Taking It To The Streets: How City Bureau is fixing Chicago news

It’s 10 a.m. on a July day, the air has just started to hang hot and heavy above the morning streets outside Chicago’s Betsy Coleman Library, a welcome respite from the intruding heat. Residents from Hyde Park, Bronzeville, and South Shore shuffle inside. The air-conditioned rooms are welcome, but they aren’t the reason for their entry. The community members are greeted by Andrea Hart, community director and co-founder of news non-profit City Bureau, which was bringing these individuals together for mid-morning Twitter training.

As an icebreaker, Hart asked participants to write down news sources they trust—or do not trust—to report accurate news in their neighborhoods. “These don’t have to be traditional news sources,” she reminded the group. In summary, they trust the words of their neighbors more than those of their politicians.

Then the group got to work honing tweet-writing skills, focusing on best practices for live-tweeting public meetings as they pored over extensive notes from an actual public forum on the proposed merger of Ogden International School and Jenner Academy of the Arts near Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. In pairs, they jotted down their best hashtags—words or phrases added to a tweet aligning the message with a particular topic so that those following the topic can easily find related tweets. A good one here is #OgdenJenner.

They also discussed which public officials to tag in the posts, ensuring key players see the post and reaching interested readers by showing them who is involved.

The training is a stone in one revered pillar of the plan to fix Chicago news from the two-year-old news organization and civic media lab helmed by four young professionals from across the journalism spectrum. This pillar is engaging local communities in journalism.

Hart explained how tools like Twitter put reporters and readers deeper into the story, opening up new lines of information, sources, and perhaps questions that need answered. What City Bureau attempts to do in person—bring community members, aspiring journalists, and reporters together to maximize news dissemination—Twitter does online, and Hart wanted to make sure she prepared the session’s participants to take part in, and even drive, the conversation.

Some of the attendees might continue with City Bureau as paid city documenters. One of two rungs of City Bureau’s editorial ladder, the documenters are community members who attend public meetings and take notes, live tweet, and occasionally conduct interviews. They support the work of the second and flagship rung, the reporting fellows, the more experienced journalists who cover under-reported stories on Chicago’s South and West sides during ten-week cycles. They engage local residents and neighborhood groups every step of the way in a re-imagined community journalism experience.

A journalist’s basic objective is fairly obvious: take information and report it back to a relevant audience in an understandable and accessible format. Most people don’t have time or energy to follow every move made by their elected officials, every law that gets passed, every business that opens in town, or every baseball game that is played. That’s where journalists come in. They act as the eyes and ears of the city and world, sharing what they learn with the public and promoting an informed, active citizenry. 

But this system, like all systems, can have a negative effect, especially in a be-first-or-else era. Reporters sometimes disseminate facts without fully vetting sources or gained information or, more likely, without fully taking into consideration the broader context of a story. Also, journalists tend to go where the readers, or perceived readers, are, producing reports that may not be as genuine as possible. What results, and exists today in Chicago, is a disconnect—even a distrust—between journalists and the communities they cover.

City Bureau aims to put more storytelling power back in the hands of everyday citizens, giving them the tools to ensure the stories told about their neighborhoods reflect the experiences of the people who actually live there.

The mission is ambitious, but the founders say it’s necessary.

Co-founders (left to right) Andrea Hart, Harry Backlund, Darryl Holliday, and Bettina Chang all saw something wrong with news and newsrooms in Chicago. They started City Bureau two years ago. (Photo by Laurie Fanelli)

The Founders
Andrea Hart, Darryl Holliday, Bettina Chang, and Harry Backlund met each other in various ways, their paths crossing  as they worked in Chicago’s vast journalism landscape—Hart as an educator, Holliday as a reporter, Chang as an editor, and Backlund as publisher of Southside Weekly. “It was just a perfect storm,” said Hart, now City Bureau’s community engagement director. “I think each of us being at a certain point of our career, we had established networks that gave us all the support we needed to keep going.”

Holliday, the editorial director, who previously wrote for Chicago Sun-Times and DNAinfo Chicago and founded Illustrated Press, was the linchpin in connecting the team. Once the four began talking, they found common ground discussing the shortfalls in civic engagement, diversity, and opportunity in today’s media. And they all sought solutions, instead of theories, that could actually be injected into the market. “We were all working in journalism and youth media spaces and all generally feeling pretty frustrated,” Holliday said. “It was really important for us to not just say the pretty words.”

