Suzanne McBride, Associate Chair, Journalism, not only hears; she's given a voice to people whose stories of triumph and achievement are often untold.
Written by Michal Percival
Photography by Jacob Boll
All artists have much to say, but great artists also listen. Suzanne McBride, Associate Chair of Columbia’s Journalism Department, not only hears; she has given a voice to people whose stories of triumph and achievement are often untold.
Suzanne worked for more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before she began teaching at Columbia in 2005. Soon after moving to Chicago, she became intrigued by the west side community of Austin, home to about 100,000 residents and the largest of Chicago’s 77 defined neighborhoods, located just a few blocks from her home. While Austin is challenged by unemployment, urban decay, and violence, Suzanne also saw a richness of diversity, culture, and cohesion. But the positive stories weren’t making the 10:00 news. “Without a balance of good, bad, and ‘in-between’ news, people tune out.”
So, believing that “the Web democratizes communication,” Suzanne founded AustinTalks.org to provide area residents with local news and information not being provided by mainstream media outlets. Most of the content on the site is produced by current Columbia students or graduates, but Suzanne and her staff routinely reach out to the Austin community for contributions from locals, such as columns, cartoons, and commentary, in order to explore the “collaborative nature of journalism.” In partnership with The Austin Weekly News, the site went live one year ago, and it’s currently funded by The Chicago Community Trust with additional support from Columbia. Suzanne praises the College for “creating an environment where projects like this can thrive.”
The investigative reporting and other journalistic work produced by Suzanne’s students have often garnered them several awards—even when competing with professionals. But as a result of her work on this groundbreaking project, Suzanne herself has earned a grant from the prestigious Fulbright Program, which provides participants chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential with the opportunity to study, teach, and conduct research abroad. In Spring 2012, Suzanne will be reaching and doing research in Dublin, Ireland, where a project similar to AustinTalks, produced by the Dublin Institute of Technology, seeks to remove the “media desert” surrounding the city’s disadvantaged Liberties neighborhood.
Suzanne originally studied to be a psychologist—another profession centered on stories and finding the potential in people—but a college professor helped her to recognize that journalism was her true calling. Now a teacher herself, she has some excellent advice for any student: “Work hard, and don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people smarter than you.” To which you can add: And listen, always listen.