My experience covering a community meeting with youth media mentees
As a part of our collaboration with Free Spirit Media, reporting fellows from City Bureau partner with student journalists to cover public meetings. Mike, Sterling and I chose to attend a community meeting this spring about the impact of the Obama Presidential Library, hosted by 1Woodlawn at Apostolic Church of Christ, a mere two blocks away from City Bureau’s office.
The group sponsoring the meeting, the Network of Woodlawn, often pops up on my Facebook feed, likely because of my community engagement work for StoryCorps and because I’m a nearby resident.
We arrived early to discuss how we would approach the meeting to accomplish our individual and collective reporting goals. Mike and Sterling needed to generate some story ideas; I needed to make sure they achieved that while also balancing my personal interest in the topic at hand. In addition, Mike was documenting the meeting as a part of our Documenters program.
I pulled out my laptop to show a video clip of Dr. Bryon T. Brazier, the church’s pastor and chairman of the Network of Woodlawn, discussing the meeting earlier that week on Fox32. Years prior to the Obama Presidential Library announcement, community stakeholders began meeting to build a community plan for “education, safety, economic development and health and human services.” The focus this night would be on displacement and gentrification, community benefits agreements and the Woodlawn Community Master Plan.
We found it interesting that a community-led organization would invite development. It was downright impressive for 400 to 500 people to show up committed to the same idea. As a nearby resident, I had my own thoughts and questions about the course development could take; however, my job as a journalist was to understand why the community organized itself, which stakeholders had a seat at the table and what the concerns were for the vision of Woodlawn from the diverse perspectives in the room.
With an unexpected half-hour pushback in start time, the students and I sat and talked with people at the banquet tables. We began with an open-ended line of questioning, “So, why did you come to tonight?” When we introduced ourselves and why we were there, most people were eager to talk to us.
I approached this event differently from a standard interview, instead trying to facilitate a dialogue among the community members, Mike, Sterling and I. If I had knowledge of what they are talking about, I would give an honest observation; if not, I’d probe for more nuance. It was in that manner that I found out that the Apostolic Church of Christ had been redeveloping Woodlawn since the 1980s under the leadership of the late Reverend Brazier, father of the current pastor. That little detail was of tremendous value. It helped us understand why the community meeting was held at this particular church, alluding to its authority — tangible and symbolic — in the neighborhood. When Mike introduced himself, he made a point of saying he wasn’t coming in with a predetermined angle but wanted to report on what what he observed. Sterling covered the meeting on social media and also queried attendees. When Reverend Brazier and his management consultant Jada Russell made their rounds, they spoke with Mike and Sterling longer than other attendees because of their unique status as youth and press, two demographics they are looking to further include as their plans unfold.
I made a point to talk to the people around me — not just the ones formally recognized on the agenda. Many of these folks bore their own stakes and responsibilities as residents, block club members, community gardeners, parents and educators. These are faces of the impacted, too. Presenting myself as someone curious enough and humble enough to value their voices is a major part of connecting to the heart the matter, too.
Daweed Scully, an urban planner for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, introduced the master plan with the recognition that for black and brown neighborhoods, development is often equivalent to displacement and gentrification. The room murmured in agreement. This master plan was to be different, he said. It was to be “a Woodlawn plan built on your ideas.”
1Woodlawn is set to release their completed master plan at community meeting this July. Residents are encouraged to return and share their hopes and fears then.
Beyond that, you’ll find the fruits of a connection made in City Bureau’s South Side newsroom, more than six months ago.
We think that the most exciting thing about collective journalism is that it creates strong relationships between reporters and the communities they cover. And, it creates connections between the journalists themselves. By giving our Reporting Fellows ownership of their own projects, and by encouraging entrepreneurship within the newsroom, something new can emerge—a more balanced and equitable collaboration between journalists, communities and the broader public. We believe in looking beyond the folks directly participating in our programs to create a network of engaged, responsive individuals who are able and willing to take on difficult questions within their own spheres of influence.
90 Days, 90 Voices tells the stories of those seeking a home in the United States during an age of unrest, and we’re proud to consider it part of the extended City Bureau family.
Join City Bureau and 90 Days, 90 Voices on April 27—the 90th day since President Donald Trump signed an executive order that barred citizens of seven countries from coming to the United States—for a workshop at our Public Newsroom. The 90-minute session will offer a look into 90 Days, 90 Voices reporters’ favorite stories, tips for covering immigration issues and celebrate the storytelling project’s work.
You’ll also have a chance to add your own voice to the project and meet some of the immigrants featured in 90 Days, 90 Voices media.
Three months ago, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that barred citizens of seven countries from coming to the United States for 90 days and all refugee admissions for 120 days. Syrians, who make up 1 out of every 6 refugees in the world today, were indefinitely banned.
In response to the ban, three Chicago journalists (Sarah Conway, Alex Hernandez and Nissa Rhee) founded 90 Days, 90 Voices — a storytelling project about those seeking a home in the United States during an age of unrest. Working with a diverse group of reporters, illustrators, photographers, and videographers, they are giving readers a glimpse into the hardships endured by more than 65 million refugees worldwide who are searching for dignity in the largest displacement crisis since World War II.
Thursday, April 27 marks 90 days since the executive order was signed. Come join the founders of 90 Days, 90 Voices at this special Public Newsroom event to hear some of their favorite stories, learn tips for covering immigration issues, and celebrate the storytelling project’s work.
Those who come will have the opportunity to add their own voice to the project and to meet some of the immigrants we have featured.
Food and drinks will be provided. Please RSVP so we know how much to bring.
Ensuring that growth is sustainable and accountable to the people
First, the news: We’re thrilled to announce that City Bureau has received a $100,000 grant from the Voqal Foundation to continue its work creating equitable, community-centered coverage on Chicago’s South and West Sides. This comes on the heels of a generous $75,000 grant from the McCormick Foundation, an early supporter of City Bureau.
With these grants, Voqal and McCormick renew their commitment to supporting media that is from and for the public. We feel lucky to spend our days building an innovative model for participatory journalism by supporting the work of emerging, diverse and civically engaged journalists in Chicago—and we’re grateful for the financial support needed to continue that work.
Growing Our Team
We believe in paying people for their time and efforts, whether that’s making journalism, hosting community-centered events or serving as on-the-ground watchdogs in their community. Since City Bureau has started, we’ve devoted the vast majority of our funds to our programming, while relying on a small group of dedicated volunteers to manage administrative work. But with the success of our programs, we believe it’s time to grow—to take our proven strategies to a larger and larger audience.
Most immediately, operational funding from Voqal will allow our organization to hire two of City Bureau’s four co-founders, Andrea Hart (community engagement director) and Darryl Holliday (editorial director), to strategically expand our programming. As our organization expands, we hope to add more full- and part-time staff to help us grow and manage the burgeoning City Bureau network. Full-time employees like Darryl and Andrea ensure that growth will happen quickly and efficiently—while also pursuing more avenues of funding that will support even further expansion of our programs.
Speaking of expanding our programs: Journalists in our 10-week Reporting Fellowship are paid $15 to $20 an hour to produce local, community-centered reporting while mentoring young Chicago media-makers. Likewise, our Chicago-based Documenters program pays hourly for local community members to attend, record and disseminate information from public meetings, and our Public Newsroom pays a $50 stipend to our guest speakers and workshop hosts.
These numbers add up, but so do the public benefits. Since our launch in October 2015, our reporters have produced over 70 articles and mentored more than 70 youth mediamakers; City Bureau Documenters have completed 50 assignments; and our Public Newsroom has drawn hundreds of attendees to our South Side newsroom for inclusive dialogue, collective joy and skill-sharing events.
Sharing Our Knowledge
Additional staff and funds will also help us create a project we’ve long envisioned—creating a City Bureau Handbook that will document our programs, successes, stumbles, and everything in between. We firmly believe that the people at City Bureau are producing some of the most innovative work in local journalism; not just the content, but the different outreach strategies, including ways to talk to our audience while keeping our community involved in our work every step of the way.
That’s great if you’re hanging out at our newsroom (6100 South Blackstone Avenue) a few times a week (and hey, if you can, you should!) but we don’t want it to stop there. So we’re embarking on the Handbook project to create a wiki-style guide to building a civic journalism lab, based on the lessons learned at City Bureau, in your own city or town. Have specific questions you want answered or sections of the wiki that you want to make sure get written? Just let us know.
We believe that foundations have a critical role to play in maintaining the integrity and promise of a free press—but we believe sustainable business models and individual support are in the public’s best interest when it comes to funding a media landscape that is equitable, diverse, inclusive and robust.
For more on Voqal and the amazing group of organizations that were awarded grants along with City Bureau, please visit their website (below):
The Voqal Fund is pleased to announce six new grants to organizations working in the Chicago area to enhance the community and strengthen social equity. The grants to Chicago Filmmakers (Chicago Digital Media Production Fund), BYP100, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, City Bureau, State Innovation Exchange (SiX) and Illinois Humanities reflect Voqal Fund’s commitment to support progressive movements for social change.
We wanted to take some time and lay out our process when it comes to hiring our reporters as, in many ways, the direction of each “cycle” is defined by the people in our programs and the experiences they bring to the table. And if there’s one thing that’s become apparent since our launch in October 2015, it’s that hiring a diverse and, more importantly, inclusive set of journalists eager to do news differently doesn’t come without concerted effort (see our latest interview with Poynter for more on this point).
While we realize we won’t immediately reverse decades of marginalization and unequal hiring practices that have left most major newsrooms in the U.S. without a single reporter of color, we plan to make a dent in that sobering reality — not by counting heads, but by ensuring our newsroom feels, and is, open and inclusive for reporters of all ages, races and gender identities.