Holliday worked previously with Illinois Humanities on a project called Reporting Back. The project paired professional journalists with community members on the South and West sides of Chicago. Together, the pairs discussed issues important in the communities, ones often overlooked and under-reported by local media.

This concept helped spark the idea for City Bureau, but City Bureau takes it a step further. Instead of just pairing journalists with community members, the founders foresaw teaching young journalists and working with community partners, empowering them as storytellers who embark on large-scale reporting projects and provide transparency into the journalistic process.

The founders said a program director at the McCormick Foundation, Jennifer Choi, who is often referred to as the organization’s “fifth founder,” encouraged them to move forward with their idea, helping them secure funding for a first round of fellows. Now on the seventh round, fellows work in teams for ten weeks, diving deeply into stories in Chicago’s South and West sides. The result is intensive reporting projects the fellows share with the community during a culminating open house. “Professionally, they really give you the support to develop more as a journalist,” said two-time fellow and team leader Sarah Conway, who said they discuss and work on a lot of hard-news skills, like interviewing and research. “They provide this space for a lot of younger journalists to kind of collaborate. … You don’t really find a lot of that.”

For its first project, City Bureau’s inaugural fellow class of fall 2015 examined recently released data on alleged Chicago police misconduct collected by the Independent Police Review Authority between 2011 and 2015. The group held its first open house later that year to reveal its reporting on the data. The positive feedback was immediate. Telling an under-reported story with the involvement of the community had struck a chord. “It seemed the city was very thirsty for that message,” said Chang, City Bureau’s editor.

As individuals working in the journalism industry, Chang said, the founders realized any change in the media landscape had to start with them.

The Purpose
City Bureau exists to tackle three main issues its founders perceived as plaguing journalism: a lack of diversity both in newsrooms and in reported stories, a lack of access to journalistic skills and training, and a lack of community trust in the media. “We had a lot of conversations about how we feel about the state of local media, and what we think is missing, and what we think is wrong, and how we think it can improve,” Chang said. “Those conversations are what led us to starting City Bureau.”

One of those missing pieces discussed was diversity in the newsroom. Chang, who previously worked at DNAinfo Chicago and Pacific Standard magazine, and who currently works as the executive digital editor for Chicago magazine, has pushed for more editors of color in the newsroom. She and the other founders looked around and realized the people tasked with reporting on Chicago did not reflect the diverse cultures and ethnicities found in the city. It’s an issue in newsrooms across the country. The 2016 American Society of News Editors Diversity Survey found just seventeen percent of those working at daily print publications and twenty-three percent of those at digital outlets are journalists of color.

The founders believe part of that problem resulted from a difficulty accessing journalism education for certain Chicago populations, mainly lower-income, minority communities. At the time of City Bureau’s founding, Hart worked at Free Spirit Media, a non-profit engaging youth in media education. While there, she encountered young kids interested in journalism but with substantial roadblocks ahead. Many newsrooms expect a certain pedigree: an expensive journalism degree and a string of (likely unpaid) internships. This was not a reality for a lot of the kids Hart worked with, which inspired her to start Real Chi Youth, a paid journalism apprenticeship program for young adults ages eighteen through twenty-five. “A lot of those initial conversations around the frustrations we were having helped us to basically start thinking about, ‘Well, what are the root causes?’” Hart said. “There were just a lot of limits [on becoming a journalist], and they didn’t make sense. If you could kind of re-imagine some of that [you’d] create better community news.”

“We had a lot of conversations about how we feel about the state of local media, and what we think is wrong, and how we think it can improve.”
–Bettina Chang, City Bureau co-founder

Without diverse voices in journalism, predominantly minority communities can have a hard time trusting the media—and with good reason. “Parachute journalism,” is how it’s described by Holliday. People see journalists from outside of their neighborhoods pop in for the big stories, like after a shooting or for the opening of a new school, but when residents read these articles, they don’t always see their community reflected back. These cherry-picked pieces don’t tell the entire story of a community, because the writer has no feel or sense of the beat. Residents feel the press isn’t interested in telling that story, just the clicks and attention of drive-by reporting, which makes them wary of the reporters in the first place. City Bureau aims to break down this wall. “I think media really takes communities of color, poor communities, for granted,” Holliday said. “You … usually have a staff of young white males, not a lot of people that reflect the country as a whole.”

City Bureau soon began gaining attention. Media journalists began writing about the organization for the Columbia Journalism Review, MediaShift, and Nieman Lab. Pieces produced by City Bureau won prestigious reporting awards. And more funding followed in the form of grants from groups like McCormick Foundation, Knight Foundation, and the Democracy Fund.

City Bureau also generates funding through individual donors, syndicating stories to other news outlets, and media consulting. All of this results in the organization focusing more time and energy on reporting stories that might otherwise go overlooked while building up future journalists. “They stepped in where there’s really a gap, especially for younger reporters,” Conway said. “They’re more of an incubator for providing the funding and the space for people to do this type of work.”

Developing Journalists
While the reporting model for City Bureau initially began with reporting fellows, city documenters were not far behind. According to Chang, the idea for city documenters grew as the team worked to break down a new set of police data from the 2016 Police Accountability Task Force.

After the report came out, Chang said, coverage was lacking for such an important document. “We thought it was more important and deserved more coverage, so we launched this project,” Chang said. “Just regular people who had an interest in police reform and city policy were annotating this report with research and sometimes interviews.”

The team took the project on the road, holding town halls and teaching citizens to annotate and analyze the report on their own. The project showed City Bureau’s founders the importance of bringing their work to the community and giving people direct ways to be involved in the process. Chang said this process helped solidify what it means for something to be a City Bureau story.

The city documenters program also provides an entry point into journalism for those interested in civic reporting who are uncertain where to start. One of the biggest issues mentioned by both Holliday and Hart is the cost associated with becoming a journalist. Journalism school’s expense creates a roadblock for aspiring journalists with limited financial resources, diluting the pool of potential reporters. “It’s breeding this kind of elitist system, and people perceive it as such,” Holliday said. “The pipeline to us seemed broken.”

City Bureau works on the premise that a lack of diversity in the newsroom leads to a lack of perspectives and that a fairly homogenous press pool fails to accurately portray a city as diverse as Chicago. They bet that adding more voices to the conversation through programs like city documenters would produce better journalism.

While not suggesting Chicago lacks talented journalists telling important stories, City Bureau believes that more diversity ultimately leads to better reporting. Think about a community with which you identify: Who would tell that community’s story better—you, or an outsider? City documenters allow any community member to learn and participate in journalism, like the residents attending Hart’s Twitter training. “Folks that may or may not like Twitter … come to a training and they see the value of it,” Hart said. “Then they start feeling engaged and they have a space to continue that engagement, and that really matters.”

Another way City Bureau addresses this opportunity gap is through a mentoring partnership each fellowship cycle, often with Free Spirit Media’s Real Chi Youth. The program is structured like a learning newsroom. Participants work as reporters or editors, pitching stories and hitting deadlines while reporting on their communities. Some participants have gone on to become city documenters and even fellows with City Bureau. “We’re very much about (finding) the gaps in Chicago media, and we’re trying to fill that,” said Real Chi Youth program coordinator Dan Neumann. “We’re trying to be an antidote to the one-note coverage that the South and West side get.”

Once a week, fellows visit the Real Chi Youth participants to help them sharpen pitches, suggest and share sources for stories, and read and critique drafts. Like City Bureau, one of Real Chi Youth’s main goals is building inroads for marginalized voices in the newsroom. “I think there’s a lot of parallels. We’re trying to do a lot of the same things,” Neumann said. “It’s very much the idea that the communities need to see themselves in the journalism. There’s been some sort of disconnect between the ten o’clock news [and communities].”

Together, the groups work toward a shared goal of reinvigorating community news. Neumann said he believes working with Real Chi Youth is a big part of City Bureau’s mission, as they work to train the next generation of reporters, fact checkers, and movers and shakers in civic journalism.

City Bureau’s Community Engagement Director Andrea Hart (far right) is filmed during the group’s 2015 launch event. (Courtesy of City Bureau)

Engaging the Community
Outside of the young adults receiving mentorship and the city documenters learning the foundations of journalism, City Bureau’s founders sought a way of involving other community members, ones with potentially no interest in practicing journalism and who likely distrust journalists all together. “We’re looking at communities where trust is totally eroded,” Chang said. “There are people who are very rightfully suspicious.”

Given the limited resources allotted to journalists, they often find themselves reporting on familiar and stereotypical themes in the South and West sides—gun violence, general crime, gangs, segregation. While this violence is news, so is other activity in those parts of the city, and that activity goes, more often than not, un-reported.

This type of one-dimensional coverage is harmful, as it furthers a stigma while disregarding the entire story of the communities subjected. It doesn’t ask residents in the neighborhood what issues they see in their community or what are the most pressing conversations. It answers those questions for them, without regard to the legitimacy of those answers. For the residents who see journalists only when breaking news occurs, they may start to wonder: What do they know about our residents, our daily lives, and our personalities? How are they remotely qualified to tell the story of my community?  “Journalists need to do a better job of teaching the public what they do and what they care about,” Neumann said.

So, on October 19th, 2016, City Bureau held its first public newsroom. The events, which take place each Thursday night, bring together journalists and community members to talk and share skills. Through workshops, teachings, and discussions, journalists and community members build relationships, brush up on reporting skills, and tackle trust issues. “The process of journalism is so opaque to the average person,” Chang said. “Especially in a community without really good media access, it’s about being able to find out what you need to know and being able to quickly organize people around those ideas.”

Public newsrooms open the journalistic process to residents of the communities they cover. Together, the group might review a city budget or file a Freedom of Information Act. A large goal of public newsrooms is building trust, which the City Bureau founders have found is best done by opening up the process of journalism to everybody.

Residents get an inside look at how a journalist covers a story. They can talk to journalists about interviews and what research and thought goes into a piece. They talk about how journalists compose a story. They can take a look into how the reporter covers their neighborhoods, and they can tell that person what they’re missing. City Bureau is the bridge builder.

What’s Next
As City Bureau grows, it strives to continue producing quality journalism, engaging communities, breaking down barriers between reporters and residents, and helping develop future journalists. As part of that process, the founders continue trying new ways to work their mission, such as one project completed during the spring 2017 fellowship cycle.

Rather than spending ten weeks reporting a large investigative piece, one group’s reporting resulted in an event. The group explored land use on Chicago’s West Side and how an expanse of industrial and vacant space could be better utilized.

Chang said the group still acted as journalists, interviewing stakeholders and digging into reports and documents. But, there was no scathing story. She said the biggest challenge for the fellows was re-framing how journalism can work, especially civic journalism; bringing thorough, important information into a community doesn’t necessarily require hitting publish on a seven-hundred-word story. “We’re able to bolster the local ecosystem by doing what we’re doing, not by competing or disrupting, but by repairing,” Holliday said. “We’re really intent on how do we not just shake things up but repair processes that have led us here to begin with.”

Unlike other news organizations, City Bureau produces no publication. It posts its work online but publishes most of its journalism through partnerships with other outlets, such as Chicago Reader, Chicago magazine, Chicago Reporter, The Guardian, The Marshall Project, and more, a model it plans to continue. Through these partnerships, City Bureau hopes to tell a better Chicago story. “All the negative things—lack of coverage, lack of inclusivity, lack of trust—the biggest harm that ends up happening is a lack of accountability,” Hart said. “Journalism is supposed to be a tool within which citizens can hold local officials accountable, and if all of that is plaguing journalism, then it’s really not healthy for your local democracy.”

While City Bureau, which is based in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, engages communities in reporting, it has found itself creating its own community, as well. Conway said that outside of City Bureau, former fellows continue collaborating on new reporting projects, often expanding upon stories they worked on during their time at City Bureau. “They’re definitely my favorite people to work with and collaborate with,” Conway said. “I really love what they stand for and the type of work they promote.” Reporters have also found themselves permanently working with some of City Bureau’s publishing partners, such as Chicago Reporter and Chicago Defender.

City Bureau welcomed its seventh cycle of fellows in fall 2017. Over the cycles, the organization has expanded from its initial focus on community safety and policing to topics including the environment, education, immigration, and restorative justice.

Although the youth of both the organization and its founders might have initially introduced skepticism, City Bureau’s work has spoken for itself. The organization has won awards, collaborated with some of the biggest names in journalism, and recently received a Knight Foundation grant to expand the city documenters program. The buzz has grown enough that City Bureau began receiving fellowship applications from outside of Chicago and similar organizations in other cities seek advice from City Bureau’s founders.

As it grows, Holliday said that overall the missions of the organization are the same now as when they started—just refined and better executed. “In this process of trying to do the work, we’ve learned a lot individually about just making good reporting or bolstering and supporting good reporters,” he said. “We have to do the work of showing that journalism can be made better.”

Moving forward, the group hopes to create a membership program and find ways to connect with other groups doing similar work. City Bureau is also looking to put more structure and process in place as they expand, especially since Chang and Backlund still have full-time day jobs.

Regardless of expansion, at the heart of all City Bureau’s projects lies the community, meeting people where they are, and giving them the tools and opportunities to tell their neighborhoods’ stories. “It was always in the mission to make journalism a public good and make it a more trusted good,” Hart said. “What does that look like and how do you actually execute that? That’s something we’re still learning, and it’s been really fun to figure that out.”

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