A Chicago-based non-profit is aiming to redefine what local media means by working with communities to democratise journalism skills and encourage civic participation.

Based in the South Side of Chicago, City Bureau's work with people in the area is split across three programmes: a paid 10-week fellowship where journalists of all skills and levels report on issues of interest to the community; a 'documenters' strand, where anyone can apply to document events in the public interest and receive journalism training to do so; and the public newsroom, a free weekly workshop where journalists and readers get together to discuss and share resources.

City Bureau was founded as a non-profit civic journalism lab in 2015 by Darryl Holliday, Andrea Hart, Bettina Chang and Harry Backlund, who wanted to tackle some of the issues in their fields of expertise, including journalism, publishing and education. They focused on addressing some of the gaps in the local media landscape in Chicago, such as the lack of diversity in newsrooms and the lack of representative coverage, and find a business model that could serve these initiatives.

Community events as part of journalists' role

With support from the McCormick Foundation, City Bureau first launched its reporting fellowship two years ago, for people who can't afford unpaid internships to learn from experienced journalists and report on big-picture stories or investigations in their communities.

There are three 10-week cycles per year, with each cycle training 10 reporters. City Bureau also partners with a variety of local and national news organisations to re-publish stories produced by the fellows or who are interested in collaborating on stories.

"More and more so we are also encouraging [fellows] to consider what it means for journalists to do the reporting, but hold community events or workshops where the reporting is front and center but there's more of a face-to-face approach with the areas we are covering," editorial director Darryl Holliday told Journalism.co.uk.

"I want to elevate being able to hold a meeting on the same level as being able to do an investigative story. I want them to be thinking of options broadly, and to include direct contact and information sharing as part of their role as journalists."

In the previous fellowship cycle, City Bureau took over a special issue of the volunteer newspaper located in their building, the Southside Weekly, to talk about lead poisoning in Chicago.

Fellows produced investigations, features, illustrations and graphics on the topic, but they also hosted three community forums to "give more life" to the data and information they had gathered and talk about solutions.

Reporters often use a tool called GroundSource to start conversations with people on the topics they cover, and they gather feedback at the early stages of working on a story through the Bureau's public newsroom.

The public newsroom consists of free weekly workshops open to members of the public, with speakers ranging from journalists to artists and other people who "have thoughts on media and how it relates to community".

During the workshops, attendees can discuss issues affecting the community but also learn reporting skills, such as finding and analysing public data or using the Freedom of Information Act.

Democratising journalism skills

The 'documenters' strand is City Bureau's most recent initiative, training members of the public and paying them to document public meetings and events around the city. The 250 documenters in the organisation's network come from a mix of backgrounds, and their ages range from 16 to 69.

The team has created meeting templates which documenters use to take notes at different events, and the information they gather becomes useful data for the stories the fellows are working on.

"The goal is to democratise journalistic skills. As journalists, we have a lot of skills and some of them can be delegated, whether that's note taking, interviewing, using your phone as an audio recorder, or learning about FOIA."

In June, City Bureau received funding from the Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund to build a platform to better manage its documenters. The platform will scrape the websites of local councils and other institutions where public meetings are held, and put them into a calendar that can also be used by other newsrooms. It will also enable the team to assign people more easily to cover metings, with the goal of ultimately making the information they gather open-source.

"The idea of this programme is can we have a person in the community documenting every single public meeting in Chicago? I think the answer is yes. And can we know about each of these meetings? The answer is also yes."

Aside from its 250 documenters, City Bureau has trained 60 reporters in the last two years, and has a network of about 700 people across its public newsroom group on Facebook and its Slack channel.

Its team consists of two people working full-time (all the founders are still involved, some on a part-time basis) and the organisation is primarily supported through foundation grants, although Holliday said they are looking at additional revenue streams, such as memberships.

"There is traditional impact like 'our story got the mayor fired' or 'X resigned because we unearthed a scandal' and those are entirely valuable, that's a core function of good journalism," Holliday added.

"For City Bureau, it's more about sharing our resources, our skills and our reporting in a way that encourages and empowers people to engage in civic events themselves.

"I am less interested in City Bureau forcing the mayor to resign than I am in empowering communities to figure out what they want from that mayor."

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