Q&A: How Will City Bureau Regenerate Civic Media in Chicago?

    by Meg Dalton
    December 23, 2015
    A recent City Bureau town hall meeting. Image from City Bureau.

    Whether they’re speaking with local activists about why black space matters or investigating the individuals behind Chicago’s police accountability, the City Bureau team has already taken steps towards restoring civic media coverage of the South and West Sides of Chicago through its collaboration with and mentorship of a new generation of young journalists.

    Both a neighborhood newsroom and journalism training program, City Bureau wants to regenerate civic media within Chicago’s historically disenfranchised and underreported neighborhoods. Idea Lab recently spoke with City Bureau’s four founders (Darryl Holliday, editorial director; Bettina Chang, editor; Andrea Hart, education director; and Harry Backlund, managing editor) to discuss how the program hopes to accomplish this. Though the founders have worked in different areas of journalism, they have all experienced frustrations with how stories were being produced and distributed. Together, they want to ‘shake up’ the journalism landscape in the Windy City by imagining and testing a new model of reporting.

    "We hope the dynamism of the City Bureau newsroom will not only prepare journalists for their future careers, but energize other media outlets to take a new approach to newsmaking." Bettina Chang

    Q & A

    Idea Lab: What pushed you and your fellow founders to launch City Bureau?


    Harry Backlund / Darryl Holliday: We were all working in different areas of journalism, and we all had frustrations with the kinds of stories that were (and weren’t) being produced, and how they were being distributed, so we started to trace the connections between those areas of frustration. Those conversations turned into a shared sense of potential, a feeling that the ongoing shake-ups in journalism offer an unprecedented opportunity to create better models for reporting, and that we were in a unique position with a real opportunity to try something new.

    The guiding principles and many of the specifics of how City Bureau operates have bounced around separately as ideas and in our past projects. Elements of the South Side Weekly, Real Chi Youth, and Illustrated Press, and our individual work as journalists are all present in City Bureau’s model.

    IL: Why now?


    HB/DH: In a word, crisis. Journalism as a practice hasn’t fully adapted after the economic shifts that destroyed its business model, and as in any crisis there are a lot of resources piling up while the system that connects them adapts.

    At the same time, our city is in a moment of transition, and a whole new world of stories is opening up, one that older models of journalism were never very good at telling. As journalists, we’re predisposed to take advantage of the moment, to be objective, and to figure out the human elements that matter most. The City Bureau approach has been to apply that instinct to our own organization. The institutions that sheltered and fostered thoughtful, credible public narrative have largely broken down, so we’re building our own. In many ways our structure is a logical extension of hustling for a good story.

    IL: What makes your newsroom different from traditional media outlets in Chicago?

    Bettina Chang: City Bureau’s goal is to develop our strategies and strengths outside traditional media circles, then inject our values and stories into traditional media to eventually effect change on the whole industry. We structure the newsroom in a few ways that differ from others — first, by putting community first. We hold regular events to engage residents in our reporting process, from the point of developing a story idea, to finding sources and refining the narrative, to the final release of the piece. We also encourage collaboration among our reporters — it’s uncommon to find just one byline or contributing reporter on a City Bureau story. Our reporters are at all different levels in terms of skill sets, so they work together and teach each other, whether they’re out filming an interview or formulating a story idea. That taste for collaboration exists on an institutional level, too — we love partnering with other civic groups and publications who are open to trying something new and exciting in the community media space. We hope the dynamism of the City Bureau newsroom will not only prepare journalists for their future careers, but energize other media outlets to take a new approach to newsmaking.

    IL: Were there any existing community newsrooms or models that inspired City Bureau?

    HB/DH: Oh man, there are a bunch, and we keep collecting more. Probably the most important to mention is that we have a lot of respect for the old school newsroom as a workplace and a culture, and we think of City Bureau as a renewal of those principles in a new era. Darryl and Bettina have both previously worked at several mainstream publications, including legacy and start-up outlets. Andrea has worked with youth-oriented nonprofits working in media education, and her work has put pedagogy and process front and center. Harry worked in local publishing with the South Side Weekly, which converted a former student paper into a community newspaper, and that experience showed us the viability of the educational model. The basic framework of combining educational opportunity with a careful editing process, and using that potential to both cover stories that wouldn’t otherwise be written took a lot of influence from those projects.

