How can we turn local news into an invaluable social infrastructure? News that is really a public good? Darryl Holliday is a journalist, participatory media advocate and media entrepreneur in Chicago working on this. He is the co-founder and director of the news lab at city office, a civic journalism organization on the South Side. Here, Keith Hammonds of Solutions Journalism Network spoke with Holliday to learn more about his approach, and why it’s especially important now.
Keith Hammonds: Darryl, you started City Bureau in 2015, after working in both mainstream and mainstream journalism. How did each experience contribute to your idea?
Darryl Holiday: At DNAinfo Chicago I was on the crime and mayhem beat. I covered fires, murders, all the worst things that happened in the city. When I switched to Invisible Institute, we ran an online project that collected complaints against the police. As we did that, we thought about what needed to change in Chicago: how to tackle misrepresentation of communities of color, how to address the lack of business models for engaged, participatory journalism, and how to bring a diversity of voices to that work. involve. †
hammond: I am fascinated by this sentence, the crime and chaos. It reflects the way traditional media is paying attention to low-income communities, which has everything to do with their pathologies.
Vacation: Right. The question is, can that reflex be remedied, or do we need new structures that give a new perspective on what journalism can be?
hammond: Yes, and you elaborate on that question in your recent – and quite powerful – article in Columbia Journalism Review On journalism as a public good† You state that mainstream journalism puts itself first, not the information needs of its audience. So you question the premise of journalism in commercial media, which is that professional reporters should tell stories about and for others.
Vacation: Precisely. We know that newsrooms often don’t resemble the areas they cover. They are whiter, more masculine, more politically left, richer. That lack of diversity determines the way in which news is presented. We surveyed 900 Chicago residents in the city in 2018. We found that most of the communities of color had generally not met any journalists. They felt more misrepresented than their white counterparts in the city.
hammond: How does the City Office open the door to underrepresented voters?
Vacation: We have three main ways. One is a paid one reporting fellowship for people who might not be able to afford journalism school but have a passion for journalism. They work with more experienced reporters in our Chicago newsroom. We then organize a two-hour online workshop every month. It is very practical, with small group discussions on social issues. Our third program is our Documenters Network, where we train and pay people to attend public meetings: the city council through to the sub-advisory councils. Documentaries take notes, live tweet and film. As newsrooms across the country close, they fill a void that directly impacts people’s lives. More than half are people of color.
hammond: So you build a network of journalists who know their communities. Who decides what is reported on?
Vacation: Fellows work with editors and reporters who have worked in editorial offices for decades. In our Documenters program, we train ordinary people to attend public meetings, and they are also edited, so they learn on the job. We are democratizing commerce by spreading those journalistic skills, which are basically civic skills, to more people.
hammond: What I took from your article as your idea of positive change in journalism was this: “A free press, framed as a public good, must be measured by the ability of people to participate in the ongoing processes for positive change in their community.” That’s powerful.
Vacation: Yes, and historically journalism has tried to get powerful people to make changes. We’re trying to turn that around. So when I’m talking about reframing change, I’m talking about measuring the ability of people in your coverage area to engage with big questions, to create the kind of citizen action they need. That’s another measure of success. When we talk about Documenters going to public meetings, they’re not just taking notes. They learn how government policy works. And they take that back to their communities.
hammond: They build the power of civic literacy.
Vacation: Right. When I hear community members asking questions like “Can I go to that public meeting?” Obviously we have some work to do. Because civic participation depends on all of us, not just journalists, not just politicians.
hammond: You’ve said that places like barbershops are institutions that serve as real hubs of information. How can journalism tap into that broader citizen information network?
Vacation: I want us to think differently about how people really get their news. Of course it’s Twitter, it’s the Chicago Tribune. But it’s also word of mouth, right? We journalists need to take those sources seriously and see ourselves as part of an ecosystem outside the newsroom. I want newsrooms to be more like libraries. On public TV stations, they organize free training sessions, making the equipment available for public use.
hammond: What is the audience for participatory journalism?
Vacation: My favorite thing about participatory media is that the producers to be the consumers. In traditional journalism, I’m the news producer and you the audience, and you get everything I produce. In participatory news, the people most affected by a problem can also play a role in the news creation.
hammond: What about financial sustainability?
Vacation: Civic Bureau has individual donors and large donors, such as foundations, who contribute to the pool. And we’re also earning revenue as we expand the Documenters Network. But it’s a question I’ll come back to in a way. The reason is that I’m not sure that City Bureau has to exist forever, if today we really tackle pressing questions and help model principles that can point the way forward.
hammond: Many publishers would be happy to implement ideas you’ve shared here. But it’s a cultural shift, not just for a news organization, but for a community as well. What advice can you give?
vacation: First, if people are interested in participatory civic media, we are expanding our Documenters Network beyond Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Minneapolis, and would love to connect with anyone who would like to incorporate a participatory style into their newsroom. Second, I would bring it back to public stations. Think of training your community, opening up your newsroom and the facilities you have. That’s how you democratize skills and provide platforms for more people to learn journalism, to adapt it to this new era. That’s the basics. After all, journalism skills are citizenship skills. Some of the most exciting media organizations I know don’t just produce news content or engage people online, they work directly with people on the skills and information they need to organize themselves – wherever they live.