Q&A: Darryl Holliday, News Lab Director & Co-Founder @ City Bureau

This week, The Idea talked to Chicago-based Darryl Holliday about innovating local journalism and how he produces civic journalism that gives back to communities in City Bureau’s News Lab.

Tell me about yourself and your career path.

I’m a military kid, I grew up all over the world. I moved to Chicago nearly 10 years ago, when I went to journalism school then got an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times. That turned into a part-time reporting job, and then I worked at DNAInfo when it launched in Chicago. I left DNA a year before it shut down to work at the Invisible Institute, which is a media production company in Chicago that does a lot of investigative and legal work around police abuse. I started City Bureau from there about three years ago.

What is City Bureau?

City Bureau is a civic journalism lab. We are a non-profit startup. We run three programs. One is a reporting fellowship that pairs emerging journalists with more experienced journalists. They work collaboratively in our newsroom on the South Side of Chicago and produce work that is published in a variety of different outlets.

We run what we call a public newsroom, which is a lot what it sound like. We open up our physical newsroom once a week and bring in co-hosts from all over the city for a lot of hands-on skill-sharing, one week might be on FOIA, the next week might be with an organizer in the city, and the next week might be on reporting on police in schools. That’s free and open to anyone.

The last program is our documenters program, which pays and trains people to do a variety of tasks and jobs that originate in a journalism framework, but is really geared to civic engagement, democratizing journalism skills and distributing those skills to the public and bringing them into our production process. City Bureau is really focused on producing quality journalism content with as many entry ways as we possibly can create. They can be for regular people who have no experience in journalism and freelancers who have serious career path in journalism. We’re building public trust by bringing people into our work.

Is News Lab a lab in the sense that you’re developing apps and software or is it a lab in a more abstract sense?

We began by calling the whole organization Civic Journalism Lab, and we’ve grown a lot in the last year, so now we’re thinking of the entire organization a bit less as a lab and we have created essentially a department within City Bureau that is heavily involved with the documenters area. We are building an app currently that will help us more efficiently manage, coordinate and deploy documenters around the city. There are currently about 400 enrolled documenters, so we are regularly setting them out to public meetings and having them live tweet, take notes and bring them back to our newsroom. We are getting a lot of calls from different folks around the country about how others can replicate some of our programming that is working in Chicago and Detroit, so that often falls under the work of the News Lab in terms of how we can create workflows, processes, tools, and apps that can help folks replicate our work but also expand it within Chicago which is where we’re based and where most of our attention is.

What’s a project that has come out of News Lab that you’re particularly proud of?

It hasn’t come out yet, but I’ve spent a lot of time on it and we’ll be launching it publicly in November. Our documenters web app right now is what I’m most proud of. It began with a question, a problem we were facing: we wanted to get our documenters out to meetings, the police board, the city council, the board of education, all of these places where civic power is held, but there’s not always a lot of transparency or access for the everyday person in Chicago. So, the first problem that we came across was how to find all of those meetings. They often come in many different formats, they’re not standardized. There are about 130 meeting holding bodies in Chicago, and there are many websites where those meetings are being published.

We built around 50 web scrapers that scrape each one of those pages and pull the information from them onto one single page. We built a community of volunteer coders, and now we are building an app that takes all of that content that those meetings and adds a back-end which allows the documenters to sign in, post on the message board, see the meetings, claim assignments, and get paid for that work and basically send us back the content that we’re sending them out to get.

It’s an interesting early warning system, the idea being that journalism tends to be pretty reactionary: when an issue is boiling over it gets a lot of coverage, but by then it’s often too late for the everyday person on the street to really do something. By doing this flood journalism approach, by people learning all the skills that journalists have and giving that information back to us, we can see all the issues arising in the city, and that informs our coverage. The app is letting us do a lot of different things, one of which is democratizing journalistic skills we think journalists have a lot of power in society and we’re very focused on how do we as journalists share that power with the public for meaningful impactful change, in partnership with journalists, but also it’s going to help us export the program to other cities, facing the same problems: a lack of transparency and a lack of access. We’re very excited about where that’s going to go, we’re already seeing it happen in Detroit. Beyond that we’re interested in seeing who wants to bring that tool but also that level of access and civic engagement to their city.

What’s the biggest issue facing civic journalism today?

That are a lot of interrelated problems so it’s hard for me to pick one. We often talk about a lack of diversity within media. I mean across the spectrum and not just at the lower levels of organizations, but right up to the top. That influences coverage, sources, who gets quoted, how people are reached, and the problem related directly to that is public trust. It’s no secret there’s a huge issue with public trust. We’re working on a study with the Center for Media Engagement that backed up a lot of this in Chicago: folks basically saying that one, they wanted more of a relationship with these organizations, but two, they don’t feel represented as they really are: parachute journalism, a misrepresentation of coverage, a focus on certain types of coverage like crime, but not a holistic view of communities. These things are intertwined. We need to think about how we approach communities but what we are giving back in the process. The documenters program pays people to go out and document public meetings. We think a lot about not just taking as in taking sources and quotes, this transactional journalism that we see a lot, but what are we giving back to the communities that we are covering that they can use to further their own education, insight, and access into these processes.

What is the best thing you’ve seen in media recently from an organization other than your own?