is also a member of the Investigative News Network, which includes 90-plus members, such as ProPublica, NPR, WBEZ, Center for Public Integrity and more.

Medill Undergraduate Chicago Bureau

Cameron Albert-Deitch (BSJ15) is one of The Chicago Bureau’s reporters. He has covered failing schools and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effect on Chicago children for the website.

“I get to have the flexibility to really put the time into doing an article right, giving the topic justice, especially one as big and important as this,”Albert-Deitch said.

This winter, Albert-Deitch went into Chicago to shadow a profile subject, Jennifer Magiera, who had been honored by the White House for her efforts to integrate technology into a classroom setting.  

Albert-Deitch had been looking forward to writing an uplifting piece, but with further research realized that Magiera’s school was failing on nearly every success measure. So he met with Ferkenhoff, who immediately encouraged Albert-Deitch to change the story’s focus and write a piece that could have more of an impact.

“We’re hoping to move the conversation [about juvenile justice] forward,” Ferkenhoff said.  “Impact the conversation. Put on the table information that is so valuable that people have to act on it.”

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile life without parole mandatory sentencing is unconstitutional. The decision was drawn from the constitution’s eighth amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

According to Susan Du (BSJ14), managing editor at The Chicago Bureau, Illinois’s transition to this new ruling has opened debate over how far to take the Supreme Court’s interpretation.

Susan Du Tal Axelrod

“I have personally reported on this issue from several perspectives,” said Du. “I’ve directed staffers to report packages collaboratively, and it’s still an ongoing project. It’s an ongoing debate.”

Du has been with The Chicago Bureau since the fall quarter of her junior year, just several months after the site launched. As managing editor, she oversees a staff of eight regular student reporters, in addition to contributors.

The Chicago Bureau has worked with more than 25 student reporters over the last two years. Its bold mission, to mentor young reporters and publish hard-hitting journalism, has not faltered.

The publication is the brainchild of Ferkenhoff, who began his association with juvenile justice directly after graduating college. Before entering the reporting field in Chicago, he worked at the Kansas City Spofford Home, a resource for abused children.

“It was the hardest job I ever left in my life,” Ferkenhoff said. “You become attached to kids who are so used to being detached. And there you are, leaving a group of children who had been left their whole lives.”

Ferkenhoff left Missouri in 1993, in order to pursue a reporting career in Chicago. Between 1994 and 2002 he held positions at the City News Bureau of Chicago and the Chicago Tribune. In the years following he freelanced for The Boston Globe, TIME Magazine and The New York Times, before joining the Medill faculty as an adjunct professor in 2005.

After teaching the basics of reporting at Medill for several years, Ferkenhoff noticed that the vast majority of the students’ work­­–which often investigated Chicago issues–was never seen by the community it could affect. Most investigative articles ended up stored on a professor’s computer, or on a password-protected WordPress website. Ferkenhoff sought a way to give his students investigative experience that went beyond such introductory courses.  

“These students are that good. They should be published. Medill should have a platform for students to be published regularly,” Ferkenhoff said. “We want to be that platform.”

In the spring of 2012, Ferkenhoff began to research a class that would produce in-depth reports on juvenile justice.

But while doing his research for the class one night, it occurred to Ferkenhoff that the best research came from actual reporting. With the seed for a student-run website planted, he immediately began to think of publication names.

“I start buying domains and I think, you know what? I’ll start a site. And I’ll get students who do amazing work at this school, that never gets seen outside this school, [to report],” Ferkenhoff said.

But he could not launch the site without funding. The Chicago Bureau needed money to pay its student reporters, money to sustain itself.

In 2013, The McCormick Foundation presented The Chicago Bureau with a grant that enabled Ferkenhoff and Executive Editor Arsenio Oloroso to pay the students for their reporting. Prior to the grant, the students had been paid out of pocket.

“Now that we’ve got this grant, that kind of changes things,” Oloroso said. The McCormick Foundation awarded The Chicago Bureau about $20,000, which officially took effect this calendar year. And through a partnership with Medill, student reporters can now apply their time with The Chicago Bureau towards a work-study position.

Going forward, The Chicago Bureau is looking into innovative ways to spread the word on juvenile justice. With proper funding, the publication could produce documentaries, animations, or even electronic books. It’s especially impressive, considering that The Chicago Bureau was built on the free time of students who volunteer to contribute to an important cause.

“Journalism that people respect is already huge by any standard,” said Albert-Deitch. “But the fact that it’s happened in just a year is unbelievable.”