We’re Not Doing It Alone: How City Bureau Builds With Community Groups


City Bureau and IMPACT Family Center visit the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless on a recent field trip.

If you believe in the power of community, please consider contributing to our Public Newsroom campaign, and let’s reimagine media together.

Someone recently asked us: Do we think our journalists are solutions to some of the problems we see in Chicago?

We don’t think there is a single silver bullet to heal historic injustices in this city. Instead, we think that reimagining media within and alongside communities, particularly those who’ve been the most intentionally under resourced, can allow real solutions to surface. For us, it’s about being embedded in communities and paying homage to the groups that are already doing great things.

With every partnership — be it a neighborhood organization or larger institution — we ask the questions “what is it that you need?” and “how can we help?” in the first meeting. If we are to return journalism to its truest form of being a public good, there is a lot of distrust and historical injustice we have to acknowledge, and a lot of entrenched old habits in media organizations that we need to break. When we talk about building together, that means that City Bureau doesn’t take anything (whether it’s a piece of information, or access to an audience, or a group’s trust) without giving something back.

Step 1: Create a Place.

As we have designed our newsroom to address the above, we pulled inspiration from two of the city’s most influential youth spaces: Radio Arte and YOUmedia. (Full disclosure: I taught at Radio Arte in 2011 and 2012, as well as its sister organization Yollocalli Arts Reach)

Both groups embrace the concept of placemaking, building “vital public destinations” where people can gather and share a stake in improving the community, and apply it specifically to media and journalism.

Radio Arte’s frequency belonged to the community. The youth-led, Spanish and English radio station was the only one of its kind nationally. It was intimately rooted in the Chicago Latinx community, and that foundation created an intimate feel for listeners well beyond city limits. What’s more, it became a space for people to talk about complex societal issues, which grew community leaders.

Another critical component of our community embed model is mentoring — something the late Brother Mike Hawkins, a pioneering educator within YOUmedia, deeply understood. The youth media lab, based in Chicago Public Library branches, most famously helped to launch the career of Chance the Rapper and provided a platform and learning space for many young media makers who have gone on to succeed in their respective fields.

This summer we expanded our mentoring track and paired each of our reporting fellows with a youth media site: Free Spirit Media, IMPACT Family Center and Mikva Challenge. There, these journalists hung out with young people in their spaces to exchange skills and build relationships that translate into social capital.

City Bureau was able to give them access to better resources — like coordinating a field trip and intimate discussion with Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, or providing deep contextual information to youth making police reform recommendations to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This past spring, some of our youngest cohort filmed a video that was published in the Guardian US along with a story reported and written by more senior reporters.

In the words of placemaking advocates, the “vital public destination” we arecreating is a Public Newsroom. If YOUmedia could spark a music revolution, then imagine what a journalism space centered around similar values can do.

Step 2: Grow a Pipeline.

Community engagement and placemaking will help create the Public Newsroom, but the skills exchange that happens there has the potential for a longer-term impact on the industry. Diversity in media is a big topic in newsrooms across the country right now, but City Bureau puts inclusivity at the very heart of our operations — fostering connections with young people in neighborhoods where some of the nation’s biggest problems are on full display, but where very few professional journalists actually spend time beyond breaking news.

Not only does our mentorship program expand the social network of both our reporters and their mentees, it helps individuals recognize their own cultural capital. One example of this is our partnership with IMPACT in Roseland.

“The Far South Side is a service and resources desert compared to other areas of the city. This is the forgotten or ignored part of the city, although the crime and violence stats are comparable to Englewood,” IMPACT Family Center CEO and founder Marsha Eaglin told me. “The wealth of talent and possibilities are as rich as the North Side — just untapped and not cultivated.”

For seven weeks City Bureau reporting fellows conducted workshops on various journalistic skills while getting to know IMPACT’s students.

“Our youth definitely represent a community that is virtually voiceless, so teaching them skills and a means to allow their voices to be heard is not only great for now, but the real return on the investment is in the future. This was definitely evident this summer,” Eaglin added.

For City Bureau this is the first phase of connecting youth on the Far South Side to our network, in the hopes they will collaborate with the newsroom in some capacity — and if they want, start on the path to a professional journalism career. We’re not reinventing the wheel or coming into these spaces assuming that a pre-made model of journalism education will work in a completely new context.

As summer programs wrap, we are inviting all participants to join City Bureau’s Community Documenters team.

As we continue to remix our partnerships and test the capacity of this pipeline, we also are expanding opportunities to join our Documenters network (click to apply). Our Documenters program is a paid opportunity — open to the public — where people can learn basic reporting skills, make records of public meetings, do practical research and collaborate with journalists and other civic professionals.

If you believe in the power of community, please consider contributing to our Public Newsroom campaign, and let’s reimagine media together.