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Jan. 11, 2018, 9:47 a.m.
Reporting & Production

It’s not “citizen journalism,” but it is “citizens taking notes at public meetings with no reporters around”

Chicago’s City Bureau is betting on local residents doing this sort of low-key not-quite-journalism at meetings, and now it’s expanding the model to Detroit.

City Bureau is trying to make public hearings matter again — or at least, noted by the public and somewhat reported on — and is bringing its approach to a new city for the first time.

Started on Chicago’s South Side in 2015, the civic media lab — distinct from the fondly remembered Chicago City News Bureau — has been forging a new model in engagement and local journalism. Now they’re piloting their first outreach to a new city with WDET, Detroit’s public radio station, by introducing their Documenters program to get regular residents to pay attention to public information in the Motor City, supported by a $50,000 grant from the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund.

“There are hundreds of public government meetings, from the police board to local school councils, the education board, it goes on. A lot of these meetings are not reported on, and some of that’s through lack of [local reporters] — for example, DNAinfo,” said Darryl Holliday, City Bureau’s co-founder/editorial director and a former DNAinfo Chicago reporter, in explaining the existing setup in Chicago. “A lot of those meetings are not attended by the public. There will be meetings that go on where there’s literally no one there from the public present for these really big decisions that affect us in a lot of different ways. Documenters can be trained, and in our case paid, to go out and document these public meetings for the public.”

Documenters is one of three linchpins to City Bureau’s model, in addition to its reporting fellowships for youth, pre-professional journalists, and mentor journalists and its regular Public Newsroom discussions and trainings on various topics open to anyone. (City Bureau gets funding from a mix of foundational grants, publishing revenue from the reporting fellows’ work — the fellows receive a stipend — and its membership program, of which I as a Chicago native am a monthly supporter.) Documenters emerged in April 2016 as a collaboration between City Bureau and civic tech organization Smart Chicago to sort through hefty documents, such as the city’s police accountability task force report, and other projects that tallied 700 hours of Documenters’ time. But now Holliday and his team are refocusing Documenters toward recording public meetings, offering training and even some payment per hour for Documenters assigned to particular meetings or departments. In documentation of the meetings, they note details such as topics discussed, the amount and affiliations of people present, and the atmosphere of the meeting room.

But don’t expect these attendees to be “citizen journalists.” “Documenters are not journalists. Maybe they want to be journalists, maybe they are journalists, but that’s not why we choose them. They’re going to come in with their own experiences,” Holliday said, explaining why he distances the program from the characterization. “We don’t need to qualify what people do as civic participants with the word ‘journalists.’ We want to support the people acting, engaging, leveraging power on their own terms without having to be journalists if they don’t want to.”

The Chicago Documenters program has 300 participants, aged 16 to 73, with a racial representation close to the city itself — though they’ve only recorded three dozen meetings in two years. Holliday said the past year has been an experimentation phase and they plan to build it out more robustly in 2018 while simultaneously designing and testing the concept in Detroit. Detroit trainings should begin in mid-2018. Also, City Bureau’s collaboration with ProPublica Illinois on an aggregator of public meeting logistics and information has been in the works since mid-2017 and should be open to the public by June, Holliday said. Data from both Chicago and Detroit public meetings will be scraped and hosted on the site, and future locations could be added to the tool in the spirit of bringing the bureau’s model to a city.

Despite the low Documenter/meeting ratio so far, the approach’s low overhead makes it easily adaptable to other cities. “We can begin it with ten Documenters and see how it goes, or we can launch a full Documenters program and see how it grows,” Holliday said, emphasizing that they are not “coming in with something prescriptive.”

“From WDET’s perspective, we are always looking for ways to engage our community and increase our capacity for relevant and impactful local reporting. CityBureau has a proven approach to doing this that is equitable,” said Michelle Srbinovich, WDET’s general manager. “We think it can scale.”

The pilot project will begin with one-on-one interviews with community organizers, community reporters, and other Detroiters already involved in public meetings and/or advocates for public access to information. WDET will also host Public Newsrooms later this year and work with community events and gatherings to spread its impact. “It’s important to us that we are not duplicating efforts and are able to reach people on a neighborhood level who feel underserved, ignored or misrepresented by local media,” Srbinovich added.

