After four years we’ve moved from experimentation to practice and realize it’s time to define ourselves for ourselves.

By Andrea Hart

Participants at a Public Newsroom (Photo: Caroline Olsen)

Participants at a Public Newsroom (Photo: Caroline Olsen)

Since the beginning, City Bureau has prioritized bringing people together as vehicle for reimagining local news. We didn’t launch with a breaking story. We began with a town hall, ready to listen. As City Bureau grows from an infancy, start-up phase into a full-fledged organization—and, as the journalism industry shifts to be more “engaged”—we found ourselves asking the question, what does “engaged journalism” actually mean through the lens of our mission? We feel it’s critical to define our work so as to not be “be crunched into other people’s fantasies,” to paraphrase Black, feminist, lesbian, poet mother, warrior, Audre Lorde from her speech “Learning from the 60s”.

We decided our first step was to establish community engagement guidelines. We believe that the guidelines below give shape to our collective work so far and define entry points for those wanting to join. But this list isn’t set in stone nor is it intended to be used punitively. We view these guidelines as a beginning, as soil. We want to see what will grow from holding ourselves accountable to these six principles. Much like tending a garden, we’ll be observing what needs weeding, watering or adding new ingredients in the mix. An example, in nonprofit speak—what professional development opportunities will we identify to help us move forward toward these aspirations?

We spent the last couple of months vetting these guidelines with our community (staff, Documenters, Reporting Fellows, etc.), and we’re publishing them publicly for the first time below. In the spirit of engagement, we expect that they will continue to iterate based on dialogues we’re having.

Note that the version below is a static version published on the date we made this announcement in June 2019. You can find the living version here, which includes an annotation function where we’ve linked the people and groups that have inspired us, as well as an evolving reading list for those who’d like to learn more.

At City Bureau we define community engagement as any interaction with the people we not only serve but work with. To ensure our engagement approach both reckons with traditional journalism’s violent past and creates a future where journalism belongs to everyone, we’ve developed the following guidelines:   

  1. We believe community engagement is a pillar of journalism—it’s not a tool, single job, one-off project or a means to saving traditional news institutions.

  2. We believe authentic community engagement takes time, intentionality and space to evolve. We resist rushing this process and will not operate on timelines that don’t accommodate our community.

  3. We cultivate relationships, not transactions. The status quo is extractive reporting and has led to distrust between the public and journalists, dehumanizing the interaction between community and media. We believe journalism should cultivate a network of relationships that generates accountability and shares resources.

  4. We take an asset-oriented approach to our work. We honor and acknowledge that there are existing communities with resources that we can learn from and skills that journalists should share in return. This practice helps to build civic wealth and makes local information systems more resilient.

  5. We produce work that is non-dominant (democratic in its nature) and non-binary (resisting a single truth or narrative). To combat journalism’s history of paternalism and white supremacy, often dressed as objectivity, we must unlearn the notion of a singular truth.

  6. We don’t empower communities, we create space for interconnected learning and the expression of communal power.

The combined guidelines humanizes our work and ensures our newsroom acts fluid as an organism, not rigid as a machine.

(If you’d like to add your own comments to our list of guidelines, please make sure to visit this page, highlight a section using your cursor and click on the annotate button that pops up. This blog captures the announcement of these guidelines and will not be updated.)

You may have noticed that our list is significantly inspired by and rooted in movement work that has been happening in youth media and organizing spaces for decades. Why? Because we see our approach to local news as connected to the larger movement to make all public goods (like education, health, parks) more equitable, accessible and community-centered.

And to explain what the above has looked like tangibly, I wanted share some highlights of how these guidelines have manifested in our programs. (I’m skipping Guideline 1 because it’s inherent in all of these examples.)

Participant at a Public Newsroom. Photo by Caroline Olsen

Participant at a Public Newsroom. Photo by Caroline Olsen

  • Guidelines 2 and 3: A spring reporting fellowship team that focused on Black maternal health developed multiple ways of listening including The Cord, “a free resource via SMS text for pregnant women, mothers and anyone looking for resources on pregnancy and motherhood in Chicago.” By taking the time to do this deep listening, they identified information needs and experts that could help fill them during a Public Newsroom workshop in early May. Read more about the team’s engagement efforts here.

  • Guideline 4:  Our Documenters program is designed to encourage participants to exchange critical cultural knowledge they have of the neighborhoods they live in. For example, Cordell Longstreath who was born in Englewood and is an active member of R.A.G.E. (Resident Association of Greater Englewood). At the trainings Cordell has had the opportunity to exchange important historical and contextual information about Englewood with other Documenters. In turn, after Documenting public meetings, he shares that information with R.A.G.E. or other potential participants in the area.

  • Guidelines 5 and 6: The Public Newsroom spent most of May and one week in April working with residents around Chicago to design a new local news contract. One workshop was co-hosted with The Gate Newspaper at MONARCA Place 7 in Back of the Yards. The 25 attendees—from a former preacher to a longtime activist— were asked to identify the challenges they see with how local news currently covers Back of the Yards and what they’d like to see change. No single person’s ideas carried more or less weight than another’s, regardless of title. We drew connections between their ideas and designed solutions like, “We expect local newsrooms to invest in their relationship with the community.” The Gate has published and promised to adopt all the declarations generated, and some attendees even volunteered to be part of the changes by freelancing for the paper.

Our next steps will be to design evaluation methods that reflect these guidelines for our programs for the next five months. In November we’ll be hosting a convening with our community to reflect on these guidelines and more. We thank all those who influenced this list and look forward to keeping the conversation going. If you have questions or suggestions please feel free to leave a comment on the guidelines or shoot us an email at

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