Many reporters come to love the minutiae of local government. Spend enough time observing council meetings, and you’ll notice that seemingly menial conversations can lead to policy and budget discussions that affect entire communities.
“I think public meetings are workshops for democracy,” said Darryl Holliday, a former reporter and the co-founder of City Bureau. “I know big decisions get made at some of the most boring public meetings… but someone has to be there for us to know that.”
This is where the Documenters Network comes in.
With local news outlets closing across the U.S., and others tightening their budgets and shrinking their staff, there isn’t always a reporter available to cover every city council meeting. Documenters Network, created in 2018 under City Bureau’s umbrella, trains and pays citizens to take notes at underreported public meetings. The network has sites in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Minneapolis. Each site employs part- or full-time staff members who edit and post meeting notes online, create newsletters and lead other special initiatives.
The goal of the network is to make public information accessible to everyone. By recruiting non-journalists, the project eliminates barriers between news producers and consumers.
Holliday led the network’s development and now oversees its strategic growth. The Minneapolis site opened this year, and there are plans to open more sites in the South, the Great Plains and the West Coast in the near future.
Documenters have learned to recognize violations of their state’s open meetings acts and some have gone on to become community organizers. But what’s been most rewarding, said Holliday, is the way the project has impacted citizens’ civic literacy.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a Documenter say, ‘I didn’t know I could go to that meeting.’ Think about that — these are meetings held by elected and appointed officials, ostensibly for the public, and many people don’t know that they’re allowed in,” said Holliday. “Local people are ultimately the ones we need involved in solving local issues. They can’t do that if policymakers are working in silos.”
Izzy Stroobandt moved to Chicago in August 2020 to attend Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Because of the pandemic, she said it was “probably the worst time to get to know a city, especially at the hyper-local level.” She signed up for Documenters and, a year later, found herself live tweeting the entirety of an eight-hour long Chicago City Council Committee meeting on zoning, landmarks and building standards.
“Joining the Documenters program and doing these assignments was the best choice I could’ve possibly made in order to learn about the way that the local government — at a multitude of levels — functions in Chicago,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much the relationships between each individual who operates policy really matters.”
Documenters are paid either hourly or per meeting, depending on the city. All of the sites pay more than $15 per hour. Editors review Documenters’ notes and provide feedback where necessary before logging them online.
Local news organizations and nonprofits fund the network affiliates in each city, while the network provides branding, a website, infrastructural help, support for local funding efforts and mission-oriented guidance. City Bureau operates the Chicago branch; the Minneapolis program is housed under a nonprofit; and Detroit Documenters is a partnership between multiple news and civic organizations in the city. In April, Cleveland Documenters announced that it would be folding into a new outlet funded by the American Journalism Project and the Cleveland Foundation.
Stroobandt is a journalist, but that isn’t a requirement — anyone can become a Documenter. “Journalists can’t do it alone,” said Holliday. “We need to bring more people into this work.”
Among the people Holliday aims to engage are people of color, working class and low-income citizens who are often “the subjects of stories written about them, not for them,” he wrote in a recent Columbia Journalism Review op-ed.
Lawrence Daniel Caswell, field coordinator in Cleveland, said that most of the roughly 400 trained Documenters in the city are not reporters and don’t have journalistic aspirations.
“The skills learned aren't just useful for journalism, they are useful for understanding local government, and for participating more fully and with more agency in civic life,” said Caswell. “We call it a community and it actually feels like a community. You come into this space where everyone is here out of the same curiosity: How does this government work? How does it operate this way? Let’s do something about it and then share this information.”
The Field Coordinators
Caswell previously spent more than 10 years in public broadcasting. His colleagues who helped develop the Cleveland program also came from newsrooms. But the fact that Documenters operates against industry norms is a draw for many of its staff members.
“All of us [in Cleveland] have worked in newsrooms and have more than a little of this newsroom impulse when something happens… that is a news cadence and a news timing and it’s not really moving at the demands of the community,” he said.
Jackie Renzetti, Minneapolis civic producer — staff titles vary by city — came to Documenters after she was laid off by small news publications in 2020 and 2021. She began covering the Derek Chauvin trial as a freelancer for national outlets.
“In the middle of what I felt was a media frenzy,” she said, there was a disconnect between what local residents were focusing on and what national outlets were choosing to report. Burnout and disillusionment were making her consider leaving the industry altogether. “I really kind of thought that might be it,” she added.
At the time, Pillsbury United Communities, a longstanding nonprofit in Minneapolis, was looking for someone to lead their Documenters site.
“It felt a little bit like kismet,” said Renzetti. Once she was hired, she spread the word about the program via social media and flyers in areas where people “have faced systemic barriers to local government.”
Four months into its existence, there are more than 40 Minneapolis Documenters, each of whom are paid $20 per hour. They cover roughly 10 meetings per week, including all city-level, county board and school board meetings.
“[Documenters Network is] journalism without all the extraneous obstacles that come with a traditional newsroom,” said Renzetti. “We’re not worried about scooping anyone. We’re not worried about breaking the news. We’re not worried about competing… It’s more about just getting people into the news-gathering process.”
Right now, Documenters is a purely city-oriented program, but rural areas are increasingly local news deserts. When asked whether the Network might consider rural places in its upcoming expansion, Holliday expressed enthusiasm.
“It’s one thing to have a Documenters’ site in the third biggest city in the country — the need for informed civic engagement isn’t any less real,” he said, “but having a Documenters’ site in an area where there may not be an operational newspaper? And giving them access to a network of participatory media practitioners who have set up Documenters’ sites in other parts of the U.S.? That’s a different story entirely, and one that I’m excited to learn from.”
This article was updated on May 13.