Megan Cottrell took a risk at 25 years old when she approached a National Public Radio-affiliated station in Mount Pleasant, Michigan and asked simply to learn everything and anything about storytelling even after a university adviser had told her she’d likely never be “on NPR.” Within a year at WCMU, Cottrell had aired a piece on “Weekend All Things Considered.”
She took a risk when she first moved to Chicago. She didn’t have much journalism experience, nor did she know many people, but she wanted to write, so she moved to the city and was employed by the Chi-town Daily News where she was assigned to the public housing/poverty beat—a beat that opened her eyes to the systemic and social disadvantages of living below the poverty line.
While she loved her beat and her job she felt something was wrong. Something was missing from her writing, “It was boring. My own mother wouldn’t read it,” Cottrell chuckled. Moreover, she was starting to believe that detached journalism is inherently broken.
So Cottrell quit the Chi-town Daily News in the midst of a recession to write on her own accord.
Cottrell is a risk-taker; yet every chance has led her career along a Terkelian road.
A freelancer on a shoestring budget, sans salary and health insurance, she and her husband survived on his student loans while she kept writing. Cottrell kept covering public housing and urban poverty in Chicago because although she grew up in a small rural Michigan community, writing about the injustices of poverty is something Cottrell feels compelled and called to do.
“My stories are often about the bizarre conundrums of living in poverty and how services and systems are designed to help people and often end up hurting them or overlapping in ways that don’t help them at all, “ Cottrell paused, “When they’re meant to give them a leg up.”
Soon thereafter, fellow Terkel-winner Fernando Diaz offered her “her first break” as a blogger for the Chicago Now network. Her blog, “One Story Up” (later moved to True/Slant), became a must-read and won Best Local Blog by the Chicago Reader.
Cottrell remembers the first time she heard Studs Terkel’s work while driving in her car and listening to WBEZ. She recalls the program, This Train: Interviews with participants on their way to a civil rights march, “and just being overwhelmed by the humanity of it.”
It’s that touch of humanity that is missing from a lot of journalism, Cottrell said. Now, as a reporter and blogger for The Chicago Reporter, Cottrell’s storytelling style reflects her passion for people and her need to make their stories heard by making news approachable.
Winning the Terkel award is a great honor for Cottrell and for her reassurance, “To bring people together with stories; to help them understand each other; to open people up to the experience of their neighbors, of their fellow citizens, to be a storyteller like Studs was, it’s just been an incredible boost of confidence for me.”
Follow the links below to read some of Megan’s award-winning work: