The Documenters model: How City Bureau makes information accessible to all – Knight Foundation

The Documenters model: How City Bureau makes information accessible to all

Knight Foundation’s new, $1.5 million investment in the Chicago-based outlet will help strengthen its role in public service journalism

With fewer professional journalists covering public meetings, residents and reporters don’t always have access to complete information on civic issues. City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab, has pioneered a new approach: training residents to report on public meetings. In 2017, after two years of community-driven conversations to shed light on how journalism works, City Bureau used seed funding from Knight to inform the Documenters program, a focused effort to train and pay residents to take notes at municipal meetings.

From the moment we first heard about their work, we knew City Bureau was doing something special. Today, we’re announcing a new, $1.5 million investment to help evolve the Documenters program into a strong, local institution that can serve as a new model for public service journalism across the nation. 

The Documenters network has already taken root across the Midwest, expanding to include locally run programs in Cleveland and Detroit, with plans to continue its national growth over the next three years. As a network, the Documenters community supports its partner organizations to tailor programs to the specific needs of each city. Knight support will help City Bureau continue to establish itself as a strong local organization that increases the flow of accurate news, information and civic engagement. 

Since its inception, City Bureau has gone beyond informing the public — they’ve focused on equipping people to access and produce the information they need, inviting residents to join in the community conversation. After hearing their neighbors say one too many times that they didn’t see their issues being covered by traditional media, City Bureau set out to change the paradigm. They vowed that reporters and newsrooms would partner with residents on newsgathering.

City Bureau is an organization that has boldly reimagined journalism through its belief in equitable access to civic information. Its model focuses its reporting on communities of color and the organization is diverse from top to bottom. Their team has moved beyond the standard practice of collecting of data, fact checking, interviewing local officials and publishing stories — they’re listening to residents, engaging with neighbors and nurturing relationships — long after the story is published. But what makes them unique is their accountability journalism model: they’ve pioneered an approach to train and pay local residents to both report stories through their reporting fellowship as well document public meetings, which are then shared as an online resource for newsrooms and community organizations through their Documenters program.

Why is payment so important? Because when people’s contributions are valued, it creates opportunities for people to contribute who wouldn’t be able to afford to for free. Residents are engaged and equipped, as “Documenters,” using newfound skills and tools, learning ethics and legal review processes, so they can commit their own “acts of journalism.” Their notes can then be used by professional journalists to strengthen their reporting on local issues.

This particular investment has been a years-long journey. Knight Foundation first funded City Bureau in 2017 through a $50,000 Knight Prototype Fund grant, noting “Documenters” as a project that could potentially increase trust in journalism. As the City Bureau team shared their idea at various conferences, there were inquiries from journalism and philanthropy leaders in Detroit and Cleveland. “How might we bring this idea to our community?,” they asked. And so, the City Bureau team did.

It’s a good thing when a great idea spreads — and after listening to founders, Knight knew the most strategic way to support the Documenters program would be to provide direct investment in City Bureau’s team. This new funding supports the long-term sustainability of the Documenters program, funding key business and technology positions and executive education in strategy and business management for City Bureau’s leaders.

City Bureau’s Documenters team has now trained more than 1,000 people to cover more than 1,300 public meetings. During the pandemic, when in-person meetings were first paused, City Bureau built a database of 1,300 neighborhood, city and state resources to direct residents to food, money, legal help, available via text message and in 10 different languages.

Knight’s investment is intended to strengthen a local organization that has radically reimagined community journalism, so they can continue their best work at home before taking their model across the country. We’ve increasingly moved our focus on finding sustainable business models that allow news organizations to be independent. City Bureau has built a model that will help fill critical gaps in accountability journalism in a lasting, impactful way.

If you’re interested in starting a Documenters program in your city, let City Bureau know here.

Karen Rundlet is director for journalism at Knight Foundation.

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