By Darryl Holliday
As a former beat reporter and photojournalist, I’ve often thought of the way imagery intersects with the words and emotions we ascribe to key events or influential ideas. I hadn’t applied those insights to democracy, though, until media scholar Henry Jenkins raised that provocation at a 2007 conference to explore “What Is Civic Media?” After defining civic media as “any use of any medium which fosters civic engagement,” Jenkins raised his personal concern about “what democracy looks like.”
For most people, it looks like outdated images of colonial America—the American Revolution and the Boston Tea Party, or Frank Capra- and Norman Rockwell-styled images “consciously constructed by the popular front of the 1930s.” Jenkins pointedly noted that our contemporary vision of democracy is rooted in the past. That’s a problem.
“One of the challenging things about a center for the future of civic media is to imagine democracy itself having a future,” said Jenkins, then codirector of the Center for the Future of Civic Media, which closed in 2020.1 As a journalist, I believe that today’s civic media are solving for a historic challenge: imagining journalistic processes that strengthen democracy rather than erode it.
Part of the solution lies in updating our collective image bank of democracy, and journalism plays a critical role in that process. Today, I don’t doubt that images of Black Lives Matter uprisings and even the U.S. Capitol insurrection would make it into an updated “image bank.” In all likelihood, when you imagine democracy today, the imagery you see is from a news report on the latest mass action—from the pink, cat-eared, wool-knit caps of the 2017 Women’s March and “I can’t breathe” signs raised en masse for George Floyd to a single black Q on a white background.
Societal change has always demanded collective, informed action—and news media, as in past periods of social upheaval, has undisputed power to shape the tone, tenor, and tempo of our public dialogue. On the ground, journalists serve as primary witnesses of civic action in that they are often judge and jury—deciding which imagery is shown, which voices are given a platform, and how complicated issues are perceived by a busy public. But editorial decision-making processes vary widely across news organizations, and the rules that govern journalistic production are often opaque to the public.
The civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis quipped on this pathology in an excoriating social media post, in November 2021, in which he laid out the differences between “what mainstream media treats as urgent and the greatest threats to human safety, well-being, and survival." 2
“Who is deciding to cover shoplifting with ‘breaking news’ urgency but not air pollution, wage theft, and fraud that leaves people and their children homeless and in poverty?” he asked. “Do the social and economic circles of journalists determine what they think is newsworthy?”
The simplest answer is, of course, yes. The longer I’ve worked in this industry—and the more I’ve grappled with the core questions of what and who makes journalism in the public interest—the more clearly I’ve seen that a news industry that doesn’t reflect the public is bound to misrepresent it. How can local media understand and reflect a community when those who decide what’s important to that community are so far removed from most of those who live there?
From the 1968 Kerner Commission Report to the last American Society of News Editors survey in 2018, study after study affirms that the professional media workforce is, and has been, disproportionately White, male, able-bodied, and cis, and that it is made up of people who are significantly more wealthy, educated, and politically left than the people in their coverage areas. 3
Unfortunately, the top-down view from journalism’s ivory tower shapes the view from the ground. To preserve their role as impartial observers, newsrooms, journalism schools, and journalism affinity groups have sworn a vow of “objectivity,” a core tenet of journalistic professionalism that insists journalists not reveal their bias for or against either side of an argument. Paired with the media industry’s unrepresentative demographics, journalism’s obsession with objectivity often serves to normalize the perspectives of the same dominant groups that make up American newsrooms. Though designed to ensure fairness and nonpartisanship, objectivity often serves to protect the status quo when journalists themselves don’t share the lived experiences of those most harmed by an objectively inequitable society.
As a Black man born and raised in the United States, I have never expected the commercial media industry to represent people who look like me. When a Black man or woman is featured in the news, it is likely to be in a crime story (as if police arrests represent the totality of crime), a feel-good story about people of color defying the odds (as if it’s unusual), or a story of protest in varying degrees against institutional forces (as if all we do is struggle). I was assigned to write a version of all these stories during my time as a junior reporter. And while any number of these stories—from a range of decent writers—may be factual and well-intentioned, they are woefully incomplete, and they paint a picture of Black America that defines perceptions of individual people and communities across the country. This isn’t solely a matter of journalistic priorities; it’s a matter of how we understand and relate to each other—and who gets to add to our collective knowledge bank.
