My Top 10 Favorite Stories from Working in Chicago as a Journalist
Some on-the-record, some behind-the-scenes
I can’t imagine Chicago without DNAinfo.
The news website existed only a handful of years, but the impact it made in such a short time was huge.
When DNAinfo launched in 2012, sources would ask what outlet I was reporting for. My answer always confused them: “DNA what?”
We’d keep track of the strange calls we got to the newsroom: “No, we can’t neuter your dog.”
I developed a habit of approaching the topic with caution. Years after our launch, I’d still respond to the question of where I worked with a question: “I write for … DNA … info?”
But by then, the response was most often, “Oh my gosh, I LOVE DNAinfo!”
DNA treated each neighborhood as its own little city. We believed community meetings deserved the same coverage the legacy papers gave the capital in Springfield.
“No story is too small,” was a motto around the newsroom. We proved it by covering nearly every small business’s opening and closing, local Instagram stars and even sidewalk cracks.
But the stories were big, too. DNAinfo held criminals accountable when the courts failed, stopped schools from being closed, and published controversial exposés other outlets turned a blind eye to.
I was occasionally a small part of those change-effecting, investigative, essential stories.
But most often, I wasn’t.
Instead, I was on the human-interest beat. I made cute videos (Who’s the voice of the CTA?), reported on urban animals (Why is everyone’s dog gaining weight?), and chased down the strange and quirky (Whatever happened to the actress from that local TV ad?). One editor began to refer to leads in this realm as “Kyla stories.”
That we even published such stories made DNA stand out from other publications. It’s easy to write snarky listicles or editorials, as many “news” websites do. But it’s more fun to find and report the absurd-but-true and let the stories speak for themselves.
It’s an understatement to say it was a huge loss for Chicago when the owner closed DNA abruptly late last year.
I can’t imagine all the crooked stuff people are already getting away with in the city without DNA’s neighborhood-level watchdogs. And I can’t believe I’ll never again visit the website to be surprised by a headline that makes me laugh out loud.
I see former coworkers posting photos or tidbits of information online with the caption, “Definitely a DNAinfo story.” But who will chase those stories down now?
Lately I’ve been feeling awfully nostalgic about how special DNAinfo was: my coworkers, our readers, and what we were able to build together.
Here are my top 10 favorite stories I wrote for DNAinfo, and some behind-the-scenes stories about reporting them. It was hard to narrow this list down from so many years of laugh-filled memories and adventures.
1. Unmasking one of the city’s most famous voices
This story will forever be my Chicago magnum opus, my love letter to the city.
Lee Crooks has been narrating every single bus and train route in Chicago since 1998. Afraid of being typecast in his voiceover work though, he kept it a secret for many years. I was the first journalist to get him on camera, and I got to sit in on a Chicago Transit Authority recording session.
Afterward, Lee kindly drove me back to the DNAinfo office so I didn’t have to take the train.
He lives in Wisconsin, so is mostly unfamiliar with Chicago streets. I directed as best I could, but I think we made a few wrong turns, as I had always relied on the public transit system (and Lee’s recorded stop announcements) to get around. It is a delightfully ironic memory — me trying to direct the Voice of the CTA in a car around Chicago — that I’ll never forget.
Lee was a wonderful source, as well as funny and generous. He took a chance by “outing” himself with our then-infant publication, and I’ll always be grateful for it. That’s the thing about journalism — no one has to talk to you, so when they do open themselves up, it’s amazing.
A few years later, Lee agreed to come back on camera for a few sillier videos: He performed famous Chicago lines from movies and TV in his “train” voice, and he surprised everyday Chicagoans while we rode the rails.
2. That time I went bone-hunting and thought I was going to be murdered
Part of my job on the breaking news desk was to call the morgue each night and get the list of people who died in the city that day. It was how we’d follow murders, of which Chicago unfortunately has many.
One night, the morgue staff member breezed through an entry about a collection of human bones found in a basement in the ritzy Gold Coast neighborhood.
“Wait, what was that one?” I asked.
“It happens all the time. I’m not gonna explain it. Look it up,” he said, moving on.
