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A Media Model For Chicago

Notes, tweets and worksheets on envisioning a thriving media landscape, from City Bureau’s Public Newsroom #33

First things first, if you missed our Thursday, August 31, Public Newsroom, you can now listen in each week via our audio livestream (Public Newsroom Radio, anyone?). Join us live on the digital airwaves or bookmark this page for later listening:


Last night’s workshop was a long time in the making. Our invitation to the public went like this:

Chicago media is in a moment of transition. The Chicago Sun-Times is under new ownership, local nonprofit and community news outlets are working for change on the ground as national outlets move to the city, and foundations are seeking to stabilize a fractured media ecosystem.

At City Bureau, we believe a thriving media ecosystem is key to an informed citizenry, but solutions to our collective challenges will require diverse voices, ideas and input. #PublicNewsroom #33 is one of many places where this conversation will take place.

And it did. Nearly 50 journalists, editors, community members, students and freelancers stopped by our South Side newsroom to hear Sheila Solomon (Rivet Radio, Democracy Fund, formerly of the Chicago Tribune), Scott Smith (Digital and Social Strategist, formerly of Touchvision) and Blanca Rios (ABC7 and NAHJ Chicago chapter president) discuss sustainable media models, newsroom diversity and Chicago’s local media ecosystem.


As always, we kicked the night off by having our audience introduce themselves and tell the crowd why they came from across the city to spend time at our space. This portion of the night takes a minute but, honestly, it’s worth every second—it breaks the ice and puts audience members on the same plane as panelists. (Not to mention, it allows attendees to more easily identify connections between each other, and, if they choose, to share contact information after the event.)

We eventually got down to business.

Blanca Rios, Sheila Solomon, Scott Smith and Darryl Holliday

I started by posing a general question to the panel to get our collective creative thoughts flowing: “When you think of media models that Chicago needs to thrive, where do your thoughts go?”

Meanwhile, City Bureau’s lead editor Bettina Chang started a thread that you can follow here:


I can’t thank our panelists enough for their readiness to go in on the issues—and our audience for sharing so many questions and insights throughout the conversation.

The first eye-opening moment came via a question from Rivet Radio’s Sheila Solomon:


The response was telling. Of a diverse group of ~50 people in the room, less than a handful raised their hands when asked if they feel represented in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. It’s a point Blanca Rios raised not just in terms of audience, but also in the highest levels of newsroom staffing:


While alarming, this isn’t news on the South Side of Chicago. In many ways, City Bureau was founded as an infrastructural and solutions-based response to this core issue which, to us, involves a few key points: 1) a lack of community trust in media, 2) a lack of equitable reporting on the part of news outlets, and 3) a traditional gate-keeper approach that doesn’t acknowledge the boons of providing direct services around information and engagement.


At the same time, our panelists agreed that an insistence on labeling Chicago a “two-paper town” is flawed in itself. It doesn’t reflect the many community, ethnic and alternative presses that currently exist on Chicago’s media landscape:


Some folks in the audience agreed:


While Public Newsroom #33 tackled issues of resource distribution for existing and incoming nonprofit news outlets via foundation support, we kept coming back to public support as a means of decreasing reliance on “power” and special interests:


Our panelists and audience had clearly spent time thinking on this:

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As we’ve noted in past blogs and events, this last point is in many ways the question that launched City Bureau:


While we value our expert panelists for their insight, experience and time spent with our team, my personal favorite portion of each #PublicNewsroom event is the workshop. For this event, we had our panelists join the audience for small-group discussions.

This included filling out a worksheet, which serves two functions: 1) to help attendees explore their media consumption habits and and how that connects with their daily lives, 2) to provide us with vital data and information that helps us refine our work and events.

