How Strengthening Democracy Begins With Better Local News
How can we make local news into invaluable civic infrastructure? News that’s really a public good? Darryl Holliday is a journalist, participatory-media advocate, and media entrepreneur based in Chicago working on just this. He’s the cofounder of and director of the news lab at City Bureau, a civic journalism organization based on the South Side. Here, Keith Hammonds of Solutions Journalism Network caught up 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 non-mainstream journalism. How did each experience contribute to your idea?
Darryl Holliday: At DNAinfo Chicago, I was on the crime and mayhem beat. I was reporting on fires, murders, all the worst things that happened in the city. When I moved over to Invisible Institute, we ran an online project that compiled complaints against the police. While doing that, we were thinking about what needed to change in Chicago: how to address misrepresentative coverage of communities of color, how to address the lack of business models for engaged, participatory journalism, and how to involve a diversity of voices in that work.
Hammonds: I’m fascinated by this phrase, the crime and mayhem beat. It reflects the way traditional media has covered low income communities, which is all about their pathologies.
Holliday: Right. The question is, can that reflex be fixed, or do we need new structures that reimagine what journalism can be?
Hammonds: Yes, and you expand on that question in your recent — and quite powerful — article in Columbia Journalism Review on journalism as a public good. You argue that mainstream journalism centers itself, not the information needs of its audience. So you’re questioning the premise of journalism in commercial media, which is that professional reporters should tell stories about and for others.
Holliday: Exactly. We know that newsrooms tend not to look like the areas they cover. They’re whiter, more male, more politically left, wealthier. That lack of diversity determines the way news is covered. We surveyed 900 Chicagoans across the city in 2018. We found that by and large, among communities of color, most had not met journalists. They felt more misrepresented than their white counterparts in the city.
Hammonds: How does the City Bureau open its door to underrepresented voices?
Holliday: We have three main ways. One is a paid reporting fellowship for folks who maybe couldn’t afford journalism school, but are passionate about journalism. They work with more experienced reporters in our newsroom in Chicago. Next, we host a monthly online two-hour workshop. It’s very hands-on, with small group discussions on civic issues. Our third program is our Documenters Network, where we train and pay people to attend public meetings: city council all the way down to the sub-advisory councils. Documenters take notes, live-tweet, and film. Since newsrooms are closing around the country, they’re filling a gap that directly impacts people’s lives. Over half are people of color.
Hammonds: So you are building a network of journalists who know their communities. Who decides what to report on?
Holliday: Fellows work with editors and reporters who have been working in newsrooms for decades. In our Documenters program, we are training everyday folks to attend public meetings, and they also get edited, so they’re learning on the job. We democratize the trade by distributing those journalism skills, which are really civic skills, to more people.
Hammonds: What I pulled from your article as your idea of positive change in journalism was this, “A free press, framed as a public good, should be measured by the ability of people to engage in the ongoing processes for positive change in their communities.” That’s powerful.
Holliday: Yes, and historically, journalism has attempted to get powerful people to enact changes. We’re trying to flip that. So when I talk about reframing change, I’m talking about measuring the ability of people in your coverage area to engage in big questions, to create the kind of civic action that they need. That’s a different metric of success. When we talk about Documenters going to public meetings, they aren’t just taking notes. They’re learning how public policy functions. And they’re taking that back to their communities.
Hammonds: They’re building the muscle of civic literacy.
Holliday: Right. When I hear community members ask questions like “Can I go to that public meeting?” It’s clear we have some work to do. Because civic participation depends on all of us, not just journalists, not just politicians.
Hammonds: You’ve said that places like barbershops are institutions that serve as real life information nodes. How can journalism tap into that broader civic information network?
Holliday: I want us to be thinking differently about how folks 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 consider ourselves part of an ecosystem beyond the newsroom. I want newsrooms to look more like libraries. At public access TV stations, they host free trainings, making the equipment available for public use.
Hammonds: What is the audience for participatory journalism?
Holliday: My favorite thing about participatory media is that the producers are the consumers. With traditional journalism, I am the producer of news and you are the audience, and you’ll get whatever I produce. With participatory news, the people who are most impacted by an issue can also play a role in news creation.
Hammonds: What about financial sustainability?
Holliday: Civic Bureau has individual donors and big donors, like foundations, who contribute to the pool. And we are also earning revenue as we expand the Documenters Network. But it’s a question I push back on in some ways. The reason is that I’m not sure that City Bureau needs to exist forever, if we are truly tackling urgent questions today and helping model principles that can show the way forward.
Hammonds: Many publishers would love to implement ideas you’ve shared here. But it’s a cultural change, not just for a news organization, but for a community as well. What advice can you offer?
Holliday: First off, if folks 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 wants to incorporate a participatory style in their newsroom. Secondly, I’d take it back to public access stations. Think about hosting trainings for 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 how to do journalism, to adapt it for this new era. That’s the baseline. In the end, journalism skills are civic skills. Some of the most exciting media organizations I know aren’t just producing news content or engaging people online, they’re working directly with people on skills and information they need to self-organize — whenever they live.