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$10 million Stronger Democracy Award to accelerate the expansion of the Documenters Network

The $10 million Stronger Democracy Award will accelerate the expansion of the Documenters Network to more cities across the country.

By Darryl Holliday

Chicago Documenter Bia Medious live-tweets from a Cook County Land Bank Authority meeting.

This week City Bureau and the Documenters Network won the Stronger Democracy Award, which will deliver $10 million to expand our participatory, civic media network across the country. It’s a major vote of confidence in the Documenters model at a time when our democratic system is in distress. This infusion of funds will allow us to strengthen democracy through civic media that embodies the ideals of government by the people, for the people and recognizes that Americans have many more roles they can play—not just at the voting booth.

For the last four years, the Documenters Network has been training and paying everyday citizens to attend and take notes at public meetings. These Documenters have attended more than 2,800 public meetings in our hometown of Chicago, as well as with our partner sites in Detroit, Cleveland and Minneapolis. Earlier this month, we joined forces with community news organizations in Atlanta, Fresno and Omaha to extend our network beyond the Midwest.

Public meetings can be powerful ways to influence local government decisions that directly affect our lives. With so few reporters now covering city hall, those decisions are often made with no one watching. At City Bureau, we’ve found that local residents can document public meetings effectively, and it can transform both government behavior and the citizens themselves. It’s a model that’s ready to scale across the country. As we make new partnerships and enter a new phase of our work, we’re taking a moment to pause and reflect in alignment with City Bureau’s core values.

“We don’t believe in heroes. We believe in holistic, structural change focused on equity and inclusivity.”

Chicago Documenters, the first site in City Bureau’s Documenters Network, emerged from a study of political power on the ground. Working with the civic technology organization Smart Chicago in 2016, we launched the Chicago Tracker Project, a collaboration that convened journalists, educators, attorneys and community members to explore issues of policing, and police abuse, in their own words. The project was shaped in the wake of the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald at the hands of a Chicago police officer and helped engage Chicagoans in the process of public policy in the months leading up to city’s ongoing police consent decree.

Through these early projects, we learned how to engage people in the process of producing media, design workshops that strengthens ties between them and help them navigate the halls of power where local government most directly impacts their lives. That approach to journalism re-writes the “hero journalist” narrative—where a reporter swoops in to save the grateful public—and insists that journalism is better when people can save themselves. At City Bureau—and the Documenters Network—we bring people into the reporting process and equip them to hold institutions accountable.

“We believe in place. Though we may have an impact nationally and internationally, we are committed to Chicago.”

We chose to grow the Documenters Network slowly and, above all, intentionally. Despite interest from community organizations, newsrooms and funders, we took our time and produced foundational tools like the City Scrapers Toolkit, and the Documenters forum and field guide. Based on lessons learned through production and local media organizing in Chicago, we started talking to partner organizations aligned with our values and interested in growing a network that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

As the Documenters Network grew from Chicago to Detroit, then Cleveland to Minneapolis, we found that our national efforts to inform, engage and equip people through civic media draws strength from our place-based work. Chicago will always be home—and Chicago Documenters is still thriving with 80-100 Documenters active every quarter—but we’re committed to building power with people across the country who care about the place where they live.

“We want to build this movement together.”

Today, the Documenters Network is managed by City Bureau’s National Impact department, which supports Documenters programs run by community organizations and media outlets like Pillsbury United Communities, Outlier Media, Neighborhood Connections and Canopy Atlanta. Together, we’re building a national civic media network supported by a central hub that provides resources and expertise and forges connections between sites, while local partners make key decisions that ensure their work is responsive to folks on the ground.

In Chicago, City Bureau sent Documenters to community engagement meetings for the first citywide planning & development initiative in nearly 60 years—development has emerged time and again as a key topic that City Bureau readers wanted to demystify. In Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Documenters team recently addressed the city’s mayor and Board of Estimate and Taxation on behalf of local Documenters in support of continued live-streaming of public meetings—so that everyone in Minneapolis can tune in to local decision-making processes wherever they are. In Cleveland, Cleveland Documenters will join a coalition of Ohio organizations and community leaders to launch a local nonprofit newsroom.

The result is a network that is able to innovate locally while collectively learning from common successes and challenges at Documenters sites across the country. And it’s working. To date, Documenters sites have trained more than 1,800 people in basic journalism skills, public records law and local government processes—and those Documenters have covered more than 3,000 public meetings. Documenters and staff at Documenters sites are emerging as leaders in local news and in their communities—and they aren’t only making connections among neighbors, they’re connecting with Documenters across the U.S.

“We value and respect the process as much as the product. We will always be open and honest about our successes, failures and the processes that led us there.”

We’re growing because we believe that journalism skills are civic skills, that everyone can be equipped to report for their community, and that democracy depends on everyday civic action. We think we can do something about it—and we’ll continue to document our processes and results in alignment with our values.


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