The anthropologist Margaret Mead gave us one of my favorite quotes:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
And when that small group consists of the four thoughtful, committed people behind City Bureau, a civic journalism lab in Woodlawn, then there is no doubt; change is not just coming. It’s here and it is brilliant.
Founded in 2015 by Darryl Holliday, Andrea Hart, Bettina Chang and Harry Backlund, City Bureau is leading by doing.
If you care about good journalism, you’ve probably already seen City Bureau’s stories in The Reader, The Guardian, the Atlantic, WBEZ or the South Side Weekly, it’s sister publication. But it’s possible you didn’t know it was City Bureau. (This is the part where I say, please read bylines and the stuff in italics at the end of the story. It’s important to know the people producing the stories you respect.)
City Bureau is all about local reporting, but nothing about its work is parochial. It’s creative, rich in issues and thoughtful. But it’s also filled with deeply personal storytelling. No matter how much data they analyze on an issue, you’ll always hear about the people affected by it. Scroll through the “Living With Lead” package of stories and you’ll find data visualization tables wedged in between the photo essay and oral histories of families affected by lead poisoning.
While it does not shy away from tackling big-ticket problems such as segregation and police reform, it also finds the weightiness it telling us about people. Few other news outlets are likely to introduce you to Nedra Fears or Page May or Kyle Kelly.
Yet, City Bureau not only covers its neighbors, it also employs and teaches them.
Each week, people are formally invited in to learn and to understand journalism at regular Public Newsroom sessions. And then there is the fellowship program — open to community members, not just journalism school graduates — where people learn by doing with guidance from veteran journalists.
The Documenters program trains how to keep public officials accountable — and sends these documenters to some of the many uncovered government meetings held throughout the city, where they report, tweet, take photographs and videos. They bring government meetings back into the light.
(Full disclosure here, we have helped edit City Bureau’s guidebook for that program and hosted a newsroom, as well. In fact, we are happy to help in any way possible because we, if you’ve not yet noticed, we believe in City Bureau’s work.)
And recently, hoping to understand the people of Chicago, themselves, as well as how they consume and support news, City Bureau joined with the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin to do a survey of Chicagoans.
As Darryl Holliday framed it in a blog about the study:
“At City Bureau, we believe that traditional media has neglected certain parts of the city, which is why we focus on creating equitable, representative coverage of the South and West Sides, where we often find that people feel very differently about local news media depending on how well-represented they feel they are in newspapers and on TV.”
The survey of 900 found that the majority of people who live on the South Side and West Side believe the media underrepresent and often misrepresent their neighborhoods.
North Siders and those who are predominately white think, not surprisingly, that things are generally OK with the Chicago media’s portrayal of the city.
But here is where a happy surprise comes in. The same people who feel left out of the stories and poorly represented are also willing to get involved and help the media. Isn’t that amazing?
I wish you had heard more about this survey from the media — or had joined many of us who went to hear about it during a public newsroom at City Bureau. It was a great night of discussion about the Chicago news ecosystem.
Still, it’s clear that some were listening — including the consortium, led by Edwin Eisendrath, that bought the Chicago Sun-Times.
The Bright One is going to get a Report for America grant. This program, which places journalists across the country via grants, will help the Sun-Times build its newsroom. And when you read the release about what the Sun-Times plans to do with its new staffer, you know the thinking came directly from City Bureau’s work:
“The Report for America corps member will focus on covering neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides, where crime, housing, education and environmental challenges persist. The reporter will focus not only on writing about problems in those areas but also on efforts to lift up those communities, including business development, infrastructure improvements and social-service interventions. He or she will cover government and community events; be a watchdog for taxpayer dollars, and tell the stories of everyday people.”
In fact, the survey is cited later in the news release. And so as a veteran observer of this city’s news ecosystem: I am thrilled. This means you can teach old watchdogs new tricks.
So, congratulations to both City Bureau and to the Chicago Sun-Times.
These days, it is clear: The only way the news media can survive, and maybe even thrive, is by being relevant. And with shrinking newsrooms, it is not likely that coverage will be expanded by hiring more reporters at the large newspapers and television stations. It’s the perfect time for news outlets to be listening to one another. There are more than 200 ethnic and community news outlets covering the city and suburbs.
Maybe, if those in the news ecosystem could see themselves as partners and be willing to cooperate — not just compete — with one another, they could find creative solutions. Cooperation is not a new or revolutionary concept. But it does mean changing attitudes and processes — something the news business is quick to write about, but always slow to adopt.
That’s why when it happens, we need to get excited — and we are. Here’s a hat tip to City Bureau. one of the amazing news organizations, leading the way in Chicago.