When I first started talking to the staff at Ann’s Bakery and Deli, at 2158 W Chicago Ave., I wasn’t exactly received with open arms. As a recent customer I never had an issue and was always treated graciously, but as soon as I started asking questions I was given a few looks of suspicion.
And when I managed to get an interview with Ann’s owner, Walter Siryj, he kind of stood me up at first. I don’t know, maybe he just forgot about me. In either case, I was starting to get the message: MOVE ON!
But instead of enlisting my back-up story idea and going to the local Ukrainian-owned laundromat down the street, I didn’t give up on Walter and his bakery, and I’m glad I didn’t.
He eventually agreed to give me 15 minutes of his time, which was more than enough. We spoke about the business, and how they bake and prepare everything fresh, all day everyday.
He told me about the additions he made to the building, expanding the operation to roughly 3 times its original size; no small task for a local bakery.
We also discussed the fire that almost destroyed the business in 2012. According to their website, the bakery has been on the corner of Chicago and Leavitt for over 65 years. So the fire was clearly a big part of Ann’s history, but I decided to leave it out since the story was only 500 words. I also left it out because as soon as I mentioned Russia to anyone in and around the store, it struck a chord.
I figured it was easy money as far as getting a story, and it was. Any discussion of the war resonated with people, but I had no idea what it would look, feel or sound like.
Before I asked about the conflict in Ukraine, Walter seemed fairly uninterested in our conversation and was probably itching to get rid of me and get on with his day. But as soon as I asked about Russia, he immediately sat up, and his voice became sharp and slightly increased in volume.
He offered me his personal feelings about the conflict, discussing the tragedy of young people dying because of Vladimir Putin’s careless aggression. But I also asked him how it was effecting the store, and sure enough, he explained his decision to stop ordering and selling Russian products as a boycott.
But as I wandered the store, snapping photos and talking to customers, an older woman asked me to read a label of something she’d pulled from the shelf. I thought to myself, “Oh man, she thinks I work here.”
But instead, she just wanted to make sure she wasn’t buying Russian. Much to her dismay, the item she asked me about was indeed from the enemy of her native Ukraine.
Maria was her name, and she told me that, despite what Walter may have said, Ann’s still has Russian products on the shelf. She admitted that maybe it takes time for inventory to clear out, but was quick to show me several Russian items, one of which was tagged with the label in plain English: “PRODUCT OF RUSSIA.”
Regardless of what is or isn’t on the shelves at Ann’s, I felt the impact that this war has on people. In Chicago we’re a world away from the conflict, but I felt a wrenching feeling in my gut as Maria fought back tears while explaining her sadness for Ukraine and its people.
In the end, I think this was a good story with a solid news angle, but it was also a good lesson in reporting. Yes, asking Ukrainians about the war with Russia will likely get you some good quotes and probably lead to a compelling story. But now that I have my story, I have more questions.
For instance, what would Russians or Russian-Americans think about this? I didn’t exactly balance the story in that regard. It would have been better to get an opposing viewpoint, and it really would have been something to talk to a Russian customer of Ann’s, if there is such a person. And if not, at least a non-Ukrainian customer.
More than anything, I was reminded of the humanity in reporting. We see headlines and images of war zones and far-away places on our screens and in newspapers, but I think the humanity is often lost on readers and audiences.
I felt something deep in my core as I was speaking with Maria. The intensity and sadness in her eyes told me more than words could, and it’s my job as a journalist to truly convey that sense of emotion and humanity in a sensitive and trust-worthy way.
After some feedback from my class mates and instructor, here’s what needs to happen as far as I can tell:
- Follow up with Walter on the issue of carrying Russian products.
- Go back to Ann’s for some more sources and extra photos
- Balance the story with some outside perspective.
Here’s a link to the story. Your thoughts? What do you think would make it better?