How City Bureau models democratizing journalism

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As part of Current’s Local that Works initiative, we’re publishing a series of case studies of local news media that exemplify replicable community engagement and civic journalism. The case studies are produced in conjunction with monthly Local that Works webinars. Check out Democratizing Journalism, our May 11, 2021, webinar featuring City Bureau.

Summary

Background: City Bureau is a nonprofit civic journalism lab based on the South Side of Chicago. Soon after its founding in 2015, it developed three major programs. Within just a couple of years, its work attracted significant philanthropic support, including three grants of over $1 million. City Bureau’s programs mainly focus on training and equipping people with little or no journalism experience to lead community conversations, provide oversight of public meetings, and conduct investigations into local sociopolitical issues.

Snapshot

Goals: City Bureau aims to democratize journalism, with a focus on Chicago. “City Bureau envisions a future in which all people are equipped with the tools and knowledge to effect change in their communities,” reads the organization’s vision statement.

Programs: City Bureau has three major programs it runs to work toward that goal:

  • Civic Reporting Programs, including annual residencies and seasonal fellowships. The reporting fellowships are designed for people without previous journalism experience. “Fellows work in teams to produce a journalism project on a big-picture sociopolitical issue facing communities on Chicago’s South and West Sides.” For the upcoming summer fellowship, City Bureau will pay reporters about $23/hour for 15 hours a week for 11 weeks, and team leaders about $30/hour for 20 hours a week over the same period. The annual residents tend to have more experience in journalism.
  • Documenterswhich trains and pays people to attend public meetings and record what happens. For each meeting (and the pre-meeting research and post-meeting write-up), the pay is $56, although it can be higher for meetings that last more than two hours. After working well in Chicago, two other cities now are also using the Documenters framework: Detroit and Cleveland.
  • Public Newsroom workshops, which are led and moderated by local people with an interest or expertise in a topic. During the pandemic, the workshops continued online. The goal of the workshops is to “create an open space where anyone can gather to discuss and deconstruct local issues, share resources and knowledge, and meet new people.”

Tools and Technology:

  • The Documenters program uses City Scrapers to pull information off government websites, particularly meeting dates.
  • Documenters.org is a web application where trained Documenters can log in and claim assignments, and community members can search for public meetings by location, date, keyword and more.

How it operates: City Bureau has a staff of around a dozen people, all full-time, as well as a small board of directors. The nonprofit receives grant funding (along the lines of $2 million in grants in 2020, including eight grants of more than $100K each) as well as individual donations (about $70,000 from 2,100 people in 2020). Other revenue sources include research and consulting fees as well as publication fees. Its largest expenses are staff payroll and benefits as well as payments to the journalists in its program. Other large expenses include rent and legal and accounting services. (For a further breakdown of revenue sources and expenses, see pages 26 and 27 of the group’s annual report.)

Impact

Overall:

  • Serving as a model that news organizations or startups in other cities can adopt. In addition to the organizations in Detroit and Cleveland who are doing Documenters, several newsrooms, including Enois in São Paulo, DePaul University’s student newspaper Fourteen East, and the Mississippi Today newsroom began doing Public Newsroom workshops in the past few years, after being inspired by City Bureau.

Demonstrating the process of impact tracking, including having articulated desired outcomes for each program. In 2019, City Bureau developed a system to capture and measure the organization’s impact across more than 20 metrics. More details about those metrics can be found in first Impact Report.

Of individual programs:

  • Documenters:
    • Training more than 1,000 people to document public meetings since 2016. The ages of those trained range from 18 to 79.
    • Making accessible notes from more than 1,300 public meetings.
    • Won the Gather Award in Engaged Journalism during the 2019 Online Journalism Awards and was finalist for a 2021 News Leaders Association award, where the judges commented: “This project definitely pushes the boundaries of the traditional methodology, format and structure by which journalism is produced. It challenges the notions of who should have the power to report what happens, and it does in a very structured and simple way, and there is its innovation. The project has already proved its concept and provides oversight and public service journalism to places where accountability is much needed.”
  • Public Newsroom:
    • Convening more than 100 workshops since 2016.
    • Creating intergenerational, interracial connections in communities.
  • Civic Reporting Programs

Journalism produced by fellows and residents are frequent finalists and winners of various awards, including the Lisagor awardsScripps Howard Awards, and Regional Edward R. Murrow Awards.

Lessons Learned

What Worked

  1. When launching a new organization or program, find your creative partner. Make sure you have differing and complementary skill sets. Don’t try to go it alone.
  2. Look for people doing similar work who you can build with and learn from in your ecosystem. Co-founder Darryl Holliday, who spent a year incubating the idea of City Bureau while working at Invisible Institute, says having a safe haven like that was enormously helpful as he got City Bureau off the ground. City Bureau also learns from and partners with groups in different industries and fields, such as community organizing, popular education, and mutual aid.
  3. Learn discipline around talking about your work to people outside your circles (such as funders). In its earlier years, Jenny Choi and others helped teach City Bureau’s leadership team effective ways to write proposals and how to frame requests for foundation support, which was instrumental in securing many of the $1 million–plus grants.

What Could Have Worked Better

  1. Plan early and often for how to grow capacity within the organization, not just through hiring, but also through developing staff.
  2. Create processes and policies to ensure people within the organization are heard (and feel heard). Without that, it can be easy to let the loudest voices dominate. Having processes and policies will enable healthy conflict, which can make the whole organization better.

More about City Bureau

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