Disruptors or Repairers? How City Bureau Fits in the Local Media Landscape

Creative disruption is a concept often used in business to describe companies that are uprooting and changing how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day.” The theory originated from Harvard business school professor Clayton Christensen’s analysis of how the Japanese auto companies “disrupted” the American industry. Other examples include how Airbnb or Uber have reimagined their respective industries to make them, some would argue, more efficient. In media, one recent example of a disruptor is Buzzfeed, whose listicles and savvy use of social media has reshaped the way we look at digital news. But what does it mean to disrupt local news? And how can this disruption make local journalism more of a public good?

Above: The above diagram is from a local media ecosystem design workshop I hosted as part of news consulting work I am doing for Democracy Fund. Photo Credit: Josh Stearns

The media industry has seen plenty of disruption. City Bureau wants to do more than just that.

Disruption can happen as a result of circumstance or of choice. For example, the shift from print to digital information-sharing, especially in the context of advertising, has disrupted the journalism industry by circumstance. This has forced most media companies to re-evaluate their revenue models, and has contributed (among many other factors) to the demise of countless news organizations.

Meanwhile, at City Bureau, we choose to disrupt processes within journalism that are barriers to inclusivity and accountability. In our endeavor to build strong relationships with our audience, we disrupt processes that perpetuate harmful reporting and create community distrust. Disruption does not mean destruction. For us, disruption is the first step on the way to repair.

Our mission is to bridge the ideals of civic journalism with the social and economic realities in which it exists. That means we wish to make journalism more democratic, more of a public good—an ideal that existed long before City Bureau joined that fray. So we want to be clear about our desire to repair (rather than solely disrupt) the media landscape, building healthy relationships for the long-term sustainability of the industry.

What does all of this mean in practice? City Bureau’s Documenters program is a prime example. We developed this program out of our April 2016 partnership with the Smart Chicago Collaborative. We recruit engaged residents of various skill sets who care about their communities and want to see better, more accurate public information. So far we have onboarded roughly 50 of our more than 200 applicants to officially become Documenters. These freelancers have attended dozens of public meetings and have helped with City Bureau’s community engagement events.

Above: City Bureau hosts an intergenerational Documenters training session at the Greater Grand Crossing Library. Photo Credit: Andrea Hart

What are the Documenters disrupting?

  • Single-note, often negative coverage of the South and West Sides. Documenters assignments span this area and cover a variety of public meetings about education, environment, criminal justice reform and much more. They are gathering and sharing more complete information about these neighborhoods than many citywide media outlets.
  • The high barrier of entry to becoming a journalist. We often speak with community members who find the journalism industry opaque and careers unattainable, since experience is typically gained through unpaid internships or expensive degrees. The Documenters program offers an alternate path.
  • Traditional information sharing systems. Documenters’ reports create a digital archive of public meetings that otherwise might go unnoticed.

What are Documenters repairing?

  • Community distrust of media. By inviting everyone into the process of information gathering, we engender more trust and understanding of how and why journalists do what they do.
  • The process through which community members can hold media accountable. The program gives people a direct line through which to ensure events are properly documented and can be used by anyone (journalist or otherwise) to pursue more in-depth research and stories.

This work will continue to be tested and refined because the issues we care about are not rigid; they are living.

We are curious about the work you are doing that is disruptive and/or reparative in media. What processes are you stopping in order to reflect and reimagine?