Who and what we see when we talk about democracy—and what types of civic information are produced in that democracy—are collective issues that we journalists can’t solve on our own. That’s why the best response to the current crisis in journalism is to get more people involved at a level on which everyone is willing and able to participate—not just as news consumers, but as distributors and, most important, as producers of local information.
I advocated for a more participatory public media in a 2019 Collaborative Journalism Summit keynote address, calling on the nonprofit media industry to move beyond the successes of engaged journalism” toward a journalism that informs, engages, and, most important, equips people with lived experience of the issues we cover to be news producers and distributors, in addition to consumers. Later, I advocated for this in “Journalism Is a Public Good. Let the Public Make It,” a 2021 Columbia Journalism Review special report that charts a path from the failure of commercial media to solutions focused on building public infrastructure through which everyone can find, fact-check, and produce civic information.4
Ivory tower journalism has failed. Journalism that works toward information equity must acknowledge journalism’s top-down history, shift power to communities that have been left out of the public narrative and embrace accountability for past harms. Then, it can truly be trusted to help define and communicate a shared vision for our democracy.
A New Deal
If effective democracy requires a free press, as the framers suggested in 1787, a new deal between the public and the press is overdue. Local journalism that relies on community engagement, builds trust between journalists and the communities they serve, and centers on social, racial, and economic justice is needed in this time when trust in the institutions that impact the lives of millions of Americans is on the decline.
Journalists don’t just define the visual image that we associate with a given event or time period; they write the narrative of our time. Journalists hold a great deal of power as stewards of accurate, actionable information necessary for the expression of collective desires and common understandings. As news media have become increasingly professionalized and commercial, cracks and chasms between the public and the press have emerged. While many Americans see skepticism of news media as healthy, according to a 2020 report from the Pew Research Center, more than half of all Americans think news organizations are opaque in terms of how they are funded (72 percent), where they have conflicts of interest (60 percent), how they choose and find sources (57 percent), whether a story is opinion or factual (55 percent) and, importantly, “how they produce their stories” (51 percent).5
In Chicago, the shape and color of a solution was illuminated in the Chicago News Landscape study, a survey of 900 Chicagoans and their perceptions of local media, published in 2017 by the Center for Media Engagement in partnership with my organization, City Bureau.6 The study showed striking differences in the public’s perception of media that correlated strongly with racial and geographic lines in the city where South and West Side neighborhoods are comprised largely of Black and Latino/Hispanic Chicagoans and where North Siders identify largely with the city’s White population. South and West Siders were more likely to say that stories about their neighborhoods were too negative. They were more likely to say stories about their neighborhoods “quote the wrong people” and were less likely than their North Side counterparts to agree that stories about their neighborhoods “do a good job of showing what is going on.” In addition, South and West Siders were less likely to have ever been contacted by a journalist than residents of Chicago’s North Side and Downtown.
Yet, the same study found that, despite feeling poorly represented by—and disconnected from—Chicago news media, South and West Side residents were significantly more interested in taking action by volunteering with local news outlets in the production of local news and information (64 percent of South Siders and 67 percent of West Siders compared to 43 percent of North Siders).
While findings that many Chicagoans think they are underrepresented and misrepresented in the public narrative aren’t new, the Chicago media landscape study affirms a public desire to help create more equitable, engaged local media coverage. Given the gaps that have emerged between the professional press and an increasingly diverse public, what shape might a new contract between the press and the public take?
It isn’t just that the business model of journalism is broken; a new model built from the wreckage of the old may not be enough to save it. Today, the production of journalism is essentially controlled by an unrepresentative elite. Commercial journalism as a field of independent and consolidated media entities, established ethics, and public/private professionalization pipelines remains top-down and unrepresentative, rooted in profit and distanced from its stated purpose as public advocate and protector. The Fourth Estate can no longer claim its role as a critical component in a functioning democracy.
At the same time, new, participatory media organizations are countering decades of media corporatization, co-optation, and over-professionalization with networked, collaborative, and self-organizing models.
These new opportunities are not unpaid internships or opportunities for “exposure.” At their best, they are acts of cocreation around common experiences. An excerpt from the executive summary of City Bureau’s 2021-2024 strategic plan charts an evolution of news production at the Chicago-based civic journalism lab that we hope to see take shape across the country:
As we learned and grew, our focus shifted from triaging gaps in the existing local media infrastructure to cultivating a new, more equitable and democratic system that could replace it entirely. Our experience shows that, to live up to its ideals, journalism needs many, many more people involved—not just as consumers, but as producers and distributors working in collaboration with professional newsrooms.
