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StreetWise Editor-In-Chief Suzanne Hanney

Tue, Oct 2, 2012

Suzanne Hanney

It was a typical summer afternoon in the Windy City.

The Loop was bustling, as the professional class paused during its work day to search for a good lunch deal. Michigan Avenue was busy entertaining tourists who were quickly orienting themselves to the city with their handy, wrinkled street maps. And W r i g l e y was booming with thous and s of loyal fans who cried and hollered for the Cubs as they savored the excitement of America’s favorite pastime.

But amidst all this chaos and commotion lay something that would soon stop everyone in their tracks: a heat wave.

As it approached, thousands of pedestrians sought sanctuary indoors, while a few brave ones – or stupid ones, depending on who you ask – stayed behind, only to get pummeled by its tremendous force.
Inside the StreetWise offices (where the air-conditioner was conveniently broken), the unrelenting heat was certainly taking its toll.

Five of us interns sat grim-faced in an office fit for one where we feverishly typed away in a conscious effort to avoid any discussion of the sweat that drenched our clothes.

Just as we were about to pack up and surrender, a faint voice echoed in the hall.

We all looked at each other and sat back down. Then, we heard the inevitable question: “are we having fun yet?”

It’s a line Suzanne Hanney, the Editor-in-Chief of StreetWise Magazine, should copyright.
Usually, we respond to her daily greeting with a quick smile and a half-hearted “yes, of course, Suzanne.”

But on that day, we just burst out laughing.

On the train ride home, I thought about that scene.

For a while, I just sat there incredulous. I kept asking myself, “how could a single person change the mood of the room so effortlessly?”

Such a feat required acerbic wit, sharp intuition, commanding authority, and a diverse set of smarts. Or to put it in another way, it required Suzanne.

These traits sprouted in Suzanne at an early age.

At Holy Named Cathedral Grade School, she excelled, finishing at the top of her class in the first grade. In the second grade, she came close but narrowly missed the cutoff.

To most parents, such a small drop wouldn’t be a concern. “You tried your hardest, honey,” many of them would say reflexively. However, when Suzanne relayed the news to her family, the disappointment in the room was palpable. Her uncle was the most upset. In a sit-down interview that I had with her, Suzanne said that at that moment “(he) had instigated in me that I wasn’t using my talents.”

Determined to move beyond her shortcoming, Suzanne quickly internalized her uncle’s feelings. She began dabbling in new fields in the hopes of discovering a true passion. She joined the Girl Scouts where she mastered the art of persuasion by selling boxes of cookies to her neighbors – a skill she’d later perfect after selling a record-shattering 200 boxes in the lobby of her apartment complex. Later on, she was on the school paper. These accomplishments – along with her involvement in show book committee and honor society – nurtured a broad base of talents of which her she and her family could be proud.

But it was her foray into writing that left a lasting imprint on Suzanne. She would spend hours in her room writing, weaving observations she made during the day with insights she fleshed out at night.
When it was time for her to choose a career path, the choice was obvious. She said that “I felt that I could integrate my (other interests), particularly political science, with my writing well. Plus, I loved Chicago. I realized I could be a journalist writing about Chicago.”

With her game plan conceived, Suzanne trekked a few miles up the lake to Northwestern. After spending her freshman year undeclared, she enrolled at the university’s prestigious journalism school, Medill, where she learned the ins and outs of writing and reporting.

After four years, Suzanne left Northwestern with a degree in hand. However, she didn’t return to Chicago; instead, she drove 70 miles south to Marseilles, Illinois.

Suzanne jokes with Director of Vendor Services Greg Pritchett [center] and Sales Manager Ron Madere in the StreetWise Café.

“I wanted to be a Chicago journalist, but you couldn’t be during the Watergate era. [There were] no jobs. You had to go Downstate,” Suzanne said.

She got her feet in the water at the Marseilles Press where she covered everything from agriculture and education to county government and regional planning boards.

A year in, she made a big gamble: she bought the paper from the owner for a dollar. Not too long after, she saw why her boss had abandoned the fledgling enterprise. With revenue plummeting, she struggled to pay the printing fees. After a few stressful – and payless – weeks, she phoned an old Northwestern professor to seek some guidance.

“I told him ‘I didn’t know what I was doing. Medill didn’t prepare me for any of that,’” she said.
After congratulating her for managing a newspaper right out of a college (a feat she’d only later be able to appreciate), he told her to sell it to a shopper. Suzanne heeded his advice.

She went to The Ottawa Daily Times, a county seat daily. The Ottawa Daily Times boasted an established name back then. It covered over 100% of the market, as many people had the paper delivered to both their home and their work.

Walking into the paper’s office, Suzanne became more nervous with each step that she took. Nevertheless, she looked prepared; with her poker face on and her sales pitch ready, she was firmly in the mindset of a businesswoman about to strike a deal.

But then she faltered. The publisher – a cigar-smoking, no-nonsense type of fellow – swiftly rejected her deal. “I already got your circulation,” he said to her smugly. Undeterred, she kept trying until she eventually sold it to a former Air Force colonel.