Below is a demographic breakdown of all City Bureau reporters since we began our programs last fall:
The majority of City Bureau programming centers on our reporting fellowship program, where journalists work together on stories and investigations. This program involves three groups that make up the community-to-mainstream media pipeline we hope to bolster on Chicago’s South and West sides:
Our Team Leaders, i.e. our most experienced journalists
Our Reporters, i.e. those with some writing/reporting training but minimal professional experience
Young media-makers and policy analysts from our youth media partner organizations (this summer: high school-aged youths from Free Spirit Media, IMPACT Family Center and Mikva Challenge). These participants are not included in our demographics above because we do not directly hire them — more info on this below.
We’ve designed an intensive interviewing and application process for our Team Leaders and Reporters. Over the course of the last year it’s been refined to focus on outreach, framing and selection, with the recent addition of a writing test for Reporters and a rolling application process for Team Leaders to ensure our doors are open to great story pitches all year-round.
We look for candidates who are interested in shifting media narratives — by that we mean telling a diverse range of stories with and among communities that have been historically edged out of vital public discourse. We look for candidates with a considerable connection to the South and West sides of Chicago regardless of race/ethnicity. We look for candidates of color. We look for non-traditional journalists, i.e. those who may not have come through j-school. And we look for candidates who are explicitly interested in sharing their skills freely and openly with the public.
Since our October 2015 launch, applications to our program have risen steadily. That’s in large part due to our continual community outreach, through our town halls and regular “Reporting in the Open” events. By partnering with local groups, we’re constantly expanding our network and giving due credit to the hard-working organizations that have laid the foundation for civic media in Chicago.We promote our program application through this burgeoning City Bureau network, folks on our newsletter, former City Bureau reporters, Twitter and Facebook, among others. Our last cycle we received 45 applications for 9 openings — we expect more for the Spring cycle.
Each week, our reporting teams mentor and work side-by-side with the young media-makers of our youth media partner organizations. As our Community Engagement Director, Andrea Hart puts it, our youth media partners may not be experienced in professional journalism but they’re often the most experienced in the themes and topics that we cover. We place a high value on mutual learning between our journalists and the youth we work with.
Like our Documenters program, City Bureau’s regular programming is intended to support civic engagement, in politics and everyday life. We want our newsroom to represent the wide variety of voices in Chicago — and to facilitate dialogue and shared experiences between the mainstream and the city’s most marginalized communities. It’s the same theory we bring to our reporting: supporting coverage and voices that otherwise might not get invited to the table.
For those not accepted to the program on any given cycle, we have some sage advice: please apply again! We’ve been fortunate to have more applicants than we could possibly accept for each cycle —and we love it when our repeat reporters stay on board to train newcomers to our program. We encourage all applicants to re-apply as many times as they’d like.
Are you interested in working with City Bureau? Or just interested in talking shop? We’re here to help. Hit us up at email@example.com, fill out our Documenters application or find us online, on Facebook, on Twitter and, as always, here on Medium.
Finding the unexpected at a City Bureau open house
What do you get on a warm summer night when 100+ civic-minded journalists, artists and community folks gather at Chicago’s Experimental Station?
We had a great night at our Summer Open House. (We had gold, limited-edition, variant logo City Bureau buttons at our Summer Open House!) But, more importantly, we saw our reporters step out of their journalistic comfort zones and explore new ways to interact with their audience — from giving presentations to collecting questions via our friends at Hearken to engaging in earnest conversations about issues of critical importance to the city. All in our South Side newsroom.
But one of my personal favorite parts of the night came in a series of 22 moments built around a single prompt—an idea generated and led by our reporters. I’ll let them explain:
Last Friday Aug. 19, City Bureau held its Summer 2016 Reporting Cycle culmination event at 6100 S. Blackstone where attendees visited various interactive booths to learn about the investigations we’ve been working on.
Our team has been researching a story about the promises and failures of community policing in Chicago, and as part of our project, we asked attendees to answer the prompt, “What Should Police Know About You?” People wrote their answers on a bright-colored Post-It, and some participated in our photo essay, writing their thoughts on black-and-white portraits that we printed during the event.
At the beginning, some people were nervous about who would see these answers and whether they’d be judged for them. However, by the time the photo booth closed, 22 black-and-white photos were collected with messages that went beyond “What Should Police Know About You?” People wanted to shatter misperceptions of how they may be perceived on the surface by police.
-Andrea Salcedo and Manny Ramos (City Bureau Summer ‘16 Reporters)
The following series by photographer Maria Cardona is one of many special interactions we found at our Summer Open House—some were curated and most were unexpected, but they’re all helping to guide our approach to journalism, civic engagement and reporting in the open.
The news reports from our Summer reporting teams will be published in the coming days and weeks but I wanted to take a minute to consider the unfiltered words of the friends, family, partners and followers who stopped by our newsroom August 19 to celebrate the work of our current cohort and the future of our public newsroom.
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 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.
When Donald Trump announced Monday that his campaign would revoke all press credentials to the “phony and dishonest” Washington Post, I was not surprised. The newspaper that took down Richard Nixon joins a growing list of publications that the presumptive GOP nominee deems unfit to question him.
