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City Bureau

Disruptors or Repairers? How City Bureau Fits in the Local Media Landscape

Creative disruption is a concept often used in business to describe companies that are uprooting and changing how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day.” The theory originated from Harvard business school professor Clayton Christensen’s analysis of how the Japanese auto companies “disrupted” the American industry. Other examples include how Airbnb or Uber have reimagined their respective industries to make them, some would argue, more efficient. In media, one recent example of a disruptor is Buzzfeed, whose listicles and savvy use of social media has reshaped the way we look at digital news. But what does it mean to disrupt local news? And how can this disruption make local journalism more of a public good?

Above: The above diagram is from a local media ecosystem design workshop I hosted as part of news consulting work I am doing for Democracy Fund. Photo Credit: Josh Stearns

The media industry has seen plenty of disruption. City Bureau wants to do more than just that.

Disruption can happen as a result of circumstance or of choice. For example, the shift from print to digital information-sharing, especially in the context of advertising, has disrupted the journalism industry by circumstance. This has forced most media companies to re-evaluate their revenue models, and has contributed (among many other factors) to the demise of countless news organizations.

Meanwhile, at City Bureau, we choose to disrupt processes within journalism that are barriers to inclusivity and accountability. In our endeavor to build strong relationships with our audience, we disrupt processes that perpetuate harmful reporting and create community distrust. Disruption does not mean destruction. For us, disruption is the first step on the way to repair.

Our mission is to bridge the ideals of civic journalism with the social and economic realities in which it exists. That means we wish to make journalism more democratic, more of a public good—an ideal that existed long before City Bureau joined that fray. So we want to be clear about our desire to repair (rather than solely disrupt) the media landscape, building healthy relationships for the long-term sustainability of the industry.

What does all of this mean in practice? City Bureau’s Documenters program is a prime example. We developed this program out of our April 2016 partnership with the Smart Chicago Collaborative. We recruit engaged residents of various skill sets who care about their communities and want to see better, more accurate public information. So far we have onboarded roughly 50 of our more than 200 applicants to officially become Documenters. These freelancers have attended dozens of public meetings and have helped with City Bureau’s community engagement events.

Above: City Bureau hosts an intergenerational Documenters training session at the Greater Grand Crossing Library. Photo Credit: Andrea Hart

What are the Documenters disrupting?

  • Single-note, often negative coverage of the South and West Sides. Documenters assignments span this area and cover a variety of public meetings about education, environment, criminal justice reform and much more. They are gathering and sharing more complete information about these neighborhoods than many citywide media outlets.
  • The high barrier of entry to becoming a journalist. We often speak with community members who find the journalism industry opaque and careers unattainable, since experience is typically gained through unpaid internships or expensive degrees. The Documenters program offers an alternate path.
  • Traditional information sharing systems. Documenters’ reports create a digital archive of public meetings that otherwise might go unnoticed.

What are Documenters repairing?

  • Community distrust of media. By inviting everyone into the process of information gathering, we engender more trust and understanding of how and why journalists do what they do.
  • The process through which community members can hold media accountable. The program gives people a direct line through which to ensure events are properly documented and can be used by anyone (journalist or otherwise) to pursue more in-depth research and stories.

This work will continue to be tested and refined because the issues we care about are not rigid; they are living.

We are curious about the work you are doing that is disruptive and/or reparative in media. What processes are you stopping in order to reflect and reimagine?

We’re Not Doing It Alone: How City Bureau Builds With Community Groups

City Bureau and IMPACT Family Center visit the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless on a recent field trip.

If you believe in the power of community, please consider contributing to our Public Newsroom campaign, and let’s reimagine media together.

Someone recently asked us: Do we think our journalists are solutions to some of the problems we see in Chicago?

We don’t think there is a single silver bullet to heal historic injustices in this city. Instead, we think that reimagining media within and alongside communities, particularly those who’ve been the most intentionally under resourced, can allow real solutions to surface. For us, it’s about being embedded in communities and paying homage to the groups that are already doing great things.

With every partnership — be it a neighborhood organization or larger institution — we ask the questions “what is it that you need?” and “how can we help?” in the first meeting. If we are to return journalism to its truest form of being a public good, there is a lot of distrust and historical injustice we have to acknowledge, and a lot of entrenched old habits in media organizations that we need to break. When we talk about building together, that means that City Bureau doesn’t take anything (whether it’s a piece of information, or access to an audience, or a group’s trust) without giving something back.

Step 1: Create a Place.

As we have designed our newsroom to address the above, we pulled inspiration from two of the city’s most influential youth spaces: Radio Arte and YOUmedia. (Full disclosure: I taught at Radio Arte in 2011 and 2012, as well as its sister organization Yollocalli Arts Reach)

Both groups embrace the concept of placemaking, building “vital public destinations” where people can gather and share a stake in improving the community, and apply it specifically to media and journalism.

Radio Arte’s frequency belonged to the community. The youth-led, Spanish and English radio station was the only one of its kind nationally. It was intimately rooted in the Chicago Latinx community, and that foundation created an intimate feel for listeners well beyond city limits. What’s more, it became a space for people to talk about complex societal issues, which grew community leaders.


Another critical component of our community embed model is mentoring — something the late Brother Mike Hawkins, a pioneering educator within YOUmedia, deeply understood. The youth media lab, based in Chicago Public Library branches, most famously helped to launch the career of Chance the Rapper and provided a platform and learning space for many young media makers who have gone on to succeed in their respective fields.


