May 9, 2012

Project Maytag: an ongoing investigation

The Maytag Project, which has been ongoing with the Knox Department of Journalism for the past few years, has received first place for Enterprise Series in the Illinois Associated Press Editors Association News and Photo Contest. It was one of 34 pieces published in the Register-Mail to be recognized for an award.

Additionally, the project is an Illinois Press Association Finalist in Enterprise Reporting. The winners of first place, second place, third place and honorable mention will be revealed in mid-June.

The idea for this project began forming in 2004 when Maytag — a major employer in Galesburg — closed down to find cheaper labor in Mexico. Knox journalism students, along with some sociology students, covered the factory’s closing, which led to 900 employees losing their jobs.

In 2010, Professor and Chair of Journalism Marilyn Webb spearheaded the idea to create a survey catching up with these 900 people seven years after the factory’s closing. With funding from Bob Borzello, the development of this survey as well as the researching of current mailing addresses was made possible.

Work was done over the summer of 2010 to update these addresses and create the survey. By fall, around 150 responses had come back. The survey was automatically anonymous. but a sender could choose to leave a name and phone number so researchers could interview him or her.

Students in Webb’s fall feature writing course interpreted complicated statistics derived from this data with the help of Professor of Economics Richard Stout. Professor of Educational Studies Diana Beck also helped with the project.

“There were a lot of dimensions from the findings that students then picked,” Webb said. “I thought we’d find a story of woe, but we found so much more than that. About a third of the people were doing better than they were at Maytag. Finding that, we were more excited than ever before. The findings propelled the story to go further.”

From the writing topics the students derived, they chose interviewees to profile. All names came from the aforementioned survey.

“They [the former Maytag employees] were written about [by] Knox journalism students and then photographed by Knox photography students in their new lives,” Webb said.

All of the stories were published last year as part of a six-day series in the Register-Mail. The paper’s editor, Tom Martin, submitted the series for both awards.

“I think it [the series] should have been entered in a more national competition because it’s so good,” Webb said. “Our stories are better than the professional ones.”

After the Maytag Project, Knox students involved have gotten into competitive graduate schools including Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

One such former student is Ryan Sweikert ’10, who worked with Webb for two years on the project as a senior and then later as a post-baccalaureate. His work for the project included helping develop the survey as well as writing one of the profiles featured in the Register-Mail.

“Honestly, I thought we would get something for it,” Sweikert said. He understood the immense amount of work and funding going into the project compared to what a small- town paper like the Register-Mail can typically afford to expend.

“It’s always cool when something you work hard on gets recognized,” he said. “One of the biggest parts for us was the recognition from the community … it’s the less quantifiable stuff I got out of it that matters to me … to be in a position to work on something this large-scale, that was great.”

Out of the Maytag Project several additional works are still in progress. For instance, post-baccalaureate Allison Ehrhard ’11 is currently writing a book on the toxic chemicals left behind at the factory and their lasting effects. Webb herself is currently on leave writing a book about the project as well.

Note: Tom Martin is the advisor for The Knox Student.

Camille Brown
Camille Brown is a junior majoring in English literature and double minoring in educational policy and journalism. Previously, she served as editor-in-chief of her high school paper and a reporter for TKS. She spent the summer of 2012 freelancing for The Peninsula Gateway and is currently pursuing an independent study concerning the media’s influence on education.


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