No politician embodies the hatred of journalists more blatantly—and proudly—than Trump. (“You’re a sleaze because you know the facts, and you know the facts well,” he said last month to an ABC reporter.) But more alarmingly, it’s not just Trump. Corporate CEOs, public officials on both sides of the aisle, and private citizens routinely discredit journalists in order to push whatever skewed “truth” is convenient for them. The news media has been the public’s punching bag for so long, it’s a common joke that the only people who are trusted less in this country than politicians are journalists themselves. (At last check, TV news and newspapers hold less public confidence than the Supreme Court or the presidency, but rank higher than the abysmally low Congress.) In a climate where few people are willing to stand up for the media, it’s not hard to see how the rich and powerful are quashing news organizations that dare to tell stories that displease them.
People may recognize the importance of press freedom and the First Amendment in theory, but in practice, too many are content to “blame the media” and leave it at that. (I won’t get into the problematic grouping of all so-called “media” together into one hateful blob—not today, at least.) And while I do think news organizations don’t get nearly as much credit as they should—I mean, did you hear about how the AP shut down an entire slavery ring last year?—that doesn’t mean it’s enough to rest on our laurels.
In the neighborhoods where City Bureau works, many people are distrustful of journalists. But we are building a new kind of newsroom that prioritizes community in a way that not only improves our reporting, it gets people engaged and invested in the news we produce. We are going to places of civic engagement — schools, community centers, youth organizations—and hosting town halls to directly solicit feedback and facilitate discussion about the news. We are working with researchers to find out how our communities receive and share information. And, we are recruiting people from within the communities to tell their own stories — some who aspire to be full-time journalists and some who simply want to document life in their neighborhoods.
“Community” journalism sometimes gets a bad rap, because it evokes an image of unmonitored message boards, hearsay, and pet pictures. But it doesn’t have to be that way. City Bureau is providing resources and guidance for our Documenters to attend public meetings and write reflections so there is a record of a community event that otherwise would go unnoted. For those who are interested in professional journalism, we offer paid internships and fellowships so people can test the waters. All of our stories are vigorously vetted and edited, and many end up in mainstream news outlets, to the benefit of all parties.
We hope this strategy will produce a cumulative effect, not only so that our reporting can impact public policy and improve the lives of our readers, but so that our readers feel a greater sense of agency in effecting change themselves. This, in turn, can help fuel public trust in the media in a way that ensures the community will have watchdogs for years to come.
Journalists are hemorrhaging the public trust, and we need to invest significant resources to stanch the wound now. We know it’s not easy: Our industry has been squeezed to the point where once-storied newsrooms are scraping by on 1/3 staff while trying to cover the largest mass shooting in American history. Small town papers barely have enough money to stay in business, much less file lawsuits to ensure police departments release documents that are and should be public. These are slim times. But the matter is urgent: the more public trust we lose, the fewer resources we have to rebuild it; before long, it will be too late.
We strongly believe the news media must remind its readers, every day, why its own existence is indispensable to the people in its community. That reminder doesn’t necessarily have to be a published story. It could be a workshop, or a visit to a community meeting, or just a casual conversation while we’re waiting for the same always-late bus. And we’ll keep doing it until every citizen on the South and West Sides knows who we are. So when someone says “blame the media,” people won’t think of someone sitting in an ivory tower, or a nameless behemoth—they’ll remember a friendly face or a useful story and reject that oversimplistic, dangerous statement. So that when someone wealthy and powerful tries to tear us down, we have a whole community to hold us up.
City Bureau put a landmark 200-page Chicago report on the free platform formerly known as Rap Genius
Critics of the Chicago Police Department’s misconduct record and accountability mechanisms cheered when it appeared the mayor’s handpicked Police Accountability Task Force didn’t pull any punches. The Task Force issued a scathing 200-page report that accused the police force of widespread racism and impunity.
There was just one problem — it was the sixth such report submitted upon request to the city’s mayor and lawmakers, and few of those prior reforms were ever passed. In fact, many of the measures proposed in this most recent iteration were recommended in each previous report as well (in 1898, 1912, 1963, 1972, 1997, and now, 2016, to be exact).
So…How Are We Changing the Pattern?
This repetition of recommendations raises an obvious question: Why does this keep happening? Why isn’t the city acting on informed recommendations that could improve the daily lives of so many residents? And, while Mayor Emanuel has vowed to enact more than two dozen of the most recent reforms (reflected in this update to the Task Force Tracker), what role will residents play in implementation?
These questions are at the core of our Task Force Tracker — or #TaskForceTracker, to the social-media inclined. And they make up the foundation of what we hope to demonstrate: namely, that civic engagement is part transparency, part education, and part action. We wanted to create a tool that could break the dense report into easily searchable and understandable sections, adding information to give everyday citizens context about the issue while tracking any movement to actually implement the change.
With that in mind, City Bureau partnered with the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology, and the Invisible Institute, a journalistic production company on the South Side of Chicago, to research and annotate every single recommendation made in the mayoral-backed Task Force report — a total of around 200 individual recommendations on a range of reform topics ranging from Community and Youth Relations to Mental Health Responsiveness to Civilian Police Monitoring, and beyond.