But I did look it up. It turned out researchers estimate the bones of 10,000 bodies remain under one of Chicago’s fanciest neighborhoods.
Two-hundred-some years ago, cemeteries near Lake Michigan were constantly shifting in the sandy soil, and the graves were then ravaged and trampled during the Chicago Fire in 1871. When the city grew, the area was taken over by parks and homes.
So now, whenever there’s renovation in the neighborhood, up come bones.
But to give my research story a news hook, I needed to find out about those specific bones the morgue guy wouldn’t tell me about.
Calling the number listed for the address was fruitless, as was ringing the doorbell outside the gated, multi-million-dollar property. But the gate was open, so, well, I went and knocked on the basement door.
A minute later, two men opened it. Their shirts and pants were caked in dust. One held a mallet.
I introduced myself and explained about the bones. They didn’t understand; their English seemed limited. Then one suddenly smiled.
“Yes, come, come,” he said, gesturing. They disappeared into the darkness.
The basement was unfinished, showing exposed pipes, fresh earth, and heaps of rubble. The light from the small windows was dim, and my eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness.
Well, I thought to myself as I crossed the threshold, either I’ll be able to call the morgue tonight as usual, or the other reporters will be calling up about my bones.
3. That time I was a paparazzo
My editor and I laughed when he came up with the idea to stake out George Lucas’ wedding and take photos of the sure-to-be-star-studded guest list. Certainly the rich and famous would be arriving out-of-view?
But there was a chance they wouldn’t be.
“Ooooh, and you could try to get one of those giant lenses,” he said.
The next afternoon, I was lugging the foot-long camera lens that weighed more than me to a wedding I wasn’t invited to.
Standing outside the entrance with other gawkers, I was the only reporter, and certainly the only person with a giant paparazzi camera.
My editor had guessed correctly: The wedding guests had to be shuttled in golf carts from the street to the venue, in full view.
Some celebrities were obvious: Robin Williams, that girl with dark hair I’ve seen in movies (later identified as Rachel Bilson with date Hayden Christensen.)
Others, I had no idea who they were (Gayle King, Warwick Davis), but the crowd around me helped point them out, and I snapped rapid-fire photos.
I returned to my apartment late and began sifting through the hundreds of images, trying to remember the names I hadn’t had time to write down. I Googled celebrities to match them up through side-by-side comparisons, but I’m terrible with faces, and I was getting nowhere. So I called in backup well after midnight.
My friend Casey is a “super recognizer.” She can solve those “Identify this celebrity from their baby picture” magazine quizzes in seconds flat.
Thankfully, she’s also a night owl and TMZ fanatic, and was happy to come over to my place and save my butt by deadline the next morning.
Like true paparazzi, DNAinfo also got a juicy gossip story out of the affair: Who was former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s date?
4. When everyone’s dogs got tubby
There was a cold spell here in Bangkok last week, and the temps got down to the low 70s. Locals donned knit caps, scarves, and fur-lined jackets. I shivered, too.
Long gone are the days I bicycled to DNA’s downtown office in boots, hat and gloves before sunrise.
Chicago spends roughly six months of the year shrouded in gray sky and temperatures that range from “very cold” to “life-threatening.” The city experiences weather phenomena like “thunder snow” and the “polar vortex.”
During a particular ferocious and record-breaking winter dubbed “Chiberia,” city veterinarians noticed a trend: their patients were gaining weight.
People didn’t want to go outside to walk their dogs, but the dogs didn’t want to go either.
This may be my favorite lede I’ve ever written:
5. A thoroughly impressive … mall water fountain?
When I worked on the breaking news desk, I got a thrill out of scooping other outlets and beating them to stories. Getting the person on the phone who everyone wanted to talk to was always a victory.
But as a features reporter, retreating from the herd to find the people who no one cared to talk to was exceptionally more fun.
I’m generally curious why people live their lives the way they do. Journalism provided a wonderful way to follow them around and pester them with questions about it: “But why do you love your work?”
There’s nothing better than talking to people about what they’re passionate about.
That was especially true for this story about a mall water fountain.
