Investing in Our Documenters = Investing in Our Community

On June 22, City Bureau was awarded a $50,000 prototype grant from Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation — here’s what we plan to do next.

City Bureau was 1 of 20 projects chosen to carry out the mission Democracy Fund Associate Director Josh Stearns laid out at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Phoenix on June 22.

In moments of uncertainty and volatility it can be tempting to gravitate towards a single solution to the pressing problem of misinformation and low public trust facing our media, technology, and democracy. However, when it comes to rebuilding the public square and ensuring what is shared is accurate information there are no silver bullets. As such, the projects receiving funding today represent a wide array of ideas and approaches from cognitive psychology and community engagement to computer science and news literacy. 
–Josh Stearns, Democracy Fund

Our Documenters program is in its infancy, but it’s already building local trust—not just by producing content, but by involving the public in the journalistic production process itself.

Here’s how the program works:

  1. Members of the public fill out an open application to become a Documenter, giving them access to our broader network
  2. After attending an orientation session, applicants become Documenters and get access to paid assignments created by our staff.
  3. Those assignments include a range of activities centered around the documentation of public meetings and events, i.e. audio/video recording a City Council session, live-tweeting a local community forum or drafting notes from a local police beat meeting
  4. Documentation resulting from these assignments is accessible to City Bureau reporting fellows and the public at large
  5. Documenters can improve their skills (and qualify for more assignments) by attending City Bureau trainings, taking on more paid assignments and hosting events at our Public Newsroom workshop series

How to Spend $50,000 on Community

We’ll start by addressing the clear barrier to expanding our Documenters program: the need for a platform to assist in the management and coordination of our growing Documenters network.

Since we launched the program in June 2016, we’ve received more than 200 applications and 50 applicants have attended an orientation. (The most recent was June 22 at our Public Newsroom, which hosts free weekly workshops at our newsroom on the South Side of Chicago.)

That workshop, like the orientations and trainings we host for our Documenters, shows the need we hope to support. We believe people want to be engaged in civic life — the problem is often that they haven’t been invited to the table. As journalists, we can bridge the gap between opaque civic processes that are largely inaccessible to the average person. Our Documenters program is a means of democratizing the tools and information needed to engage local citizens.

In addition to offering skills-exchange sessions and trainings, we hope to connect people with the information they need to leverage power, inform their neighbors and build trust with our news organization. We pay Documenters around $15/hour because we believe it’s a worthy investment, and we respect the time our Documenters put into strengthening their communities despite their busy schedules.

We’re honored to have been awarded a $50,000 Prototype Fund grant. Out of 800-plus incredible applications, we’re grateful that the selection committee at Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund (see: The Local News Lab) saw the potential of our Documenters program — and, more importantly, the power of our Documenters.

Over the next nine months, we’ll continue planning the online platform that will ultimately allow us to spread our Documenters model further. We’ll talk to members of the public, media organizations, technologists, organizers, funders, community groups and anyone else who wants to shape the future of civic journalism with us. We’ll post regular updates on our progress — both our successes and shortcomings — and we’ll create a handbook to share our findings, processes and structures with the public.

Follow along by signing up for our twice-a-month newsletter, joining our public Facebook forum and following us on Twitter. We welcome your input.