by Julia Haslanger
Background: City Bureau is a nonprofit civic journalism lab based on the South Side of Chicago. Soon after its founding in 2015, it developed three major programs. Within just a couple of years, its work attracted significant philanthropic support, including three grants of over $1 million. City Bureau’s programs mainly focus on training and equipping people with little or no journalism experience to lead community conversations, provide oversight of public meetings, and conduct investigations into local sociopolitical issues.
Goals: City Bureau aims to democratize journalism, with a focus on Chicago. “City Bureau envisions a future in which all people are equipped with the tools and knowledge to effect change in their communities,” reads the organization’s vision statement.
Programs: City Bureau has three major programs it runs to work toward that goal:
- Civic Reporting Programs, including annual residencies and seasonal fellowships. The reporting fellowships are designed for people without previous journalism experience. “Fellows work in teams to produce a journalism project on a big-picture sociopolitical issue facing communities on Chicago’s South and West Sides.” For the upcoming summer fellowship, City Bureau will pay reporters about $23/hour for 15 hours a week for 11 weeks, and team leaders about $30/hour for 20 hours a week over the same period. The annual residents tend to have more experience in journalism.
- Documenters, which trains and pays people to attend public meetings and record what happens. For each meeting (and the pre-meeting research and post-meeting write-up), the pay is $56, although it can be higher for meetings that last more than two hours. After working well in Chicago, two other cities now are also using the Documenters framework: Detroit and Cleveland.
- Public Newsroom workshops, which are led and moderated by local people with an interest or expertise in a topic. During the pandemic, the workshops continued online. The goal of the workshops is to “create an open space where anyone can gather to discuss and deconstruct local issues, share resources and knowledge, and meet new people.”
Tools and Technology:
- The Documenters program uses City Scrapers to pull information off government websites, particularly meeting dates.
- Documenters.org is a web application where trained Documenters can log in and claim assignments, and community members can search for public meetings by location, date, keyword and more.
How it operates: City Bureau has a staff of around a dozen people, all full-time, as well as a small board of directors. The non-profit receives grant funding (along the lines of $2M in grants in 2020, including eight grants of more than $100K each) as well as individual donations (about $70K from 2,100 people in 2020). Other revenue sources include research and consulting fees as well as publication fees. Its largest expenses are staff payroll and benefits as well as payments to the journalists in its program. Other large expenses include rent and legal and accounting services. (For a further breakdown of revenue sources and expenses, see pages 26 and 27 of the group’s annual report.)
- Serving as a model that news organizations or startups in other cities can adopt. In addition to the organizations in Detroit and Cleveland who are doing Documenters, several newsrooms, including Enois in São Paulo, DePaul University’s student newspaper Fourteen East, and the Mississippi Today newsroom began doing Public Newsroom workshops in the past few years, after being inspired by City Bureau.
Demonstrating the process of impact tracking, including having articulated desired outcomes for each program. In 2019, City Bureau developed a system to capture and measure the organization’s impact across more than 20 metrics. More details about those metrics can be found in first Impact Report.
Of individual programs:
- Training more than 1,000 people to document public meetings since 2016. The ages of those trained range from 18 to 79.
- Making accessible notes from more than 1,300 public meetings.
- Won the Gather Award in Engaged Journalism during the 2019 Online Journalism Awards and was finalist for a 2021 News Leaders Association award, where the judges commented: “This project definitely pushes the boundaries of the traditional methodology, format and structure by which journalism is produced. It challenges the notions of who should have the power to report what happens, and it does in a very structured and simple way, and there is its innovation. The project has already proved its concept and provides oversight and public service journalism to places where accountability is much needed.”
- Public Newsroom:
- Convening more than 100 workshops since 2016.
- Creating intergenerational, interracial connections in communities.
- Civic Reporting Programs
- Training more than 100 people through civic reporting fellowships since 2016.
- Providing key resources to people in Chicago communities that are often underserved, such as:
- “After the Trial,” a 2019 zine designed to help prisoners and their families navigate post-conviction options in Illinois courts
- Chicago COVID Resource Finder website, available in 12 languages
- Alumni of the civic reporting programs have gone on to become reporters and leaders in newsrooms locally (such as Adeshina Emmanuel, editor-in-chief at Injustice Watch; Tonika Lewis Johnson, creator of the Folded Map Project; and Yazmin Dominguez, media partnerships coordinator at Chicago Reader) and elsewhere (such as Yana Kunichoff, education reporter at the Arizona Republic).
Journalism produced by fellows and residents are frequent finalists and winners of various awards, including the Lisagor awards, Scripps Howard Awards, and Regional Edward R. Murrow Awards.,
- When launching a new organization or program, find your creative partner. Make sure you have differing and complementary skill sets. Don’t try to go it alone.
- Look for people doing similar work who you can build with and learn from in your ecosystem. Co-founder Darryl Holliday spent a year incubating the idea of City Bureau while working at Invisible Institute, says having a safe haven like that was enormously helpful as he got City Bureau off the ground. City Bureau also learns from and partners with groups in different industries and fields, such as community organizing, popular education, and mutual aid.
- Learn discipline around talking about your work to people outside your circles (such as funders). In its earlier years, Jenny Choi and others helped teach City Bureau’s leadership team effective ways to write proposals and how to frame requests for foundation support, which was instrumental in securing many of the $1M+ grants.
What Could Have Worked Better
- Plan early and often for how to grow capacity within the organization, not just through hiring, but also through developing staff
- Create processes and policies to ensure people within the organization are heard (and feel heard). Without that, it can be easy to let the loudest voices dominate. Having processes and policies will enable healthy conflict, which can make the whole organization better.
More about City Bureau
- City Bureau’s 2020 Annual Report
- Metrics to Match Our Mission: Measuring City Bureau’s Impact
- Knight Foundation: The Documenters model: How City Bureau makes information accessible to all
- Local News Lab: How City Bureau is making journalism more democratic in Chicago
TThis case study was produced in partnership with Current as a part of the 2021 Local that Works webinar series that spotlights media innovation, engagement, and collaboration. The series aims to share insights and examples of replicable and sustainable projects that expand and diversify audiences, and deepen news service to local communities. Local that Works is supported by the Wyncote Foundation.