On April 15, 2016, we formed a team of what we call “Community Documenters” — a group of five journalists, lawyers, students and the civically inclined — through funding from Smart Chicago. The deal: we’d pay each of our Documenters to work 25 hours across 5 days. By the end of that five-day period, we’d finish what we had dubbed the Task Force Tracker, “an annotated, updated and crowdsourced analysis of Chicago’s 2016 Police Accountability Task Force report.”
Who Are We, Again?
Let’s back up. We are reporters and educators with City Bureau, a journalism lab based based on the the South and West sides of Chicago. City Bureau aims to support civic media through training, exploration, and the production of top-notch journalism. We achieve our ends through our curriculum, regular town halls that engage marginalized communities and partnerships with a range of community groups, youth media organizations, civic tech foundations, and journalism outlets. In short, we bring reporters and media-makers of diverse backgrounds and skill levels together in a collaborative process of production and mutual education in order to tell stories that wouldn’t otherwise be heard. We began our first programs in October of 2015 and have since published over 30 stories in local and national media outlets, including the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Reporter, Chicago Magazine, DNAinfo Chicago, and the Guardian US. (You can read more about our workhere, here, and here.)
Our nascent Community Documenters program operates outside of our publication cycle and allows our group to take on projects and partners that respond to current needs and developments in our city. That’s the same responsive, flexible ideology that gave rise to the Tracker in the first place. A conversation with Smart Chicago led to funding for hires, and our collaboration with the Invisible Institute led to legal support and insight.
From there, our journalists brought their A-game.
How Does the Task Force Tracker Work?
For five days in April, a half-dozen Documenters combed through research, reports, databases, news sources, city contracts, local/statewide legislation and collective bargaining agreements. They also conducted interviews. Together, they amassed a collection of information that spanned connections between relevant (and often conflicting) groups such as the city’s police union, the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Police Board, the city’s Independent Police Review Authority, along with national models that provide context and alternatives to both. To streamline our process, each of our Documenters worked on a single, shared (and publicly available) spreadsheet:
Our nine-page Excel sheet noted page numbers, precedents, relevant legislation, media accounts, collective bargaining agreements and similar reforms in other cities for each recommendation.
Most importantly, we used Genius (formerly known as Rap Genius) to achieve our desired effect. Our goals were succinct:
collect and organize large amounts of information on a source document,
allow everyday people to collaborate and add their own thoughts, experiences and insight and,
democratize that process while giving it the greatest reach (ex: anyone can open and operate a free Genius account and each individual annotation can be shared via social media).
The folks at Genius were more than willing to help with the effort. They offered tech support via their News Genius team, inside tips on how to best annotate a large document, and helped spread the word (thanks Stephen, Leah, and Nat!)
There are currently more than 200 annotations posted on the Task Force Tracker using Genius, a free and public annotation tool formerly known as Rap Genius.
In the first week after the Tracker’s launch, the tool saw more than 1000 unique views.
Since then, dozens of annotations and comments have been added.
Thanks to people who saw its potential early on, the Tracker quickly drew the attention of other civic practitioners, foundations, journalists, educators and certain unnamed city officials — some who were involved in the very creation of the Task Force Report and others who sit at the top levels of policymaking in Chicago.
In April, City Bureau Documenter and independent journalist Adeshina Emmanuel published an article with Chicago Magazine that used the Tracker to describe “how state law protects police contract provisions blasted by the Task Force.”
Last month, the Tracker got a shout out at the Knight Foundation’s #infoneeds conference, which was attended by the country’s leading funding organizations (including our primary funder, the McCormick Foundation)
We believe that improving the lives of everyday people and bridging the information gap requires an engaged and informed population across racial, social, class, gender and geographical divides.
It also requires a consistent push. The Tracker was created with the latter goal front-and-center, i.e. even after media attention on police accountability has waned, how do we, as journalists and Chicagoans, preserve acquired knowledge into the future, keep pressure on city officials and make it easy for people to access public tools?
Simply put, we’d like to see folks continue to add annotations, and comment on annotations that have already been added. We’d like to see educators use the Tracker in schools. We’d like to see more elementary and high school students engage with the information on a personal level. We’d like to see journalists continue to cite the details we’ve gathered. And we’d like to see lawyers use that same information to inform their cases.
These aren’t easy asks, surely, but we’ve already seen the process begun — there’s no reason the effort can’t be tracked and sustained.
Eighth graders using the #TaskForceTracker at Westside Writing Project in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.
Any organization can apply the same tactic to public tools of their own design — no tech smarts required. What would it look like for a news outlet to file FOIA requests for emails from city officials related to a city’s most pressing issues — then use Genius to annotate those materials, drawing connections between actions and words where, seemingly, none existed? Or, at a basic level: can a class of 9th grade digital natives better understand the inner workings of their school by annotating governing documents — turning a set of obscure words and phrases into meaningful applications to their daily lives using a platform as simple and familiar as a re-purposed app like Rap Genius?
