Want to Steal the Public Newsroom? Here’s Why You Should—and How

We’ve been working with outlets in Chicago and beyond to remix the #PublicNewsroom model. Check out what we’ve learned and what’s next.

Views from Public Newsroom #64: Motherhood and My Media Career

During the past year and a half, we’ve hosted nearly 70 Public Newsroom workshops featuring incredible local artists, organizers and journalists as hosts and more than 1,200 wonderfully inquisitive attendees. Every Thursday night we at City Bureau are reminded just how hungry folks are for an open, brave space to learn and exchange ideas about the city where they live.

Now this concept is spreading to other parts of Chicago — as well as the Mississippi Delta. In May we helped Mississippi Today reporters set up their first event in Cleveland. After a packed workshop at the 20th Allied Media Conference in Detroit where we helped attendees create their own Public Newsroom plans, we thought it’d be the perfect time to highlight these collaborations and share more.

So what is the Public Newsroom and why do we have them?

Every Thursday we gather journalists and the public to discuss local issues and share resources and knowledge to foster better local reporting. The Public Newsroom is free and open for anyone to attend, and anybody can propose to host a session, because we know reporters aren’t the only ones who have a stake in using media to create a stronger democracy. (You can see a full list of our past workshops here.)

We started out wanting to demystify and reimagine the reporting process, and while that’s happening, we ended up generating something so much richer. We’ve created a weekly gathering space for people who want to use public education to disrupt and repair problematic systems like the structures that perpetuate white supremacy or problematic local news coverage. Photographer and community organizer Tonika Johnson embodied this with her May 2017 session, “Who tells the story of Englewood?” Johnson, who went on to become a City Bureau reporting fellow, had attendees talk through the negative stereotypes of Englewood and what accountable community storytelling would look like for the South Side neighborhood she calls home.

Tonika Johnson presenting during Public Newsroom #17: Who Tells the Story of Englewood?

Johnson structured the evening to be interactive for a diverse audience with varying relationships to her work — something we require of all our presenters. This is an essential framework for the Public Newsroom: It’s not a lecture about a solution or project, but a space for feedback. It’s where, as one attendee noted, “the power lies in the person asking the question, not the one presenting.” And since the Public Newsroom is central to our community engagement approach, it isn’t tied to reporting projects. It’s our way of committing to community accountability all the time, not just on deadline or on a publishing date.

We take great pride in the Public Newsroom being a space where the learning field is leveled. It’s why the program’s origin was intentionally egalitarian: We launched with a Kickstarter in 2016 that attracted 662 donors from around the globe, whom we asked to limit their contributions to $10 each. Then, we began seeing the beautiful, generative community that developed around this weekly event, and we saw how valuable it could be to our friends and partners at local news outlets — and their communities — elsewhere. In late 2017, we began preaching this idea far and wide, starting with a 2017 People-Powered Publishing Conference clinic I co-hosted with Darryl Holliday.

Where has the Public Newsroom been replicated?

Our first two Public Newsroom collaborations have been with DePaul University’s student magazine 14 East and the nonprofit news organization Mississippi Today. Editorial leaders of 14 East magazine, Megan Stringer, Ally Pruitt and Marissa Nelson, have hosted three workshops this year as a way to have an “open dialogue” with their fellow students.

“We want to know what’s happening in our community that we should be writing about, and how the magazine has handled sensitive coverage,” Stringer told City Bureau. They kicked off their Public Newsroom in January with Bushra Amiwala, a DePaul freshman from suburban Skokie, Illinois, who ran for 13th District Cook County Commissioner.

In the Mississippi Delta, reporter Aallyah Wright saw a similar opportunity as the 14 East staff. “I just want to do this so we can form stronger relationships with folks in the community and see what’s going on,” said Wright.

This year I worked with Wright and her Delta colleague Kelsey Davis to design their first Public Newsroom on education reporting in the area. After 52 years of litigation, schools in Cleveland, Mississippi (one of the major towns in the Delta), were ordered to desegregate. And while national media paid attention to the ruling, it was up to local outlets like Mississippi Today to carry the story forward, according to Wright and Davis. As a result the duo started the series “Behind the Headlines” in Fall 2017 to document students’ experiences, and this work was on display during their first Public Newsroom. (Shout out to former Center for Investigative Reporting folks Cole Goins and Joaquin Alvarado for sparking this partnership in January 2017 — more on that another time.)

Prepping for our first Public Newsroom in the Delta. (From left to right: Ellie Mejia and Andrea Hart of City Bureau. Kelsey Davis and Aallyah Wright of Mississippi Today)

As you can imagine, this is a sensitive topic and people in the Delta often feel that media has misrepresented them or only pays attention when something bad happens, Wright and Davis told us. This sentiment echoes what we’ve heard from South and West Side residents in Chicago.

“When you hear about the Delta you hear a lot of folks say, ‘no one cares about it,’ or it gets painted in dire straits. I see it as our job to show people why folks should care and to understand what that looks like in our reporting,” Davis said.

Through our pre-planning we identified how the Public Newsroom could allow Wright and Davis to build consistent, stronger relationships with their community to unpack sensitive issues like school integration as well as teacher shortages in the area. What’s more, getting at the core of this model and how to facilitate it helped Wright and Davis think on their feet when hosting their first workshop last month. More on those lessons learned in a future post!

So, what’s next for the Public Newsroom?

Neither DePaul’s nor Mississippi Today’s Public Newsrooms look exactly like ours. They reflect the needs of each outlet’s audience and we’re excited to see them unfold.

For folks at City Bureau, both collaborations are reminders of the incredible value of fostering transparent, accountable dialogue on a regular basis, especially during this moment of distrust for media and when local news outlets are fewer and far between. Working with mission-aligned outlets allows us to further move the needle on local news.

We’re still exploring what other collaborations around the Public Newsroom are possible. We’re also designing a toolkit to better support folks trying to remix this model for their own organizations. We posed this question in Detroit this weekend and want to also share it here — what would it look like to build a network of folks interested in replicating the Public Newsrooms to reimagine community engagement in local news where they live?

Stay tuned for more updates on our #PublicNewsroom toolkit. Want to pitch a workshop in Chicago or start your own #PublicNewsroom? Drop a line to andrea@citybureau.org.

Support free and open workshops at City Bureau’s Public Newsroom by becoming a Press Club member today.