My Writing Life
Various titles during this time included: correspondent, reporter, bureau manager, editor, and photographer.
I've also participated in several other freelance projects, including the following:
Designed and developed a public relations presentation, with slides and text that resulted in the implementation of a new county forest preserve district in Kankakee County, IL.
Subcontracted with a consultant for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to interview and document stories related to the conversion of farmland into development use
Spoke to the local high school journalism class on Career Day
Wrote op-ed pieces, performed ghostwriting, editing, proofreading, and even some consulting work
Maintained several blogs
Designed and edited brochures
Designed several websites
Internet writing seemed at first, to be an appealing freelance writing opportunity.
It wasn't long however, before I became completely disillusioned by an industry I now believe, helped destroy good on-line journalism. A plethora of overly-advertised websites did little more than exploit eager writers in an effort to bolster the bottom line of host writing sites. They used false claims to entice inexperienced writers into getting published. The result was writers earning pennies for their efforts and information that was not always accurate was often taken from Wikipedia and other unproven online sources only to be regurgitated in numerous locations. Plagiarism is bad enough, but to plagiarize false information with no accountability opened the door to what we now know to be "fake news." The internet became filled with unsubstantiated stories and sub-par writing. There is no better example of this than in social media where fake information is shared by unwitting enthusiasts.
I've probably written more about a proposed transportation project in Illinois than anyone, but I've also held another role as well.
In 1987 when I heard about a proposal to build a new airport in the farm fields south of Chicago, it piqued my curiosity. The proposed airport was to be more than three times the size of O'Hare International Airport and would displace 23,000 acres of prime and important farmland as well as the farmers who owned it.
The plan resurrected an old idea from the 1960's.
The location was a few miles from where I lived, a small town with a population of about 2,000 people. Beecher, Illinois was a farming community, much like downstate Illinois. Tar and chip roads accommodated slow-moving combines used by farmers who tended to acres and acres of corn, wheat, and soybean crops. It was not the kind of place where jets take off and land.
I grew up near O'Hare and just couldn't quite imagine the folly of plopping a huge, commercial airport into a peaceful, bucolic area that would displace mostly prime and important farmland, not to mention the generations of farmers that called it their home.
The airport had been dubbed the 3rd airport, but ironically, that moniker has also been given to other regional airports in the Chicagoland area: Gary/Chicago in Gary, IN; Mitchell International in Milwaukee, WI; and Chicago/Rockford International in Rockford, IL. With O'Hare and Midway, a new airport would in reality, be the sixth regional airport.
I set out to make some sense of what seemed to be totally illogical. I kept an open mind, trying to learn all I could about the who, what, where, why, and how of this project.
In all the years this airport has been proposed, it has never made sense because it was never needed.
What I learned, confirmed my initial suspicion, that this was a folly. Claims of jobs and economic development disguised the real issue; it was about control of lucrative contracts, jobs for political pals, and enough clout for politicians to stay in public office to feed at the public trough for as long as they liked. Big projects reap big rewards, especially in Illinois where the pay-to-play system runs rampant, and has resulted in four governors becoming convicted felons who have served time. The latest, ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been indicted on corruption charges and was impeached as Governor. His predecessor George Ryan has also served time in a federal penitentiary in Indiana.
On Aug. 2, 1988, with 13 other people who felt the same way I did, established Residents United to Retain Agricultural Land (RURAL).
We held local meetings as the organization grew. We passed petitions, held rallies, and did whatever it took. The biggest supporters were public officials who didn't want to be bothered with the public and how they felt or what they thought.
One of my proudest moments was an invitation to join a panel to hold a lively discussion on the pros and cons of the project on WTTW's Chicago Tonight, hosted by the late John Callaway.
Another high point, was an invitation to meet former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Chicago opposed the project.
Ironically my passion about the airport and the area in which I lived, led to the start of my writing career.
I was hired as a correspondent, with my first story published in September, 1988. Because the airport was such a huge issue in the area that I covered, there were times that I had no choice but to write about it. I was fortunate to have an editor who recognized that my passion for the project would actually make me a better reporter.
At times I walked a tightrope between activism and journalism, while seeking truth on one side and relaying it on the other. For years maintaining the balance was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Reconciling my personal feelings with my desire for legitimacy and professionalism was not easy, but was important to me.
This balancing act continued until 1997 when I was hired as a staff reporter. I made the choice to step down from my activism, turning RURAL over to a man I trusted, George Ochsenfeld. Ochsenfeld created STAND (Shut This Airport Nightmare Down) which continues to fight the proposal today.