This summer we expanded our mentoring track and paired each of our reporting fellows with a youth media site: Free Spirit Media, IMPACT Family Center and Mikva Challenge. There, these journalists hung out with young people in their spaces to exchange skills and build relationships that translate into social capital.

City Bureau was able to give them access to better resources — like coordinating a field trip and intimate discussion with Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, or providing deep contextual information to youth making police reform recommendations to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This past spring, some of our youngest cohort filmed a video that was published in the Guardian US along with a story reported and written by more senior reporters.

In the words of placemaking advocates, the “vital public destination” we are creating is a Public Newsroom. If YOUmedia could spark a music revolution, then imagine what a journalism space centered around similar values can do.

Step 2: Grow a Pipeline.

Community engagement and placemaking will help create the Public Newsroom, but the skills exchange that happens there has the potential for a longer-term impact on the industry. Diversity in media is a big topic in newsrooms across the country right now, but City Bureau puts inclusivity at the very heart of our operations — fostering connections with young people in neighborhoods where some of the nation’s biggest problems are on full display, but where very few professional journalists actually spend time beyond breaking news.

Not only does our mentorship program expand the social network of both our reporters and their mentees, it helps individuals recognize their own cultural capital. One example of this is our partnership with IMPACT in Roseland.

“The Far South Side is a service and resources desert compared to other areas of the city. This is the forgotten or ignored part of the city, although the crime and violence stats are comparable to Englewood,” IMPACT Family Center CEO and founder Marsha Eaglin told me. “The wealth of talent and possibilities are as rich as the North Side — just untapped and not cultivated.”

For seven weeks City Bureau reporting fellows conducted workshops on various journalistic skills while getting to know IMPACT’s students.

“Our youth definitely represent a community that is virtually voiceless, so teaching them skills and a means to allow their voices to be heard is not only great for now, but the real return on the investment is in the future. This was definitely evident this summer,” Eaglin added.

For City Bureau this is the first phase of connecting youth on the Far South Side to our network, in the hopes they will collaborate with the newsroom in some capacity — and if they want, start on the path to a professional journalism career. We’re not reinventing the wheel or coming into these spaces assuming that a pre-made model of journalism education will work in a completely new context.

As summer programs wrap, we are inviting all participants to join City Bureau’s Community Documenters team.

As we continue to remix our partnerships and test the capacity of this pipeline, we also are expanding opportunities to join our Documenters network (click to apply). Our Documenters program is a paid opportunity — open to the public — where people can learn basic reporting skills, make records of public meetings, do practical research and collaborate with journalists and other civic professionals.

If you believe in the power of community, please consider contributing to our Public Newsroom campaign, and let’s reimagine media together.

When Traditional Reporting Taps Into Longstanding Community Networks

City Bureau is a growing network of people, institutions and community organizations who want to take back the narratives of their city. While historically disenfranchised groups in Chicago are often the subject of stories about injustice in the city, they are rarely given the opportunity to be the storytellers, due to systemic lack of access to traditional media careers. It is those incredibly resilient people, and the communities around them, who comprise City Bureau — folks who are unafraid to dream beyond current educational structures and the present media landscape.

As a collective, City Bureau acknowledges that there is untapped talent on the city’s South and West sides that could benefit from direct access to resources from neighboring journalism schools, nonprofit organizations and media outlets. We also acknowledge that the latter has a desire to better serve and collaborate with the former. By building these relationships, we hope to level the learning field in journalism.

So what does this look like? In our Fall 2015 cycle we recruited three tracks of community journalists ranging from recent high school graduates with little to no news experience to veteran local reporters. This cohort works together, teaching one another the nuances of these neighborhoods, reporting skills and more.

Location is a crucial element of this formula: Choosing North Lawndale and Woodlawn/Hyde Park to pilot our newsrooms, we are tapping into longstanding relationships in the community that strengthen and ensure the sustainability of our programs. Some of those community partners include Invisible Institute and Free Spirit Media. These groups are complemented by institutional partners from Illinois Humanities, The Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, Knight Lab at Northwestern University and University of Chicago.

Another critical component has been selecting the pilot issue that would bring all of the above together. We have chosen policing not only because it is one of the most pressing issues of our time, but also because we have been given access to Invisible Institute’s Citizens Police Data Project. Through this partnership, our journalists have a unique and timely angle on an important topic, and they are able to contextualize their personal experiences with police misconduct within the newly released data.

Beyond our intentionally inclusive newsroom, we have designed town halls to encourage more community dialogue. We realize these issues, like policing, are complex and living — they don’t stop when print hits the page or a video is uploaded. Our first gathering at the Experimental Station in Woodlawn brought all of our partners together as well as a range of community residents who shared their insights around both the issue and our media model. They joined in on our fearless dreaming.

These attendees and other community members are continuing to help make a new, more reflexive media ecosystem. These face-to-face moments honor and revive the historic neighbor-to-neighbor way of spreading community news. It is an opportunity to rebuild through placemaking what has been systematically destroyed by disinvestment and housing discrimination. City Bureau intends to invest time and human resources into creating work that is in collaboration with these communities at every level, instead of stereotyping or tokenizing due to hasty reporting and lack of context.

As City Bureau reporters begin to publish their work, we continue to build this pipeline of learning and relational exchanges. We continue to expand our opportunities for youth reporting, as well as partnerships. Our next town hall will be at The Firehouse Community Arts Center in North Lawndale on Nov. 23 from 6:30pm. Please join us to reflect more on the policing issue, reporters’ stories and to join this movement.