“Be warned, this is an all-encompassing job that attracts workaholics because we care,” Monica Eng, Chicago-based award-winning veteran reporter, states the realities of being a journalist.

Photo courtesy of Monica Eng

With accolades and complex publications from the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, WBEZ, and now at Axios, Monica has carved a niche in the Windy City’s media industry. Her work spans across investigative reporting, social issues, and food culture, reflecting a deep understanding of the city and its people. 

While most ventures into journalism are pursued by passion or forged in an institution, Monica’s began unconventionally – and from Roger Ebert, nonetheless. “I started in journalism when I was a sophomore in high school,” she recalls. “My mom was dating Roger Ebert, and he told me about a job opening at the Chicago Sun-Times.” That part-time gig ignited a passion that has fueled her career for over two decades. Monica admits she wasn’t initially drawn to journalism, but being exposed to the daily grind of a newsroom hooked her.

Throughout her career, Eng has covered a diverse range of topics. “I've always enjoyed mixing things up,” she says, citing a preference for quick news stories and in-depth features. While she acknowledges the challenges of navigating different assignments at some publications, she thrives on the variety Axios offers, where reporters are encouraged to explore beats based on their interests. 

However, investigative profiles remain a bittersweet experience for her. “I always hate [doing] longer profiles,” she confesses, disliking the feeling of intrusion. “But when it’s all over, and an important story that can help others comes out, I am happy I did it,” Monica counters.

Reflecting on her most memorable stories, Eng highlights the journey of writing the story of Iris Chang, a journalist who lost a battle to mental health issues. “It was a hard story to write," she says, “but it ended up helping a lot of Asian women who were, or had a relative, who was struggling with mental health issues that they were ashamed of.” 

Motivated by Chang’s story, Monica became even more committed to social justice journalism, dedicating her voice to underrepresented narratives. Another write-up she was exceptionally proud of was a Chicago Magazine piece about Paula Camp, a restaurant critic who transitioned to female in her 70s. 

“I am always touched when I hear someone who was moved by the story and reached out for help because of it,” Monica shared. This dedication earned her several awards for the way her stories stand out in portraying complex and sensitive stories.

Today, journalists face a fast-paced environment. However, the esteemed reporter embraces the conveniences of the digital age, valuing the speed and autonomy it affords. “Early on, we had more resources and time,” she reminisces. “But today, we have to be lean and fast.” Monica acknowledges the challenge of effectively capturing subjects’ voices, given the myriad options people have to tell their stories. 

Despite this, she remains confident in her ability to craft long-form pieces. “I have always found rich stories by traveling to other parts of the city,” Eng states, emphasizing the narratives of people who don’t have publicists or those whose culture enriches Chicago’s streets. Her genuine curiosity about the city’s diverse communities fuels her commitment to accurate representation.

Monica also emphasizes the crucial role journalism plays in addressing Chicago’s challenges. Equity issues remain a pressing concern, and she sees journalists as watchdogs, highlighting disparities and holding authorities accountable. 

“I cover city hall and [regularly] get a chance to ask the mayor questions,” Eng boldly stated, adding that it is her duty to hold people in power accountable. From migration to mental health, schools, criminal justice, and fair spending, Monica strives to ensure leaders deliver on their promises.

Photo courtesy of Monica Eng

When not at city hall, Monica dabbles in stories on food culture. But this passion extends beyond personal enjoyment. She views it as a bridge between cultures – a way to break down barriers. “I think it is a way to bring people together and introduce cultures in a delicious and non-threatening way,” she explains. Sharing a meal fosters a sense of community and allows people to connect on a deeper level. 

Eng offers valuable and realistic guidance when asked about her advice to those starting in the field, particularly those drawn to local and investigative reporting. “This field is not as lucrative as it used to be,” she warns with well-meaning candor. “But if you love writing, and frankly, being a tattletale and righting wrongs through research and reporting, then go for it,” she encourages.

“Write as much as you can,” she added, emphasizing the importance of finding a great mentor and honing writing skills and data reporting early on. However, she also warns of the profession’s demanding nature, often attracting workaholics fueled by a deep sense of purpose.

While part of changing the media landscape lies in the youth, Eng expresses concern about the future of journalism, particularly local news. The rise of AI and the spread of misinformation pose significant challenges. With this, she underscores the importance of community engagement in establishing trust and credibility. 

“We are your friends and neighbors, and not some bots out there,” Monica affirms. “You know where we are coming from, literally and metaphorically.” 

The veteran also shared her excitement about the new series she’s working on, which will build on stories that most reporters have stopped following, jokes that bring positivity to readers, and, of course, more food content.

Photo courtesy of Monica Eng

Monica closed with a behind-the-scene anecdote that made a lasting impact on her career. “When I was doing my reporting on Iris Chang, I [almost gave] up a few times because it was so depressing and taxing,” she revealed, citing that Irish’s parents were not keen on revealing their daughter’s psychological state. “I felt terrible, but I carried on believing that being honest about the issue rather than hiding mental illness as something shameful would help others.”

And it did. Monica Eng’s honesty helped people struggling like Irish Chang to seek help from their loved ones. Along with her many stories, both existing and yet to be published, the veteran journalist has positioned acceptance and positivity as her indelible mark in Chicago’s papers. 

Written by Vanessa Maandal
May 13, 2024

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