As always, we saved time at the end of the night for each group to share out their discussions to the full group for further reflection:

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Overall, feedback from Public Newsroom #33 was earnest and affirming—City Bureau Community Engagement Director Andrea Faye Hart may have summed it up best:


Some last housekeeping notes:

To follow our reporting and engagement efforts, join our twice-a-month newsletter for updates. Reporting and free community-based events like this is brought to you by a staff of experienced and emerging local journalists working collaboratively to share skills, stories and information in your community. Subscribers are vital to continue our mission.

To support our work at any amount, visit our website.

Lastly, for some further reading, please see the material Scott Smith collected during his preparation for our Public Newsroom panel and workshop from folks like Jeff Jarvis, Jack Conte, Texas Tribune and Nieman Lab. We also encourage you to read his Day 2 thread on some of the issues that weren’t raised during our event (to be sure, these are issues we’ll dig deeper on in a #PublicNewsroom continuation of this conversation):

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“Who tells the story of Englewood?”

On May 11, we gathered at Build Coffee for Public Newsroom #17 to talk with Tonika Johnson, an Englewood-based photographer who captures images of Englewood and its residents that challenge typical media narratives about the neighborhood.

See social media posts from our audience below and weigh in here via comments or online using the #PublicNewsroom hashtag. Many thanks to everyone who attended and helped live-tweet from our South Side newsroom—your support helps us continue Public Newsroom conversations with new voices in Chicago.

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After doing full group introductions, we filled out worksheets to get us thinking about insider and outsider perceptions of our own communities.


Then we came up with a list of words usually associated with Englewood. Audience members talked about how perceptions and realities of Englewood compared with perceptions and realities of their own communities.

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Then, Tonika showed some of her photography and talked about her work, especially about how it differed from the previously discussed outsider perspectives of Englewood.

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Then, the audience asked Tonika questions about her photography and discussed strategies for making sure storytelling accurately captures communities. Here are some solutions from our audience:

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Thanks to everyone who came! You can follow Tonika on instagram at @tonikaj or visit her website at Hope to see you soon at the #PublicNewsroom!


How We Hire Our Reporters

Notes on process, inclusion and Chicago’s media ecosystem

For starters, we’d like to lay out our motivation for this post in three parts:

  1. You’ve asked us (thanks for your interest!)
    2) Rather than being a program or initiative; diversity, inclusion and transparency are at the heart of City Bureau’s mission
    3) We’re inspired by the amazing work of our partners and friends (please see “How We Hire Our Youth? An Expose” from the Mikva Challenge Blog and Hearken’s “More Than Fluff: Dismantling Journalism’s Hard News Bias” for some examples from our reading list.)

As we ramp up toward our fifth cycle…

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:

Here are race, age and gender identity demographics of City Bureau reporters from fall 2015 to summer 2016

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.

Beyond the baseline criteria listed above, we leave room for surprise and the unexpected application that makes us rethink our own approach. In our first cycle, former City Bureau reporter Jean Cochrane filed their application in the form of a truly insightful comic that you can read here.

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.

Our reporters span a range of experiences, motivations and productions, from months-long investigations into police in schools to community-centered pieces from in our most under-reported neighborhoods to analysis of the policies that make up our way of life and multimedia storytelling on the everyday people who make up our city. Our reporters are committed to civic journalism from traditional text reporting to public events that showcase the latest skills, styles and ideologies that make up our local media landscape.

So, what’s next?

Applications for our Spring 2017 reporting cycle are open until March 1, and our next cycle starts March 29, in the meantime we’re shaping our paid Documenters program and our Public Newsroom, which offers professional development, workshops, event coverage and other opportunities during and between cycles in partnership with out friends at the South Side Weekly (see our #TaskForceTracker and #IPRAtracker projects for examples of how we plan to employ our Documenters — and see the full application here if you already know you’re interested).

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, fill out our Documenters application or find us online, on Facebook, on Twitter and, as always, here on Medium.

Try, Try Again: Community Engagement Lessons From Our First Cycle

A community member speaks at the Austin town hall in March 2016. (Photo: Michael Key)

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!