    One idea that was important early on was a feeling that a city needs many different kinds of media. Neighborhood papers and ethnic press bring an invaluable local perspective. Public interest watchdog reporting keeps us all accountable. Longform narrative writing has the power to totally change how a reader understands an issue and commercial news, for all its faults, needs to be acknowledged for its deep impact on public conversations.

    But elsewhere, the economy around journalism can appear grim at times. Lack of diversity in newsrooms is nothing short of systemic and communities of color feel left out of the conversation. Students can pay $60,000 in pure tuition for a graduate degree in journalism, and then work several unpaid internships, only to take a position with mediocre pay at an under-resourced newsroom where they don’t have time to tell stories they believe in. City Bureau is an extended response to the question of what it would look like if journalism education were truly public. In practice that’s a lot to ask, but as an ideal it keeps us honest.

    IL: From your perspective, how does City Bureau compensate for other outlets’ shortcomings? How is your approach different?

    BC: At the Tribune and Sun Times, revenues are down and both newspapers faced major editorial cutbacks in recent years. We work in communities where overworked/underpaid/under-resourced reporters and publications in traditional media lack a foothold.. So City Bureau was born in part to reinvigorate coverage in these areas. With support from our funders, plus the resources/ relationships we have developed in these areas among other civic groups, we are able to train and provide resources to journalists who live and work on the South and West sides, many of whom are minorities and/or from low income backgrounds. These journalists bring invaluable expertise and perspective that ensure fair, balanced and in-depth coverage of the important issues facing marginalized communities in Chicago — plus they have a fuller understanding of the vibrancy and diversity of experience in these neighborhoods than a reporter who might visit once or twice a month.

    Most importantly, not only do we hope to fill that gap in the short term, in the long term, we hope to make a change in the media landscape so that such coverage becomes an indispensable part of mainstream media. We hope that some of our trainees will eventually join traditional newsrooms and create change from within.

    IL: The program focuses on students from the South and West sides of Chicago. Do you anticipate City Bureau greatly amplifying the voices of those from historically disenfranchised parts of the city? Up until this point, how successfully have traditional outlets represented these communities?

    Andrea Hart: We want to amplify and integrate these voices into the city’s narrative in the hopes of deconstructing problematic narratives imposed on the city’s South and West sides. It should come as no surprise that there are young folks in these neighborhoods who are incredibly capable of telling stories about police misconduct that are layered and living. They have a right to access media production just as they have the right to access beneficial educational resources. City Bureau is creating a space where that access is combined. For various reasons traditional outlets fail to accurately represent these communities — in part because they are caught in longstanding stereotypical narratives and also because of limited capacity. Unless they are actively working against it, newsrooms can be complicit in historically discriminatory policies. Just as we are seeing a need for cultural sensitivity training amongst Chicago police, this is something that could also be useful in media outlets.

    IL: At its core, you say City Bureau is a journalism lab that provides hands on training for student journalists. What will you be teaching these young journalists? Is there anything you wish you were taught before pursuing a career as a journalist?

    AH: Our training approach is rooted in the foundations of journalism as well as the context of our location. The goal is to not only help students develop skills but to also get an understanding of hyperlocal civics. And in that regard it’s not just the students learning–everyone at every level is participating in an exchange of knowledge. Whether it’s better understanding these communities or better understanding how to use Final Cut X — it all matters. Having students understand they are working within a network of resources both human and not is also a way to expand their social capital. Two of us have gone through Medill (Bettina and Andrea) at a time when there was fear and uncertainty around tools like Twitter, blogs, etc. Instead of being apprehensive about new technology, we think a critical openness and willingness to experiment are essential to training. Also, if you are going to try to get into more “social justice” (however you define that) journalism it’s important to understand what assumptions you are carrying or who you are attempting to speak for that might already be able to speak for herself.