The answer to these questions is a resounding yes. So, consider the Tracker a demonstration — of the many ways that journalism, civics and tech can intersect and innovate to support shifting power dynamics. By producing on-the-ground reporting, investigative journalism and public tools, like the Task Force Tracker, we believe we can keep context alive.
City Bureau’s Spring Cycle is running on all cylinders now, so we wanted to take some time to reflect upon the lessons we learned from this Fall & Winter, and what we have tweaked about our program for our second go-around.
Information for this post was first shared in the Crowd-Powered News Network. If you work in community journalism, we encourage you join — there are so many great ideas shared there.
We are learning a lesson in humility when it comes to community building and dialogue facilitation. As journalists, we’re more skilled at directing a conversation and getting to the hard issues than letting community dialogue run free. It is definitely a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, and we have committed ourselves at becoming better at that — luckily, we work with partners who have experience in the matter. Going forward, we are hoping for more interactivity and more transparency in our town halls to help people feel comfortable with sharing and participating. I think our attention to the small-group discussion sets us apart from other similar town halls that focus on large groups and lecture formats, so we are committed to continuing that.
We will start going to community groups where they are, instead of just inviting them to come to us. In our first 2 meetings, we planned the events on our own and reached out to a long list of community organizations to attend. While that was successful enough, and it attracted a decent number of people, we decided we had limited the people at our events by those who “self selected” and took the time to venture to us. In the coming months, starting March 19 with the West Side Writing Project, we will partner with groups within the communities to co-host our events so community members will be attending a meeting with a group they already trust/know rather than taking a chance on a brand new organization like ours. We hope this strategy will help us build trust and a following. If you are involved with a neighborhood group that is interested in hosting a (free) City Bureau workshop, please reach out!
(Addendum: After hosting our town hall in Austin with WWWP, we have embarked on a Saturday series of events to be held at Sankofa Cultural Center in Austin, starting April 23. Follow us on Facebook for updates.)
Hands-on service-oriented portions of the event are helpful and entice people to come. After holding two large group discussions about police complaints and how Chicago Police handle the complaint system, the suggestion from community members was simple: Help us file complaints. We teamed with lawyers at the Invisible Institute to provide this simple service alongside our ongoing conversations. In journalism, the “takeaway” of a story is a message. In town halls, we can actually give attendees something tangible, like access to someone or something they can’t get elsewhere.
Hearken/soliciting feedback is essential to completing the engagement cycle.We are new users of Hearken but already have gotten some great submissions. We also find that having it available is a good way to follow up with people who attend our events — beyond just an email that says “follow us on FB!” or blindly soliciting feedback. Especially in Chicago, where there is a group of young activists who is wary of the media, we are getting them interested/engaged by inviting them into our reporting process. It also keeps people coming back to us instead of just saying “hey this is cool!’ and forgetting. Right now, policing is a hot topic in Chicago, so we are lucky to get a core group of stalwarts who are very opinionated and engaged in the issues. We’re hoping that with consistent engagement, we can get those people to spread the word to their own networks, to reach people who perhaps aren’t as naturally inclined to civic participation. In some ways, that’s become the holy grail for community outreach — attracting people who didn’t even know they’d be interested in what we do.
We are so grateful to our community partners for helping us to learn and grow at such a rapid rate. What we’re finding in Chicago, above all, is a latent desire for more community engagement and better, people-centered journalism. A lot of groups are doing impressive work, and for us, it’s a matter of bringing people together and using our strengths to bolster each other’s weaknesses — and vice versa. City Bureau, as always, loves to collaborate, so please reach out if you have an idea for a partnership. We’ll look forward to sharing more lessons as we go!
Whether they’re speaking with local activists about why black space matters or investigating the individuals behind Chicago’s police accountability, the City Bureau team has already taken steps towards restoring civic media coverage of the South and West Sides of Chicago through its collaboration with and mentorship of a new generation of young journalists.
Both a neighborhood newsroom and journalism training program, City Bureau wants to regenerate civic media within Chicago’s historically disenfranchised and underreported neighborhoods. Idea Lab recently spoke with City Bureau’s four founders (Darryl Holliday, editorial director; Bettina Chang, editor; Andrea Hart, education director; and Harry Backlund, managing editor) to discuss how the program hopes to accomplish this. Though the founders have worked in different areas of journalism, they have all experienced frustrations with how stories were being produced and distributed. Together, they want to ‘shake up’ the journalism landscape in the Windy City by imagining and testing a new model of reporting.
“We hope the dynamism of the City Bureau newsroom will not only prepare journalists for their future careers, but energize other media outlets to take a new approach to newsmaking.” Bettina Chang
Q & A
Idea Lab: What pushed you and your fellow founders to launch City Bureau?
Harry Backlund / Darryl Holliday: We were all working in different areas of journalism, and we all had frustrations with the kinds of stories that were (and weren’t) being produced, and how they were being distributed, so we started to trace the connections between those areas of frustration. Those conversations turned into a shared sense of potential, a feeling that the ongoing shake-ups in journalism offer an unprecedented opportunity to create better models for reporting, and that we were in a unique position with a real opportunity to try something new.