A growing list of nonprofit community-media organizations are bolstering local information ecosystems by working directly with communities most impacted by systemic injustice. From Canopy Atlanta, a community-led nonprofit journalism project:
Our mission is to equip metro Atlantans to report in collaboration with experienced journalists about the issues their communities care about most. We tell stories that directly respond to neighborhood needs, partner with existing community information systems, and build neighborhoods’ capacity to keep obtaining information from public records, officials, or archives.7
From Outlier Media, a Detroit-based service journalism organization:
We identify, report, and deliver valuable information to empower residents to hold landlords, municipal government, and elected officials accountable for long-standing problems.8
And from Resolve Philly, a highly collaborative organization dedicated to equitable news practices:
Our work centers on improving how misrepresented communities are covered by the media. We believe that in a time of widespread mistrust, political division, and industry upheaval, journalists must reconsider not only what they report, but how they find, frame, and tell stories.9
It comes as no surprise that “civic,” “community-led,” “service,” and “collaborative” are the words these organizations use to describe their journalism. The new public media eschew exclusivity, competition, and representative governance in favor of what the authors Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms call “new power values” in their book New Power—open-source collaboration, opt-in decision-making, self-organizing, and networked governance.
To counter current threats to our democracy and address the problems facing our country, many of these organizations believe that journalism needs to adapt, borrowing from tried-and-tested approaches to public education, community organizing, movement-building, and civic engagement that cultivate collective change. The current local news media are struggling for finances, relevancy, and purpose, but, with innovation and investment, the collapse of the current business model could give way to stronger, more participatory media that are integrated with the local ecosystems they serve.
Upending Top-Down Journalism
At City Bureau, our mission is “to equip people with skills and resources, engage in critical public conversations, and produce information that directly addresses people’s needs. Drawing from our work in Chicago, we aim to equip every community with the tools it needs to eliminate information inequity to further liberation, justice, and self-determination.”10
One of the places in which we’ve seen the clearest need for civic intervention is in the public’s relationship to the thousands of public meetings that take place across the country every week. After all, Americans have the opportunity to vote for president every four years, but, according to our Documenters Network database—an online repository of dates, times, and official records from public meetings—there are about 600 public meetings held by government agencies and hosted by local elected officials every month, just in Chicago.
The 1976 federal Sunshine Act—officially at least—made public meetings workshops for democracy where local policy is shaped and where residents can witness, learn about, and act on the systems that impact their lives. Every day, in municipalities across the country, many of these government meetings happen with no oversight or input from the public. Although transparent by law, in practice, public meetings can be hard to find and difficult to follow without context. And as local newsroom capacity has diminished, the reporters who previously interpreted for the public are disappearing. These empty meeting rooms are a point of failure for our civic information system and a critical missed opportunity for authentic democracy.
Disengagement from public meetings is both a reflection and a cause of Americans’ collapsing trust in institutions. Government that is hard to access is hard to believe, which creates fertile ground for misinformation.
It should come as no surprise that school boards have recently become the battlegrounds of choice for protesters who are “opposed to mask policies. Vaccine mandates. LGBTQ rights. Sex education. Removing police from schools. Teaching about race and American history, or sometimes, anything called ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ or even ‘social-emotional learning,’” according to National Public Radio education reporter, Anya Kamenetz.11
Public meetings also offer a unique opportunity for democratic renewal. Listeners can both reflect what they learned and change how officials behave, becoming trusted sources of information in their community. All that’s missing is the right network of support to ensure that the transformational potential of public meetings is aimed at liberation, justice, and self-determination for all. With this new civic infrastructure, public meetings could become spaces for community alignment and honest disagreement about what liberation and justice mean at the local level, where people can engage and constructively challenge one another about their shared ideas and principles.
City Bureau is a civic journalism lab cultivating the information and storytelling networks that democratize access to civic power. Our vision for the future of local news upends the top-down model of journalism. It’s a commitment that reframes the traditional consumer-producer relationship into one of cocreation, with journalists and communities working together to produce essential public goods.