She stayed on with the paper for a year and then headed due west to Dixon where she worked as a Contemporary Living editor for another county seat daily paper, The Dixon Telegraph. Although Suzanne was happy to settle into a new place, doubts about her career began to linger in the back of her mind.
“I worried that it [society pages] would be a dead end,” she noted.

Her intellectual curiosity was gnawing inside of her. She longed to cover big issues and big ideas that would get people thinking about the world around them. But that wasn’t what she was assigned to do. Her job was to write “stork reports.”

The writing was flat and formulaic. Each report had the same basic info: the newborn’s name, his weight, a few details on his lucky parents, and an obligatory cliché at the end. Suzanne may never have grown to love the task, but she eventually gained an appreciation for it.

“You have to find (and report on) what’s relevant in your market. Additionally, you have to resonate with people; you have to reflect what other people are doing and thinking,” she said.

In addition to completing stork reports, Suzanne announced meetings of the ladies’ Cooperative Extension service. Even though nothing groundbreaking happened at these affairs, Suzanne rotated coverage of the different groups in order to help them fill their prize-winning scrapbooks.

Three years into her stay in Dixon, she found herself right in the center of the action. It was the summer of 1980, and Ronald Reagan had just become the presumptive Republican nominee. Reporters from all across the country soon descended onto Dixon, where Reagan had spent his adolescent years, to learn more about his upbringing. Many of them turned to Suzanne, who had learned quite a bit about the Gipper since moving to Dixon.

StreetWise Vendors Arnold Donaldson [left] and Russell Adams [right] pose for a quick picture with Suzanne in the StreetWise office.

In an attempt to show the American people a close-up glimpse of his younger years, Reagan made a pit stop near his hometown during a campaign sprint across the Midwest. He toured the city, pointing out important sights here and there to an entourage of reporters. At the end, he was bombarded with questions from the press. One of the few he answered was from Suzanne. She asked him how he would be able to advance his conservative agenda through a Congress controlled by Democrats. Without the slightest hesitation, he responded by saying that “I am going to take it to the people.” Although she didn’t show it, Suzanne was bemused; she felt he had dodged the question with a bromide.

“But like him or not, you have to respect him for keeping that promise,” Suzanne said. “He went right to the American people when his bills were (stalled) in Congress.”

In January of 1981, Suzanne flew to Washington for Reagan’s inauguration. Standing among 300 Dixonites who were fully clad in white and purple, their town’s high school colors, Suzanne watched as their hometown hero was sworn in as America’s 40th President.

“There was a feeling that it was the start of a new era,” she noted.

Her optimism had little to do with her politics, though. Unlike the crowd of people that enveloped her that historic day in Washington, Suzanne was no ideologue. She freely admitted to holding doubts at the time about Reagan’s campaign promises and his take-your-medicine brand of conservatism. However, there was something about his aura – from the humility with which he spoke on the stump to the warmth he radiated in the spotlight – that enthralled her.

She said that “my biggest feeling about [Reagan] is that he gave us [Americans] the feeling that we were special and could accomplish anything.”

Suzanne then edited a total market circulation weekly newspaper for the same family-chain that owned the Telegraph. It was a position she held for a few years before heading further west to the Quad Cities.

By then, Suzanne was growing increasingly homesick. She was ready to return to Chicago to reunite with family and friends from whom she’d been away for almost 10 years.

“I kept going farther and farther. And it was kind of frustrating because I didn’t want to go farther and farther. I wanted to go home,” Suzanne said.

So after a few years of copyediting in the Quad Cities, she returned to Chicago.

After enjoying a short respite, Suzanne returned to journalism with the same interest she had as a child: to cover the city she loved, Chicago.

While at the Publicity Club of Chicago, she learned that StreetWise was looking for volunteers.
She immediately seized the opportunity.

Since then, she has been at the organization for 18 years. She’s held nearly every position in the writing division, from copy editor to feature writer to city editor to associate editor to editor-in-chief.

Since becoming editor-in-chief, Suzanne has made many changes to the publication. She’s spotlighted new issues, like urban agriculture, experimented with social media to boost the paper’s readership, and employed more college students eager to intern (thank you, Suzanne!). But never during her eight years as editor-in-chief has she departed from StreetWise’s core mission of promoting human empowerment.

“My obligation is to inspire people…It’s [to] highlight [their] struggles but also their accomplishments and the methods they use to get back from a downfall,” Suzanne said.

It’s a focus that has earned her many plaudits. Over the past few years, Suzanne has raked in the awards – most notable of which was a Silver Feather for cumulative winning entries in the Illinois Womean’s Press Association awards competition.

Suzanne’s talent is matched by her work ethic. Known for her longevity, she’ll work to late at night – even on weekends – to ensure that the magazine is up to her standards.

“I never forget that we’re creating a product that they (the vendors) can sell,” Suzanne said.
“It isn’t an excuse for pan-handling; it isn’t a sympathy product.”

When asked what awaits her in the future, Suzanne said she’d love to continue her work at StreetWise. She enjoys covering a wide array of topics – from poverty and politics to entertainment and urban culture.
“Plus,” she said with a smile, “it gives my life meaning.”

Sam Rothbloom, StreetWise Editorial Intern

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