Community Media Workshop relaunched in October under a new name: Public Narrative. Credit: Public Narrative

Like a president named Millard, Grover, or Calvin, the Community Media Workshop came into the world with a name that did it no favors. CMW began 26 years ago as a class—or workshop—taught at Malcolm X College by Hank DeZutter and Thom Clark (each one a former Reader contributor), who wanted community organizations to learn how to approach and connect with downtown media. Today it’s an amalgamation of programs based at Columbia College. But as the current executive director, Susy Schultz, remarks, “We’ve had people call and say they’d like to take the community media workshop. It sounds like a one-off thing.”

To me it always sounded like a placeholder—the utilitarian tag you apply to something so you can talk about it before you christen it. And the acronym gave me trouble—did that C stand for Community or Chicago?

But that’s all ancient history. The day after Schultz took over from Clark early last year she invited Firebelly Design, a local firm that likes to work with nonprofits, to give CMW a makeover. The changes start with the name on the door—which as of October is now Public Narrative.

Schultz originally asked Firebelly to create a new website. The old site was actually a hodgepodge of sites—by Schultz’s count nine—that didn’t even link to each other. She explains that foundations would give CMW money to carry out a specific mission, and often “wanted you to make a website as part of the grant.” One, for instance, was, which still lingers on the net as the carcass of a site CMW created on behalf of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to provide sources and background material to journalists coming here to cover the 2012 NATO conference.  

“The website was broken in a million different ways,” says Firebelly’s founder and managing director, Dawn Hancock. But a new site by itself “might only be a Band-Aid on bigger problems. I said, ‘Let’s do some investigation and see what you really need.'”

CMW was so fragmented, says Hancock, that hardly anyone had a full idea of what it was or did—including a lot of the people who worked there. To some journalists the group was the annual Studs Terkel Awards, established by CWM to honor local journalists for distinguished coverage of community issues; to others it was the occasional invitation to come in and meet community leaders doing interesting things.

“Tom and Hank would bring journalists in at the end of their five-week class,” says Schultz, who as a Sun-Times reporter was one of those journalists. “People would pitch their stories to us. I’d always walk away with at least a dozen story ideas.” 

Hancock studied CMW for months and concluded that it functioned as a hub connecting community activists, nonprofits, reporters, and funders like the Council on Global Affairs. But nobody really appreciated this. Hancock decided CMW’s primal need was a name that did it justice.

Public Narrative didn’t come out of thin air. It was a concept spun out by professor Marshall Ganz of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “What is public narrative?” asked Ganz in a 2007 essay. It’s “a leadership art through which we translate values into action: engaging heart, head, and hands. As narrative it is built from the experience of challenge, choice, and outcome. As public narrative it is woven from three elements: a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now.”

If you ask me, “Public Narrative” is head and shoulders above the runners-up: Crafting Media (a timid step away from the old name), and Syndicate, which might have led to a trademark war with the mob.

One of the changes in CMW’s orientation in recent years was driven by the revolution in the media world beyond it. The old mainstream media has stopped being the indispensable middle man between community groups and the public, and the reborn Public Narrative now sees to it that its clients master social media. Yet Schultz insists—passionately—that old journalism continues to matter. And I pray she speaks wisely, rather than merely out of visceral affection for the world she was raised in (her father was the city editor of the old Daily News).

“I still believe,” she says, “journalists who know how to write, report, investigate are still vital. We’ve stepped up our work to make sure we teach journalists as well as storytelling.”

Last April, a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation allowed CMW to hold what it called a Specialized Reporting Institute on Race, Police, and Community, which meant bringing 23 journalists from around the country to spend two and a half days in Chicago.

“We took them into the neighborhoods,” says Schultz. “We had someone in from the Police Department. We took them to Precious Blood.” That’s Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation,  a haven for youths at risk in Back of the Yards; Precious Blood was featured last year in Ricochet, a six-part series on gun violence created by CMW’s Steve Franklin and Medill’s Craig Duff and aired on MSNBC.   

Schultz goes on: “We talked about the two worlds not being covered thoroughly—the community and the police. In both cases, there is a no trust when reporters parachute in to a story.”

She says the commander of the Seventh Police District told the journalists he could tell “which reporters spent time in the area and which just parachuted in, and he said he just didn’t trust those who didn’t do the work to know the people.” 

“I really believe,” says Schultz, “that as a democracy we can’t do without the fourth estate. I am not in the category of thinking that journalism is gone, journalism is dying. I believe journalism is evolving.”

Much as she wishes her old colleagues all still had jobs in Chicago journalism, she says, “You have to look at what’s happening instead of mourning what happened. I think it’s an exciting time if you’re a young journalist. I think there are some amazing places that are going to make it. Some will not. Are you able to make those connections with the community? A media that doesn’t listen and reflect its audience becomes irrelevant, and our work is based on that.”