The guiding principles and many of the specifics of how City Bureau operates have bounced around separately as ideas and in our past projects. Elements of the South Side Weekly, Real Chi Youth, and Illustrated Press, and our individual work as journalists are all present in City Bureau’s model.
IL: Why now?
HB/DH: In a word, crisis. Journalism as a practice hasn’t fully adapted after the economic shifts that destroyed its business model, and as in any crisis there are a lot of resources piling up while the system that connects them adapts.
At the same time, our city is in a moment of transition, and a whole new world of stories is opening up, one that older models of journalism were never very good at telling. As journalists, we’re predisposed to take advantage of the moment, to be objective, and to figure out the human elements that matter most. The City Bureau approach has been to apply that instinct to our own organization. The institutions that sheltered and fostered thoughtful, credible public narrative have largely broken down, so we’re building our own. In many ways our structure is a logical extension of hustling for a good story.
IL: What makes your newsroom different from traditional media outlets in Chicago?
Bettina Chang: City Bureau’s goal is to develop our strategies and strengths outside traditional media circles, then inject our values and stories into traditional media to eventually effect change on the whole industry. We structure the newsroom in a few ways that differ from others — first, by putting community first. We hold regular events to engage residents in our reporting process, from the point of developing a story idea, to finding sources and refining the narrative, to the final release of the piece. We also encourage collaboration among our reporters — it’s uncommon to find just one byline or contributing reporter on a City Bureau story. Our reporters are at all different levels in terms of skill sets, so they work together and teach each other, whether they’re out filming an interview or formulating a story idea. That taste for collaboration exists on an institutional level, too — we love partnering with other civic groups and publications who are open to trying something new and exciting in the community media space. We hope the dynamism of the City Bureau newsroom will not only prepare journalists for their future careers, but energize other media outlets to take a new approach to newsmaking.
IL: Were there any existing community newsrooms or models that inspired City Bureau?
HB/DH: Oh man, there are a bunch, and we keep collecting more. Probably the most important to mention is that we have a lot of respect for the old school newsroom as a workplace and a culture, and we think of City Bureau as a renewal of those principles in a new era. Darryl and Bettina have both previously worked at several mainstream publications, including legacy and start-up outlets. Andrea has worked with youth-oriented nonprofits working in media education, and her work has put pedagogy and process front and center. Harry worked in local publishing with the South Side Weekly, which converted a former student paper into a community newspaper, and that experience showed us the viability of the educational model. The basic framework of combining educational opportunity with a careful editing process, and using that potential to both cover stories that wouldn’t otherwise be written took a lot of influence from those projects.
One idea that was important early on was a feeling that a city needs many different kinds of media. Neighborhood papers and ethnic press bring an invaluable local perspective. Public interest watchdog reporting keeps us all accountable. Longform narrative writing has the power to totally change how a reader understands an issue and commercial news, for all its faults, needs to be acknowledged for its deep impact on public conversations.
But elsewhere, the economy around journalism can appear grim at times. Lack of diversity in newsrooms is nothing short of systemic and communities of color feel left out of the conversation. Students can pay $60,000 in pure tuition for a graduate degree in journalism, and then work several unpaid internships, only to take a position with mediocre pay at an under-resourced newsroom where they don’t have time to tell stories they believe in. City Bureau is an extended response to the question of what it would look like if journalism education were truly public. In practice that’s a lot to ask, but as an ideal it keeps us honest.
IL: From your perspective, how does City Bureau compensate for other outlets’ shortcomings? How is your approach different?
BC: At the Tribune and Sun Times, revenues are down and both newspapers faced major editorial cutbacks in recent years. We work in communities where overworked/underpaid/under-resourced reporters and publications in traditional media lack a foothold.. So City Bureau was born in part to reinvigorate coverage in these areas. With support from our funders, plus the resources/ relationships we have developed in these areas among other civic groups, we are able to train and provide resources to journalists who live and work on the South and West sides, many of whom are minorities and/or from low income backgrounds. These journalists bring invaluable expertise and perspective that ensure fair, balanced and in-depth coverage of the important issues facing marginalized communities in Chicago — plus they have a fuller understanding of the vibrancy and diversity of experience in these neighborhoods than a reporter who might visit once or twice a month.
Most importantly, not only do we hope to fill that gap in the short term, in the long term, we hope to make a change in the media landscape so that such coverage becomes an indispensable part of mainstream media. We hope that some of our trainees will eventually join traditional newsrooms and create change from within.
IL: The program focuses on students from the South and West sides of Chicago. Do you anticipate City Bureau greatly amplifying the voices of those from historically disenfranchised parts of the city? Up until this point, how successfully have traditional outlets represented these communities?
Andrea Hart: We want to amplify and integrate these voices into the city’s narrative in the hopes of deconstructing problematic narratives imposed on the city’s South and West sides. It should come as no surprise that there are young folks in these neighborhoods who are incredibly capable of telling stories about police misconduct that are layered and living. They have a right to access media production just as they have the right to access beneficial educational resources. City Bureau is creating a space where that access is combined. For various reasons traditional outlets fail to accurately represent these communities — in part because they are caught in longstanding stereotypical narratives and also because of limited capacity. Unless they are actively working against it, newsrooms can be complicit in historically discriminatory policies. Just as we are seeing a need for cultural sensitivity training amongst Chicago police, this is something that could also be useful in media outlets.