    IL: How does the program actually work? What does your newsroom look like?

    DH: The program works by bringing journalists of different ages and skill levels together to work in teams that help guide and teach each other. City Bureau is set up in a 3-track structure that includes high school-aged mediamakers, college-aged reporters and early career/independent reporters — all of which have opportunities to learn from each other throughout each cycle. By putting these reporters in teams led by our early career journalists, experience and knowledge is shared freely across the pipeline. Our founding group leads the newsroom and curriculum, where our reporters are assigned research reports and story assignments, learn journalism 101 skills (from man-on-the-street interviews to the art of FOIA) and attend educational workshops led by other working journalists. For our pilot cycle, we’re reporting around the Citizens Police Data Project, a new interactive database of more than 56,000 Chicago police misconduct complaints. Future cycles will tackle similar issues that are of utmost importance to the city as a whole, and the South and West sides of Chicago in particular.

    A second and equally important aspect of the program centers around our public town halls, hosted in partnership with Illinois Humanities. At these “reporting back” events, City Bureau journalists interact with communities that are often marginalized in media coverage in order to seek input and dialogue around their reporting through presentations and small group discussions.

    The final portion of our work uses our in-house editing process and connections in the media industry to direct City Bureau’s publication-ready stories to larger outlets in Chicago and around the country — stories we’ve published in the Chicago Reader, The Chicago Reporter, DNAinfo Chicago and The Guardian are some of our earliest examples. This serves several purposes: bylines for our reporters to show how their work can have immediate and powerful effects on public discourse; support for young journalists that may one day soon intern and/or work at such publications as well as the creation and distribution of high-quality content directly informed by marginalized communities in Chicago. 

    IL: Right now, how are you funding City Bureau? How does it hope to sustain itself in the long term?

    HB: The first few months have been a pilot project supported, in part, through funding from Illinois Humanities as part of their Reporting Back program. We also just received a planning grant of $25,000 from the McCormick Foundation, which we expect to put towards new start-up costs and some improvements to the newsroom, and we’re starting the conversation about funding with other foundations as well.

    Over the long term we believe City Bureau can be sustainable through a mix of syndication and other business revenue, and nonprofit revenue from private foundations and the general public.

    The revenue model reflects our mission. We know from experience that good journalism needs space and resources, and that the market is nowhere near as supportive of that as it used to be, but we also want to avoid a space where journalism becomes charity. “In the market but not of it” is phrase that has bounced around in our meetings before. We want to keep skin in the game, but we also want to effect a change in the rules.

    IL: City Bureau also wants to test and prove new business models for local journalism. What do you think are the biggest challenges local journalists face right now? How will City Bureau address these challenges?

    BC: As a group, we’re incredibly cognizant of the challenges facing local journalists. Each one of us has worked in a different capacity for different local outlets — from indie media, to nonprofit media to traditional newspapers. One challenge for local outlets is the ability to develop talent in racially and socioeconomically diverse populations. It’s very hard to be a journalist now without a college degree or a few unpaid internships under your belt. Another major challenge is that local residents rarely see fit to pay for good local journalism. Decades of advertiser-supported journalism have conditioned people into thinking that journalism is free or cheap. Now that the quality of reporting has fallen, especially in disenfranchised neighborhoods, people are starting to take note and demand better.

    Our program seeks to both lower the cost for traditional outlets to produce good reporting in these neighborhoods (by training journalists capable of that work, and preparing them for full-time jobs), and to increase the demand for it, through the relationships and connections being drawn at our town hall meetings and between our reporters and their communities. There has been evidence at the national level that increasing the diversity of viewpoints in journalism can increase the value (in page views and social shares) of content. Anecdotally thus far, we’ve seen that readers are responding well at a local level to our stories and that we are providing value to the outlets where we syndicate.

    Meg Dalton (@megdalts) is the associate editor of Mediashift and Idea Lab.

    Tagged: chicago city bureau crime journalist urban journalism urban media voices of youth young people youth

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