City Bureau gets $10 million to make public meetings more public

As local news withers, one oft-heard concern is that its decline means that public meetings — and developments that affect residents — will go uncovered, since there will be no reporters to cover them.

Since 2017, City Bureau’s Documenters program has aimed to help solve that problem by training citizens to attend and document public meetings. “This community-powered reporting — written reports, social media, photos, audio and video — is, in many cases, the most complete record of consequential local policy decisions,” Documenters notes on its site. The initiative launched in Chicago and has since expanded to Detroit, Cleveland, and Minneapolis, with plans to launch this year in Atlanta (in partnership with Canopy Atlanta), Omaha (in partnership with The Reader), and Fresno (in partnership with Fresnoland).

Now, new funding will help Documenters expand further. City Bureau is one of three awardees of the Stronger Democracy Award, announced Thursday, and will receive $10 million.

Documenters will use the funding primarily to hire more staff, said Darryl Holliday, cofounder and executive director of national impact at City Bureau, and manager of the Documenters Network. (The positions — deputy director and director of technology — are open for applications now.) And it’s planning future roles to work with Documenters and site staff around editorial and journalistic collaborations, civic education, and government relations. For instance, in Chicago, staff and Chicago Documenters worked together to create a newsletter based on public meetings coverage; similar efforts have since launched in other cities.

Documenters has already trained more than 1,700 people (including, in Cleveland, a family of four who all serve as Documenters) who’ve covered more than 2,300 public meetings to date. They’re paid between $16 and $52 an hour — a minimum of $54 per meeting covered — with more than $363,000 paid out thus far. They range in age from 18 to 83, Holliday said. Sixty percent are people of color, and 75% identify as women or non-binary.

And the Documenters are having a direct effect on the spread of information in the cities they cover. In Minneapolis, for instance, the Documenters team recently addressed the city’s mayor and Board of Estimate and Taxation in support of continued live-streaming of public meetings, so that anyone in Minneapolis can watch. “That same board recently added funding in the budget to livestream their meetings next year,” Holliday said.

Photo of Chicago City Council chambers by Daniel X. O’Neil used under a Creative Commons license.

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