How Did City Bureau’s Documenters Program Get Started?

One weird trick to get people to document and record public events for the greater good: Pay them! Here, we honor the origins of our fastest-growing program and look at the way forward.

City Bureau hosted its first Documenters Summit earlier this month. (Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo)

This year City Bureau will launch a pilot project of its Documenters program in Detroit with public radio station WDET thanks to a grant from Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Momentum around Documenters, our youngest program, grew significantly in 2017: It was awarded $50,000 in June to develop a public meetings calendar, the network expanded to more than 300 folks from more than 55 neighborhoods and we hosted our first Summit to gather feedback on our progress. By offering free, accessible trainings at libraries and other public spaces around the city, we’ve cultivated an intergenerational space for anyone who cares about where they live and wants to improve how the public is informed. It’s become a community of people who, though critical of traditional civic and media practices, are hungry for meaningful ways to empower their neighborhoods.

As we reflect on how City Bureau’s Documenters program has evolved since it started in September 2016, we wanted to take a moment to explain its origins. We believe open, intentional collaboration can lead to some of the best solutions for local media, and Documenters is a prime example of that. We also believe in honoring our roots.

But instead of just giving you highlights from the past year and a half, we sat down with our original partners, with whom we are proud to still work, to better tell the story. This narrative is living proof of what it means to work in community when reimagining civics and media.

Documenters, Pre-City Bureau

The original Documenters Program was created by Daniel X. O'Neil and Kyla Williams at the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic-technology funder collaborative founded in 2011 by the City of Chicago, the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust. Smart Chicago used technology to address access, skill and data needs across pressing citywide issues. (In December, it merged with sister organization City Digital to form the City Tech Collaborative.)

(Photo: Daniel X. O’Neil) Photos from the 2014 Chicago School of Data convening

In 2014, Smart Chicago was planning a two-day data conference, the Chicago School of Data project, and wanted to ensure it would be accessible to all. “[We wanted] to offer a different conference experience for those who couldn’t be present or just weren’t connecting to our organization,” Williams, former interim executive director of Smart Chicago, said. “We talked about, how do we document this conference in such a way that provides a unique information-sharing opportunity for and by regular people?”

From there, Smart Chicago recruited 42 storytellers (videographers, photographers, writers, etc.) from across the city’s 77 neighborhoods to record and document the two-day conference that featured technologists and civic agents. And instead of recruiting people as volunteers, Williams led the charge to ensure these individuals were paid for their work.

“I told Dan that we needed to honor these people and their position in the civic tech ecosystem,” Williams said. “We wanted them to be paid at a market rate.” (A book about the conference featuring Documenters’ work was published last November and is available for purchase here and for free online viewing here.)

For O’Neil, the initiative was significant because it aligned with his work pre-Smart Chicago, including co-founding the neighborhood discussion and informal news site EveryBlock. He considers it his life’s work to ensure there are records left behind about how regular people live their lives and interact within their communities.

“I spent the first 12 years of my life in Pittsburgh, where every library begins with the word ‘Carnegie.’ I spent summers in the shocking air-conditioned goodness of the library. I loved the microfiche machines — special contraptions for reviewing documents. I looked up newspapers, but the thing that got me the most was that the stories were in situ — it included all of the advertisements, weather reports, and errata — a true document of what people looked at on any given day,” he said.

This ethos informed the early days of the Documenters program. Following the first test run, Smart Chicago sought to integrate Documenters more fully into its organization. “We became part of a Knight Foundation cohort representing a diverse set of approaches to expanding community information and increasing community engagement,” O’Neil said. That cohort featured some of the country’s leading local media reformers, including Molly de Aguiar (now of the News Integrity Initiative) and Joshua Stearns (now of Democracy Fund). During meetups, members would discuss ways to improve news and information. “That cohort helped Kyla and I figure out what we valued, and for us that was working with regular people rather than experts and technologists,” he said. It also solidified Knight — who co-supported City Bureau’s iteration via the Protoype Fund this year — as the program’s biggest champion.

Ch-ch-changes

In April 2016, O’Neil (who was my mentor for the 2016 Voqal Fellowship and is now a City Bureau board member) granted City Bureau $5,000 and invited us to remix their Documenters program as a way to cover the report released by Chicago’s Police Accountability Task Force, which convened after protests rocked the city following the release of a video showing a Chicago police officer killing teenager Laquan McDonald. City Bureau hired and trained mentees from our youth media partners to document the Task Force’s public hearings and then recruited Documenters to annotate parts of the lengthy, wonky report with historical context, legal documents and news reports. The final product, dubbed the Task Force Tracker, allowed anybody to weigh in via the Genius annotation tool. We kept experimenting with the Documenters idea by more consistently sending note-takers to police board meetings.

A former youth mentee from Free Spirit Media’s Real Chi Youth program (foreground, with camera)) covers a Police Accountability Task Force meeting at Benito Juarez High School.

When O’Neil left Smart Chicago in May 2016, the organization began a year of strategic planning, according to Williams. Meanwhile, we at City Bureau expanded our version of Documenters program in September 2016 with a series of orientations and new assignments, attending meetings about the Obama Library happening in our own backyard, Woodlawn. These processes, though independent of each other, came to the same conclusion. In early 2017, Williams and Smart Chicago transitioned the Documenters program and its members to be housed solely under City Bureau.

“One of the lessons that emerged from our strategy sessions was that we realized we should’ve spun out Documenters into the community two years before it launched, since we were more of a convener and less of a direct-service [organization],” Williams said. “And for us it became obvious that City Bureau, who is on the ground in a way that we aren’t consistently, was our sister in information-needs specialists and could take on this program.

“I think it was the natural progression,” she added. “It would’ve been different if we went with some traditional outlet that didn’t touch community. But we knew, with City Bureau, these Documenters were going to be nurtured or have skills or appropriate leadership.”

So, now what?

Since then we’ve been recruiting hundreds more participants (anyone can apply!) and integrated the program into every facet of our organization. We’ve designed a series of six skills trainings, hosted dozens of workshops and covered roughly 753 hours of meetings.

During a September bootcamp with the Planning Coalition at the South Shore Library attendees designed their own block club newsletters. Photo Credit: Andrea Hart

The legacy of our collaborative origin with Smart Chicago continues. We are reimagining the program with new partners, like the Planning Coalition, a South Shore-based nonprofit reviving block clubs on the South Side. Along with Planning Coalition’s Executive Director Val Free, we trained their constituents to become Documenters and, in turn, they are using this knowledge to design better ways to share information in their neighborhoods. We’ve also partnered with ProPublica Illinois and many more to experiment with the powerful possibilities of this network of engaged citizens. We’re also planning a special project with the Resident Association of Greater Englewood—but more on that in a future blog.

The beauty of Documenters is its simplicity — anyone can start a similar program elsewhere. We often wonder what it would mean to replicate it beyond Chicago with mission-aligned partners. City Bureau prides itself on authentic placemaking through contextualized civic media, so how could this happen in another city, like Detroit? Or a rural town? The demand is there — we’ve heard from various journalism or journalism-adjacent organizations that are feeling the same local news pains across the country.

Whatever the next steps for Documenters are locally, in Detroit or beyond, we know it will be done in community: because that’s an essential part of making media better at democracy, as well as for it.

Support the City Bureau Documenters program by becoming a City Bureau Press Club member today.