Our award-winning Documenters program is shaping a new kind of accountability for local government, from Chicago to São Paulo.

By Darryl Holliday

Photo: Pat Nabong

Photo: Pat Nabong

This summer City Bureau hit a 2019 milestone: $25,000 paid out to a new kind of government watchdog—Chicago Documenters, people just like you. 

Earlier this month, we were honored with an industry award by our peers for that work—the first-ever Online Journalism Award for engaged journalism. We’re proud of both benchmarks because, together, they show that a new kind of direct service journalism is on the horizon—and that news organizations around the country can share the vision.

By the Numbers

For the 518 Chicagoans who we’ve trained to monitor their elected officials since 2016, that’s actionable civic education, free of charge every month at Chicago’s public libraries. For the 101 Documenters we’ve sent out since January to monitor governmental decisions that impact us all, that’s a total of $25,000 toward rent, phone bills, student debt, happy hour drinks and active participation in a new kind of civic engagement. 

City Bureau

City Bureau

For the city of Chicago, that’s 207 public meetings documented and made publicly available in just the first half of this year. The majority of these meetings are not covered by local media—but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be held accountable. Understanding how money is spent, knowing how elected officials cast their votes and scrutinizing legislation before those final votes are taken is all part of a functioning democracy. And it’s all part of the important work Documenters do for the public good.

Storytelling and narrative are powerful but they aren’t the only way we can serve our communities. By equipping many, many more people with the skills to amplify their civic power we’re drafting a new contract between journalists and the public—because news is better when we make it together.

Beyond the Midwest

We built Documenters.org to make government more accessible and equip more people with the kind of civic knowledge and skills that journalists use every day. Since our Documenters web app was launched in January 2019, more than 1,000 people have enrolled to monitor their government in Chicago and Detroit. We’ve also heard from over a dozen cities in North and South America, and the overwhelming consensus is that—though this work was shaped in our beloved Midwest—it shouldn’t be limited to here.

We’re working toward a responsible, sustainable expansion of the Documenters network beyond Chicago. In the meantime, here’s how we plan on capping off 2019 at the sites within our network, and a look at some of the places that have been inspired to create programming based on our work:

  • In Chicago, IL: We’re forging new partnerships with local organizations to help expand access to local government, and we’re researching how to grow our program in more cities while enrolling more Documenters. We’re also building tools and hosting public events to engage our communities. Stay tuned for an updated Documenters.org web app—and, if you’re in Chicago, stop by our next Documenters Orientation on October 30

  • In Detroit, MI: Our second Documenters location began as a pilot in 2018 with local partners at WDET and Citizen Detroit—this year that pilot was expanded through a grant from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. In July, City Bureau and WDET came together to hire Detroit’s first Civic Reporter, who is working with WDET’s newsroom and Detroit Documenters to report on local government in Detroit.

  • In Cleveland and Akron, OH: We’ll be working fall through winter to scrape, standardize and share public meeting locations, dates, times and official records and adding them all to our Documenters.org database. We’ll unveil the additions at Public Newsroom events in both cities later this year, along with a community-focused deep dive into what the people of each city would like us to work on next.

  • In São Paulo, Brazil: We’re working with our sister organization, Énois, to map a Documenters pilot in Brazil. We’re so excited to see how this develops and will update on our progress. For now, we can say that, like Detroit, we hope to better understand local needs and information systems and adapt accordingly—this time in South America.

  • In Wausau, WI; Macon, GA; Pittsburgh, PA: We don’t directly operate Documenters programs in these cities but our work is having an effect. In Pittsburgh, civic coders are making local government more accessible by replicating our City Scrapers code. We’re sharing our work in Macon through a good ol’ fashioned peer exchange. And, in Wausau, a program modeled on Documenters is already underway.

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