“We believe the crisis in journalism is an unprecedented opportunity to make more democratic media” was one of the opening slides from Andrea Hart and Harry Backlund, two of the four co-founders of City Bureau – a civic journalism organization based in the Southside, our guest speakers on October 22.
We are often curious about how other organizations are looking at meaningful and different ways of engaging communities while doing their work — new tools, new methods, new forms of collaboration and gathering. City Bureau has a super interesting story, one where their work is centered in a collective approach, and an approach that Andrea emphasizes as the “anti-hero”. City Bureau was founded in 2015, and was set to address a structural crisis in journalism very much rooted in four interrelated problems: Inequity and misrepresentation, lack of diverse perspectives in newsrooms, distrust of media within communities of color, and unsustainable media business models.
Andrea and Harry spoke about their strong belief in the value of building a democratic media, and how they are working on buildilng how democratic media looks like in a local scale. And they do so from their headquarters located at Experimental Station in Woodlawn (61st Street and Blackstone) with an intense series of public programs and programming. So, if the question is how democratic media looks like locally, City Bureau’s mission is centered in reimagining local news through new places, inclusive platforms, diverse voices and broader representation of participants in the production of these narratives. And this is how they do it.
One of their first programs was the reporting fellowship, an intense and paid 10-week program (plus year-long for residents) – a kind of public journalism school. This program allowed the young organization to activate and empower a group of invested participants to amplify their voices while creating a community of like-minded individuals contributing to tell the stories of Chicago that were not being told. “Once you enter the City Bureau community, you never really leave it” said Andrea. In many ways, the program is a professional development one, but comes with a big perk: a community. That’s what really impressive — the work that City Bureau does, is not only an investment in teaching technical skills or creating connections and access to networks, but is an emotional investment in those who want to advance equity and representation by challenging current narratives.
Another successful program is the public newsroom, weekly facilitated conversations around media representation. The agreement is that “is always a sworkshop”. With a program like this, City Bureau aim to create a place where people can commit to Chicago. “We pride ourselves on having a community that is generative. One of our core values is that we believe in process, not product”. I remember the first public newsroom that I attended over a year ago. It was being hosted (luckly for me) at a downtown location, in a school. It was a classroom in an upper floor. I remember following the paper signs left and right to get to a classroom where the program was being hosted. I had recently started my research on closed Chicago Public Schools, and this newsroom was about the presence of police in public schools. It was fascinating to see the diversity of participants: parents, educators, students, curiosers (like myself); it was truly an intimate and welcoming scale. I felt I could ask questions, but also provide insights. I think often of scales of engagement, and this was definitely something that felt just right. The public newsroom is currently over its 80th edition, now mostly hosted in their location in Woodlawn, and continues to be a diverse community forum.
Their latest program launched is the documenters – dedicated to documenting public meetings. This program currently has 70% of community areas represented, and hosts training in public libraries. With a group of over 400 documenters and counting, this program will launch during early next year (January 2019) a dashboard to showcase all meetings covered.
Three very distinct programs with different forms of impact, yet all aligned to support the mission of (re)defining civic engagement and democratizing local media — “we want people to have access to the information they need”: Documenters builds capacity and activates civic participation. Fellowship builds pipeline. Public newsroom creates a platform.
The other side of the story is the organizational one — that story that is also important to talk about in terms of operation, sustainability and growth. “Those most impacted by problems with the media status quo are the most willing to play a role in changing it.” While City Bureau has built a robust network of volunteers, and most of the programs are free, also like other non-profit organizations they are constantly seeking for resources to support their efforts. This is also an interesting part of their thinking — they believe in the power of shared ownership or forms of collective investment to bring sustainability to the organization: “we want our funding to look like the City - lots of people, be independent, and not accountable to big foundations.” The most recent idea behind this approach is the creation of a press club, a group based on a membership model — both as a form of financial support and community network. There are also consulting services offered leveraging the work of the fellows. What I like about exploring these mechanisms, is that there are multiple forms of being part of City Bureau. There are constantly looking at different ways in which people with different needs, interests and capacities of involvement can be part of this “movement” and share their mission.
Last, but not least, City Bureau is unapologetically place-based. They see the power of change at the local scale. Having seen organizations grow nationally and compromise their mission, they are committed to being place-based, Chicago-based. And while their projects are being tested and piloted in other cities, they are highly invested in Chicago. “We can make Chicago the national model for journalism and civic engagement”.