An image of citizen journalists in Chicago

Here’s how Chicago’s City Bureau trains citizens to report on local government

Rather than extracting information from community members for news stories, City Bureau brings them into the newsgathering process.

Jenna Spinelle  - July 19, 2021

School boards, zoning committees, public safety councils — every community in the United States has governing bodies like this and, despite boring titles and jargon-filled agendas, they make decisions that impact people’s everyday lives. However, without local news outlets to report on what’s happening, residents are left largely in the dark about critical elements of local government and community life. 

City Bureau is changing this dynamic by recruiting citizens, not professional journalists, to cover government meetings through its Documenters program. Documenters serve as the community’s eyes and ears at public meetings and help spread the word about what local government is up to.

Founded in 2015, City Bureau is a non-profit civic journalism lab based on Chicago’s South Side. It brings journalists and community members together to tell stories inclusively.

Rather than extracting information from community members for news stories, City Bureau brings them into the newsgathering process. Readers weigh in on story ideas, provide feedback and in some cases, even take on the role of citizen journalist.

“In 2015, we set out to address a structural crisis in journalism,” said City Bureau co-founder Darryl Holliday. “We saw four interrelated problems: inequitable, misrepresentative local reporting; a lack of diverse budgets in newsrooms; distrust of media in communities of colour; and unsustainable media business models.”

Creating a new public record

Documenters is City Bureau’s largest journalism training program. Each Documenter is paid for covering meetings and receives training in topics including fact-checking, social media and the basics of local government. Rather than producing traditional news stories, the goal is to create a public record without complicated jargon that’s more easily accessible than what the government produces.

More than 1,000 people have covered more than 1,300 public meetings in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland since 2018. The program is open to anyone; Holliday said its participants range from high school or college students to retirees.

The League of Women Voters has public meeting watchers, but Holliday said he’s not aware of any organization combining those efforts with journalism like Documenters does.

“We tried it as a series of projects beforehand to see if it would work well as an ongoing program,” Holliday said. “The network aspect of it and working in multiple cities came later. We felt confident that what can work in Chicago can work in Cleveland or work anywhere.”

The initial Documenters cohort came from participants in City Bureau’s fellowship program and spread from there to include teachers, lawyers and people involved in other civic organizations in their cities.

Documenters is City Bureau’s largest program, but far from the only way it engages in community-centered journalism. It hosts Public Newsroom events that bring community members together for a conversation about local news and issues, as well as a civic reporting training program for journalists that focuses on racial equity and community engagement. 

A path to sustainability

City Bureau has received funding from more than a dozen foundations across the United States. But as independent publishers know well, grant funding does not last forever. Holliday and the team are beginning to explore what other funding models could look like.

The first such attempt is Newswire, a newsletter based on reporting from Documenters in Chicago that City Bureau describes as a “daily dose of civics.” It’s currently free, but Holliday expects to eventually add a paid version.

“I also see a world in which groups like Chalkbeat or another topic-driven organization might have Documenters to attend meetings they can’t get to,” Holliday said.

Holliday said City Bureau has heard from more than 90 outlets that want to bring Documenters to their communities. As the program grows, he hopes the team at City Bureau can take a step back from directly running it and move to a community governance model led by the Documenters themselves.

“As those generative relationships form, they lead to new ideas and new cohorts,” Holliday said. “The programs that form in other areas might not look exactly the same as Documenters does now and that’s okay.” 

For more information on this model of journalism, visit Gather, a project of the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon or check out the book “Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust” by Temple University professor Andrea Wenzel.


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