We’ve covered WDET’s approach before; the station has had greater success than most other NPR stations attracting younger audiences. (NPR’s median listener age is 54; 30 percent of WDET’s broadcast audience is under 35 and the majority under 45, Srbinovich said in 2016.) She told us then:

I think there’s some perceptions of public radio programming where you just have to pick one: Well, you’re a news station, so you just do news. But how do you get people interested in those stories? In a region like Detroit, that’s been divided economically and racially — and this is historic division, it’s not something new — and now you have new people coming in, people who weren’t living in the city becoming interested in the city.

What’s going to unify those people? A lot of time it’s not the news. The news can be pretty divisive, especially in an election year like the one we’re having now. So how do you create spaces where people can find some common ground? There’s certainly a way to do that with news programming by being conversational and including different perspectives, presenting news in a way that humanizes different people as opposed to just talking about the issue in a traditional way with newsmakers and the powers that be. But even before that, I feel like cultural experiences create more of a social cohesion that makes people realize and have context for who lives here and other people’s realities and finding common ground around music, art, or film and then suddenly paying attention to the issues that you hear about in different ways.

Holliday said that Detroit was the “logical” place for City Bureau’s first growth outside of Chicago, though they’re not ready to fully scale an HQ2. He cited the city’s nearby Midwestern location, segregational strife, and absence of a civic media lab in the urban media environment. “Our mission and our work and our approach fits with the work being done in Detroit,” he said. “There is room for City Bureau to have a good impact and work closely with groups who are already having an impact…[WDET] wants to see us in Detroit and were willing to put in the work.”

The money for the partnership comes from a fund created in March 2017 by the Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, focusing on the inclusion of all voices in telling the story of Detroit’s recovery after bankruptcy. WDET is part of the Detroit Journalism Collective, supported by the Knight and Ford foundations, that was formed in 2013 to cover aftermath of the the city’s bankruptcy. Its members also include Detroit Public Television, Chalkbeat Detroit, and a handful of local ethnic publications from the Detroit Jewish News to Michigan Korean Weekly, making about 2.7 million unique connections with audiences in a metropolitan area with a population of approximately 4.3 million. That’s in addition to the two thrice-weekly-published main newspapers in the city, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News. (Debra Adams Simmons, a 2016 Nieman Fellow, put together a comprehensive executive summary of the area’s journalism landscape for the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund.)

But the city, recovering from the crash of the auto industry that was the cornerstone of the Motor City for decades, is encountering “meeting fatigue” among its residents, according to Holliday and Srbinovich, as group after group has pledged to study and support the deflated metropolis.

So how can City Bureau and WDET convince Detroiters to become Documenters?

“Over the years, residents have told us that they are frustrated by the number of community meetings and listening sessions that are set up to be extractive, meaning the organizers are getting information from residents but not intentional about giving something of value back,” Srbinovich said. “We believe that public meetings should play a role in a healthy democracy, but we don’t assume to know what Detroiters want to see improved on this front. Is there a lack of awareness about public meetings that are happening, a lack of meaningful reporting about what takes place at these meetings, or even a general feeling that the meetings don’t matter? Why? These are the type of questions we’re starting off with.”

“People there are a bit more tired of attending meetings and not seeing anything done,” Holliday said. “But I don’t think anyone’s tried in the way and the direction we’re coming from,” with providing financial and training incentives. “This is important work and it deserves to be compensated accordingly.”

In an era of slowly shrinking public information and disagreements on facts, Holliday is emphatic that showing up to public meetings is as crucial as ever.

“We built the aggregator because we were already seeing hits of that [shrinking accessibility to public information] locally,” he said. “Public meetings are really at the nexus of a lot of issues we talk about as journalists. There’s a place where you as an individual in a society can go and hold your officials accountable face to face.”

Image of an individual speaking at a Detroit field hearing on credit reporting in 2012 is used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 11, 2018, 9:47 a.m.
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