September 6, 2016

I often wonder if the work of making coverage more diverse is falling to the same underserved people newsrooms are trying to give a voice to.

Can these communities gently nudge or forcefully push back on parachute journalism — dropping in only when headline-worthy — and have an impact on increasing the number of qualified applicants? Before they even get into the pipeline, can people be encouraged to continue to pursue this profession?

Those questions are particularly important in Chicago, a mini-media capital that has a large minority population and a legacy news organization reinventing itself from within a newly sold citadel of journalism, Tribune Tower.

Efforts like Chicago’s City Bureau is an example of what is possible when the community becomes fully engaged in the editorial process. The fruits of this effort, launched last fall, reminds me of Chicago’s old City News Bureau, one of the country’s first cooperative news services (and the inspiration for the Broadway play, “The Front Page”).

RELATED: Building an Engaging Newsroom

They’re doing important work in communities where scarce resources have made deep coverage difficult. So far, City Bureau has held eight public meetings to share information from their reporting, hear from the community and be seen by those they are covering. The recently launched Documenters program allows for residents to be paid for analyzing policy reports and attending public meetings.

The journalism lab’s editorial director, Darryl Holliday, and fellow founders Andrea Hart, Harry Backlund and Bettina Chang acknowledge that their combined professional experiences “didn’t come without acknowledging gaps in coverage, particularly in the myriad ways Chicago’s communities of color are marginalized out of critical conversations, Holliday said in an email.

“We know media is capable of better,” he said.

Holliday and I exchanged several messages (and a phone call) in recent days as I tried to better understand City Bureau’s approach and see whether it holds valuable lessons for others.

City Bureau was recently successful in reaching a $10,000 goal via Kickstarter for creating a physical community newsroom. The project reached its financial goal early, but you still pushed forward trying to get 1,000 backers. How important was it to you as an organization to get that many backers?

While the $10,000 will go a long way toward launching our upcoming Public Newsroom and Documenters program, our goal with the Kickstarter campaign was to show that people will support media that stands for their best interests — and that journalism that makes people proud to live in their communities needs to be supported by those communities.

City Bureau aims to involve folks in civic journalism — to us that’s journalism that puts people first while performing a necessary civic function, that of a watchdog, community media source and, at times, a disruptor. We didn’t hit our goal of 1,000 but we gained hundreds of new supporters along the way. That means the world to us — and we’ll make each pledge count toward our mission.

How important is the existence of a physical location to your efforts?

It’s key. We train young, emerging and professional journalists in a collaborative environment that produce investigative, feature and public event coverage, but our burgeoning South Side newsroom is where we do the work of showing the nuts and bolts of our work.

From our regular open house events in our space and public “town hall” events at the locations of our partner organizations, being present in the communities we cover is foremost in our reporting. It’s a place where aligned, and sometimes disparate, groups can engage with journalism as it’s being produced and keep us accountable face-to-face.

More literally, it’s where we hold newsroom hours for our reporters — it’s a place where we come together as journalists to mentor and encourage each other in the work we’re committed to.

People often argue it’s important to change the recruiting pipeline to diversify news coverage, but it’s also critical for communities to demand more than parachute coverage. How does City Bureau equip its audience to do that, if at all?

Our newsroom is intentionally diverse and explicitly inclusive. We don’t just think communities of color need to see journalists who look like them in the professional media pipeline, we believe more journalists of color need to be hired, trained and promoted to positions of power.

The best cure for parachute journalism is employing and supporting reporters who come from the communities that we cover — reporters who speak the language, know the key players and, most importantly, are shaped by personal experiences that reflect the critical issues we cover day to day. I can’t say we’ve found the answer, but there’s no doubt our ideas are spreading and our approach is bearing fruit.

Do the residents living on Chicago’s South and West Sides feel they have a stronger voice now? Do they feel as though their stories are being heard?

You’ll have to ask them, honestly. We continue to hear both sides — that residents of the South and West sides don’t feel heard and/or respected, but also that there’s hope in media efforts that push back against false narratives and engage those same communities in-person. My takeaway: There’s still work to do.

Are your efforts helping change the image of journalism as a gatekeeper of information to a curator? Why or why not?

My personal opinion is that journalism works best when it does both — my hope is that our efforts are helping to define <when journalists should curate, when they should act as gatekeepers and when they should take a step back and provide a platform for folks to speak for themselves.

Has it had an impact in terms of media literacy among those living in the communities served?

I’m not sure we can answer this question yet. I think our Public Newsroom and Documenters program will shed some light on our media literacy impact and, ideally, those efforts will engender new ways to serve communities we work in — with support and input from those communities on what they need most.

Do American cities still suffer from what Studs Terkel described as a national Alzheimer’s disease? How does community engagement help combat this?

I’m glad you mentioned Studs. His legacy is an inspiration and I’m proud to be a Studs Terkel Award-winner, reporting in the city we both love. Without getting too theoretical, I’d say that community engagement has the ability to alleviate our national Alzheimer’s by making the world a bit smaller.

By that I mean, by focusing on the needs of individual communities, directing energy toward their particular needs and relating those needs to the civic processes that affect us all. For us, that all begins with meeting people where they are while creating earnest dialogue built on journalistic practices. Ask me how that turns out in five years.

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André Natta is a journalist and columnist based in Birmingham, AL. He serves as digital media producer for Birmingham, AL NPR affiliate WBHM and performs…
André Natta

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