IL: At its core, you say City Bureau is a journalism lab that provides hands on training for student journalists. What will you be teaching these young journalists? Is there anything you wish you were taught before pursuing a career as a journalist?
AH: Our training approach is rooted in the foundations of journalism as well as the context of our location. The goal is to not only help students develop skills but to also get an understanding of hyperlocal civics. And in that regard it’s not just the students learning–everyone at every level is participating in an exchange of knowledge. Whether it’s better understanding these communities or better understanding how to use Final Cut X — it all matters. Having students understand they are working within a network of resources both human and not is also a way to expand their social capital. Two of us have gone through Medill (Bettina and Andrea) at a time when there was fear and uncertainty around tools like Twitter, blogs, etc. Instead of being apprehensive about new technology, we think a critical openness and willingness to experiment are essential to training. Also, if you are going to try to get into more “social justice” (however you define that) journalism it’s important to understand what assumptions you are carrying or who you are attempting to speak for that might already be able to speak for herself.
IL: How does the program actually work? What does your newsroom look like?
DH: The program works by bringing journalists of different ages and skill levels together to work in teams that help guide and teach each other. City Bureau is set up in a 3-track structure that includes high school-aged mediamakers, college-aged reporters and early career/independent reporters — all of which have opportunities to learn from each other throughout each cycle. By putting these reporters in teams led by our early career journalists, experience and knowledge is shared freely across the pipeline. Our founding group leads the newsroom and curriculum, where our reporters are assigned research reports and story assignments, learn journalism 101 skills (from man-on-the-street interviews to the art of FOIA) and attend educational workshops led by other working journalists. For our pilot cycle, we’re reporting around the Citizens Police Data Project, a new interactive database of more than 56,000 Chicago police misconduct complaints. Future cycles will tackle similar issues that are of utmost importance to the city as a whole, and the South and West sides of Chicago in particular.
A second and equally important aspect of the program centers around our public town halls, hosted in partnership with Illinois Humanities. At these “reporting back” events, City Bureau journalists interact with communities that are often marginalized in media coverage in order to seek input and dialogue around their reporting through presentations and small group discussions.
The final portion of our work uses our in-house editing process and connections in the media industry to direct City Bureau’s publication-ready stories to larger outlets in Chicago and around the country — stories we’ve published in the Chicago Reader,The Chicago Reporter, DNAinfo Chicago and The Guardian are some of our earliest examples. This serves several purposes: bylines for our reporters to show how their work can have immediate and powerful effects on public discourse; support for young journalists that may one day soon intern and/or work at such publications as well as the creation and distribution of high-quality content directly informed by marginalized communities in Chicago.
IL: Right now, how are you funding City Bureau? How does it hope to sustain itself in the long term?
HB: The first few months have been a pilot project supported, in part, through funding from Illinois Humanities as part of theirReporting Back program. We also just received a planning grant of $25,000 from the McCormick Foundation, which we expect to put towards new start-up costs and some improvements to the newsroom, and we’re starting the conversation about funding with other foundations as well.
Over the long term we believe City Bureau can be sustainable through a mix of syndication and other business revenue, and nonprofit revenue from private foundations and the general public.
The revenue model reflects our mission. We know from experience that good journalism needs space and resources, and that the market is nowhere near as supportive of that as it used to be, but we also want to avoid a space where journalism becomes charity. “In the market but not of it” is phrase that has bounced around in our meetings before. We want to keep skin in the game, but we also want to effect a change in the rules.
IL: City Bureau also wants to test and prove new business models for local journalism. What do you think are the biggest challenges local journalists face right now? How will City Bureau address these challenges?
BC: As a group, we’re incredibly cognizant of the challenges facing local journalists. Each one of us has worked in a different capacity for different local outlets — from indie media, to nonprofit media to traditional newspapers. One challenge for local outlets is the ability to develop talent in racially and socioeconomically diverse populations. It’s very hard to be a journalist now without a college degree or a few unpaid internships under your belt. Another major challenge is that local residents rarely see fit to pay for good local journalism. Decades of advertiser-supported journalism have conditioned people into thinking that journalism is free or cheap. Now that the quality of reporting has fallen, especially in disenfranchised neighborhoods, people are starting to take note and demand better.
Our program seeks to both lower the cost for traditional outlets to produce good reporting in these neighborhoods (by training journalists capable of that work, and preparing them for full-time jobs), and to increase the demand for it, through the relationships and connections being drawn at our town hall meetings and between our reporters and their communities. There has been evidence at the national level that increasing the diversity of viewpoints in journalism can increase the value (in page views and social shares) of content. Anecdotally thus far, we’ve seen that readers are responding well at a local level to our stories and that we are providing value to the outlets where we syndicate.