Chattanooga has been hailed as a model for urban renewal, but, like many other cities, it suffers from rampant poverty and gaping income inequality. The Chattanooga Times Free Press explored the issue in “The Poverty Puzzle,” a visually stunning, data driven series published in March 2016 that takes an in depth look at key pieces of the poverty alleviation puzzle: family, church, education, jobs and community.
The response to the solutions-oriented series, according to Free Press staff, was like nothing they had ever seen before. They reported overwhelmingly positive feedback from the community, and a public conversation that was far more productive and less polarized than usual–an outcome they had been hoping for when they conceptualized the series. In the days after publication, discussion of poverty increased significantly on Twitter and at City Council, church leaders gave sermons on the topic, and new collaborations between nonprofit organizations began to emerge. A well known and highly influential news industry leader called to say that he “hadn’t been moved to praise a piece of journalism since 1999,” and that the series had changed him. But perhaps the most surprising result was the degree to which the project seemed to have strengthened the Free Press‘s relationship with its audience. Reporter Joan Garrett Mclane, who was invited to speak at the local United Way as a result of the series, marveled, “Trust between papers and the readers can be rebuilt!”
While it remains to be seen whether the city of Chattanooga will take steps to address the persistent poverty plaguing many of its residents, it’s clear that “The Poverty Puzzle” introduced a shift in the narrative around poverty in Chattanooga–one that changed the way many in this resurgent Southern city view those who have been left behind.