In a viral video, a rocket scientist-slash-YouTube star geeked out over the design of the fountain.
The YouTube star was obviously used to being in the spotlight, but I also called the guy who designed the water fountain, and it was fun to learn about a slice of life I’d never thought about before.
It appeared not many reporters were clamoring on his doorstep to know the intricacies of designing water features:
“It really is a great fountain, and I never really was sure if anybody appreciated how cool it was,” said Jim Garland, who helped design it with the Wet Design firm in 1999. He laughed. “It took 15 years for someone to notice it, but I’m glad they did.”
6. “Beautiful buttocks” bloom again
I was so close to convincing my editor to expense a trip for me to the Seychelles Islands.
Well, not really. But now I want to see the islands for myself, after all the research I did about the famous double-coconut, a seed that only grows on the tiny string of islands in the Indian Ocean.
Having evolved in isolation over some 75 million years, those islands boast some pretty weird flora and fauna.
“It was a misty and tropical valley and something out of this world … Walking through it, the palm trees were enormous. I felt like a dinosaur was going to be walking out at any moment.”
Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory was proud to have one of the rare palms for 45 years, but it died in 2012. The Conservatory then did the virtually impossible: it procured and planted another one of the rare seeds.
The seed — the largest in the world — looks like two coconuts fused together. Its “suggestive shape” is part of many legends, including being proof of mermaids. It’s also known as the “coconut of the sea” and yes, the “butt nut.”
Legends say the trees mate in the night — and anyone who sees them doing the deed is blinded. … Part of one of the archaic botanical names for the seed, Lodoicea callipyge, roughly translates to “beautiful buttocks.”
Unfortunately, the young, mystical plant died about a year and a half later. The death was blamed on Chicago’s gray winter.
7. A famous Chicago voice unmasked: Part II
Most big cities have their iconic, cheesy commercials. In Chicago there are, among many more, Eagle Man, Peter Francis Geraci, and Tile Outlet.
For more than a decade, the tagline, “How many times have you heard naht in stahck?” —in that familiar Chicago accent — has echoed out of TVs across the city.
I tracked down the original actress, who has since given up acting. Nicole Rigan had a sense of humor about her famous video, but it was also the story behind the story that was wonderful.
Following a car accident injury and several other acting letdowns, nabbing the Tile Outlet gig was a bright spot for Nicole during a rough time.
Those are the details I love finding.
I visited my parents in Chicago a few months ago, and overheard her familiar voice from the TV across the room. I smiled.
8. A chance to make my “film school thesis”
When resident green thumb and reporter-extraordinaire Patty Wetli needed an intro video for her gardening column, we chose the obvious direction: a Star Wars tribute.
Wetli is a huge Star Wars fan, and at the time, hype for The Force Awakens was strong. So we created a shot-for-shot remake of one trailer.
I couldn’t find any creative commons music to use, but someone had posted a piano cover on YouTube of the very music from the original trailer.
I somehow found contact info for the guy and emailed him at 6 p.m. Just after midnight, he said I had permission to use it. I stayed up until at least 4 a.m. editing.
To understand this story, you need to know two things:
1. Grateful Dead fans are called Deadheads and are known for being pretty chilled out and wearing tie-dye.
2. Insane Clown Posse fans are called Juggalos and are known for wearing black clothing and clown-inspired face paint and, well, not being super chilled out.
At one local Chicago pub, a Grateful Dead cover band took off its usual night, and was replaced by an Insane Clown Posse-inspired band.
The two groups of fans were both confused.
As I said, no story was too small …
10. The map that looks like a lobster
Chicago is famous for its political gerrymandering. So you end up with voting wards that look like this, not even close to a cohesive neighborhood:
I don’t remember who came up with the lobster reference, but I’m pretty sure it originated at DNAinfo and is now part of Chicago lore.
One of my favorite parts of working at DNAinfo was often being asked to create collages or Photoshopped illustrations for other reporters’ stories, and I brought out my best skills for this one:
11. Honorable Mention: This photo of a man (or mythical Christmas beast?) recycling a tree
#RIP, DNAinfo. ❤