Our Documenters Network trains and pays local residents to attend and document government meetings. It turns the knowledge, relationships, and capacity of local residents into a powerful community information resource through civic reporting, local newsletters, and online and in-person events. As of August 2022, this network is made up of more than 1,900 people who have collectively covered more than 3,000 public meetings.
Although Documenters vary in age (ranging from 18 to 83), gender identification (66 percent female and 8 percent nonbinary) and race/ethnicity (50 percent are people of color), the common link among all Documenters is that they want to help inform their communities.
Documenters across the country have reported a high degree of interest in developing new skills, getting more involved in their communities, and becoming producers and distributors of accurate information in their areas.
“When I go to municipal meetings in Chicago, I end up learning stuff that not only is information that educates me, but it also gives me and the groups I work with a chance to do more,” says Cordell Longstreath, a 32-year-old educator, activist, and Documenter who moved around the Midwest before coming home to settle in Chicago’s South Side Englewood neighborhood. And, he adds:
I’m able to bring the information directly back to Englewood because if you just tell people the information, they’ll start going to the meeting. So what I’ve learned is I have to go to the meeting and not only document it but actually learn what might be useful for my community and then go to specific people or groups and inform them. So that’s how [I’ve] been connecting [my work and people].
Social scientist and public interest technologist Erhardt Graeff might call this “monitorial citizenship,” a term originally coined by Columbia University journalism professor Michael Schudson, which Graeff describes as:
a form of civic engagement in which people collect information about their surroundings or track issues of local or personal interest in order to improve their communities and pursue justice. Common activities of the monitorial citizen include collecting information, sharing stories and insights, coordinating with networks of other civic actors, and pursuing accountability for institutions and elite individuals and their perceived responsibilities.12
Author and media professor Ethan Zuckerman agrees that “monitorial citizenship is a powerful way of holding institutions responsible that benefits from technology because it allows many people working together to monitor situations that would be hard for any one individual to see.”13
While people may come into the Documenters Network with a monitorial citizen mindset, they leave (and return) with something more: the development of civic knowledge, journalistic skills, opportunities to practice those skills in a civic capacity, and the formation of interpersonal relationships that happens within a community of practice.
“The thing that I love the most—that I appreciate the most about City Bureau and that I think is special—is that journalism is a field that should be accessible to everyone,” says Isabel Dieppa, a 37-year-old Documenter-turned-engagement reporter for the Fresno Bee, who knew she wanted to be a journalist but lacked the resources to afford the four-year journalism school she was accepted to after high school. She explains:
Especially if you’re low-income or rural and you don’t have a local paper, you should be able to get the tools that you need in order to report on what’s happening because people are passionate about their community. . . I feel like what makes Documenters special . . . [is that] it’s an open civics training that you can do a lot with. I learned a lot of skills that helped me to not just be a better citizen but also inform the type of work that I want to do.
Paid assignments emerge from this community but other, often unforeseen, assets emerge as well, the value of which can’t easily be measured. These can include personal connections made via our Documenters-only message board, book clubs organized by and for Documenters, and Documenter-led webchats that provide a space where Documenters can share their skills and lived experience with other Documenters.
Daniel Wolk, a 76-year-old collegiate educator with a background in social and cultural anthropology, who has worked in refugee resettlements teaching English as a second language, had this to say about becoming a Documenter:
I actually had very little experience going to public meetings. . . I think that one reason why members of the public are in such a bad position to do anything about government is that we don’t understand how government works well enough. We don’t understand who’s making the decisions and where they’re making the decisions. And being a Documenter, you learn a lot about that.
Over time, we hope that tens of thousands of trained Documenters, who are trusted sources of civic information in their communities, will have transformative impacts on civic life in the form of more accountable local government, and that effective citizen oversight and legitimate public trust in institutions will lead to more engagement with elections and other civic processes.
Documenters and other community reporters should contribute to a systemic shift in how local media is produced, specifically by enabling people of color and others marginalized in existing systems to play central roles in shaping civic information.
A Promising Start
Drafting a new contract between the press and the public will take time.
A renewed movement for participatory, public media may be in its infancy, but it stands on the shoulders of public media movements that came before. A patchwork constellation of community information hubs already exists, woven into the fabric of their respective communities. Historically, these nontraditional community information conductors have been subsidized in varying degrees by public taxes:
- There are more than 10,000 public libraries across the country serving as living archives and real-time verifiers of community information. They are often the first and last resort for low-income and vulnerable people most in need of direct access to accurate, timely, relevant information, and they provide professional support for people on how to access it.
- The Alliance for Community Media has counted 1,677 PEG (public, educational, and government) access channels across the country. These local TV and radio stations host trainings, produce local news, provide community meeting space, and build local connections.14
- Similarly, there are more than 1,500 low-power FM stations owned by Indigenous tribes, religious groups, immigrant communities, and nonprofits across the country. Though they aren’t always publicly funded, these stations are often highly participatory.15
- Finally, even though they don’t fit the usual definition of mass media, there are more than 34,000 post offices across the United States. As author and professor Victor Pickard points out, “These spaces could become centers for different kinds of community media, from weekly newspapers to municipal broadband networks.”16
- High school and college newspapers, churches, block clubs, community organizations, and other civic and community-based organizations round out a networked community information service in the making.
A newsroom that connects existing civic assets around the participatory production and distribution of accurate, trustworthy, locally relevant information will build a future for local media as a true public good. No number of news articles will save us from the challenges ahead, but there are a million people willing to take on the role of “Observer” for the League of Women Voters, “Court Watcher” with Court Watch NYC, “Community Correspondent” with Model D, “Info Hub Captain” with Resolve Philly, or “Documenter” with City Bureau—or any number of participatory media roles with public access TV and radio stations across the country. These people want to take action for their neighborhoods, blocks, buildings, or local newsrooms; they want to inform, engage, and equip their communities. So, let’s build new newsrooms as civic hubs and integrate existing newsrooms into community spaces. Let’s train many more people to commit acts of journalism without going into debt for a costly degree. Let’s open up the field of journalism to include residents working alongside reporters on some of the biggest challenges facing our communities.
Imagine what kinds of data-gathering and community-based news products a network of thousands of people who care about their city could create if they were networked by a central, open-source technology and participated in journalism as a public good. Just as “citizen scientists” collaborate across the country to collect data and answer real-world questions on everything from lead pipes and light pollution to bird populations, a network of community journalists could monitor civic actions and institutions in a way that supports collective action. And what could we call this national community of practice? If that “network of networks” amplifies local voices and equips people with the skills needed to make and sustain change in their communities, we might call it a civic media movement or social movement, as Peter Block does in his 2008 book, Community: The Structure of Belonging:
Collective change occurs when individuals and small, diverse groups engage one another in the presence of many others doing the same. It comes from the knowledge that what is occurring in one space is similarly happening in other spaces. Especially ones where I do not know what they are doing. This is the value of a network or even a network of networks. Which is today’s version of a social movement.17
For years, commercial news media have failed communities across the United States, catering their resources toward content that serves the interests of the few and leaving many communities without access to the basic information needed to hold decision-makers to account between election cycles. This moral failing is built into the journalistic orthodoxy that consolidates power among already powerful private media entities.
In the coming months and years, as each U.S. community navigates four interrelated crises—an ongoing pandemic, economic setbacks, systemic racism, and ecological disaster—journalism must generate new, noncommercial tactics to survive. Solutions that are not cocreated with communities most affected by these crises are at high risk of replicating the same inequitable infrastructure that has led the journalism industry to this point of sharp decline. Journalism that sees itself as part of a connected ecosystem can lead to a civic media infrastructure that is of its community. Paired with organized action, including community organizing, mobilization efforts, mutual aid, social movement building, and other levers for collective change, civic media freed from what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls journalism’s “view from nowhere” can better engage and connect vital and often disparate functions of democracy that inform traditional civic processes, from voting and petitioning elected officials to authentic mechanisms for collective problem-solving.
As I noted at the start of this essay, Henry Jenkins suggested back in 2007 that one challenge to the future of civic media “is to imagine democracy itself having a future.” I’d add that one of the challenges of democracy is to imagine a world where journalism has a future. Innovative news leaders and noncommercial newsrooms are springing up alongside community information hubs that have fought for years to preserve public media infrastructure. These information ecosystems are a bellwether for change that could point the way to a new civic movement in the United States—one in which people across the country play a critical role.
Darryl Holliday is cofounder of City Bureau in Chicago, where he serves as a co-executive director of national impact. In 2019, he led the development of Documenters.org, an award-winning web app that pushes the boundaries of the traditional means by which journalism is produced and challenges the notions of who should have the power to report what happens.