On Record: The Rise of Citizen Journalism in the United States
In Field Notes, writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. The 2010s saw the beginning of recurring waves of mass media layoffs at major news corporations, while local news struggled to bring in revenue in the digital age. As a result, fewer journalists are around to cover local government closely, creating an information gap between officials and the general public. Lauren Slagter brings us the story of how Documenters network has emerged in the Midwest to fill in that gap.
08 November, 2023
They’re logging on to virtual school board meetings, showing up at city hall when council votes on a new development proposal, and taking notes while the transportation commission discusses potential bus route changes.
Members of the Documenters network in nine cities across the country have covered thousands of public meetings – sometimes creating the only available public record of what happened. Documenters are not professional journalists. They’re teachers, activists, managers, students, retirees, and working professionals who are trained – and paid – to take notes on public meetings with the goal of keeping the community informed and supplementing traditional news coverage.
“It's teaching you about your own community. You become the expert in your network,” said Lynelle Herndon, one of the coordinators of Detroit Documenters. “Everybody has questions about the things that are going on, but not a lot of people think of public meetings as a super interesting space to interact.”
More than one-quarter of newsroom jobs in the U.S. were eliminated between 2008 and 2020, and public trust in government remains persistently low. Documenters play an important role in maintaining a healthy democracy by promoting access to information, transparency in local government, and relationship-building among public officials, residents, and journalists.
“There are definitely not enough reporters working as full-time staff at news organizations in any city to be covering all these meetings,” said Max Resnik, director of network services at City Bureau, which started developing the Documenters approach in 2016 in Chicago and began expanding the model to other cities in 2018.
“But also community members and residents want to get involved in contributing to the information that's available for them and for their neighbors,” he added. “It's this idea that journalism skills are civic skills, and we want to make sure that people who want to be able to participate have a space and a venue to be able to do so.”
Creating a Public Record
Byron Keys was between jobs in early 2021 when he heard an announcement for Detroit Documenters on the local public radio station, WDET.
“That's something that interested me: attending public meetings and getting to know more about the minutiae of committees and boards,” said Keys, a Detroit native who lived in Chicago for 20 years before moving back to his hometown in 2016.
He signed up for the one-hour training to become a documenter. A few weeks later, he accepted his first assignment and went on to cover as many as five public meetings each month. Keys now works as a manager in the U.S. Department of the Treasury and still tries to cover one meeting a month for Documenters.
Detroit Documenters has trained more than 400 people since the site started in 2018 with support from Citizen Detroit and WDET. It’s now run by Outlier Media with eight other media partners, and about 70 documenters routinely take assignments, said Herndon, who coordinates Detroit Documenters with Noah Kincade.
In Detroit, documenters make $18 an hour, which typically equates to $63 per assignment – assuming the meeting takes two hours and the documenter spends time doing research in advance and editing the notes afterward.
“You provide a valuable service and you should be paid,” Herndon said, noting that the monthly pay is not equivalent to a salary but it’s enough to keep people invested in the assignments. She said the pay made a difference in her life when she was looking for work in 2019 and started as a documenter.
Anyone who can read, write, and find information on the internet has the skills to be a documenter, Herndon said. In addition to the required orientation, documenters can receive training to develop their note-taking skills or learn how to live tweet from public meetings.
“What we really emphasize is that you are the public, and this is a public meeting, and you have every right to be in this space. You have every right to record. You have every right to take notes, and you have every right to share them,” Herndon said.
Detroit Documenters does not subscribe to the same pretense of objectivity that mainstream news outlets do, Herndon said, and the editors aim to preserve the documenters’ point of view in how they share information about their own community.
The notes and any related documentation from the meeting are published on the Detroit Documenters website, and news outlets that didn’t have their own reporter at the meeting can cite the notes in their reporting.
“Documenters is absolutely journalism,” Resnik said. “Documenters is community organizing. Documenters is learning and skill building, workforce development. It's all of those things.”
The Documenters network creates a chance for public officials, residents, and journalists to be in conversation with each other, Herndon said. They sometimes end up asking the same questions and working together to find the answers.
“In the long run, it will generate more trust for media and for each other, including government officials,” Herndon said. “We're all working together because we all care about Detroit. We want to live in a better place. … A lot of people are suspicious and don't trust the government for very valid reasons. I am right there with them. But we're also able – by asking these questions – to learn a lot of things.”
In 2021, a Detroit documenter called attention to an error in a city memo that reported spending on COVID-19 test kits. The memo initially referred to spending per COVID-19 test – rather than test kit, which contains 24 tests. The documenter’s tweet about the memo drew attention from U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and hundreds of other people on Twitter, and the city later clarified the amount spent per test.
Other examples of increasing transparency and accountability from public officials include Detroit documenters providing an on-the-ground perspective on how well the bus system works and sharing real-time updates as a Highland Park city councilmember announced his resignation due to unpaid taxes. In Chicago, documenters helped take the pulse of city residents going into 2023 municipal elections that included a mayoral race, high turnover for alder seats, and new police district council positions.
Documenters recognize when statements made by public officials may not match the lived experience of people directly impacted by the issue, Resnik said, and some public officials offer more thorough explanations of a decision when they know documenters are watching.
“Because documenters are local residents. they know what is being discussed. They know those neighborhoods. They know those issues,” he said.
Coverage of public meetings – and recording how council members vote and what questions they ask during discussions – is essential to keeping voters informed and equipping people to proactively engage in their communities, Resnik said.
“Without a reliable record of these local decisions, it's impossible for people to make
informed decisions as voters. … And also, if there are decisions that impact a neighborhood and nobody is reporting on them, we end up in a situation where people see … decisions that are being made that really don't reflect their preferences as neighbors and residents,” he said. “And that builds a level of distrust in local government. It prevents people from feeling like they have any sense of agency, if they're only finding out about things after the fact.”
Keys said the shift to virtual meetings during the pandemic has made public meetings more accessible and given more people an opportunity to participate.
“With these meetings being virtual, I think it really has opened the door to what goes on behind closed doors,” Keys said. “So I think that it's actually changed the way some of the boards and committees operate, because they don't want to appear dysfunctional.”
Documenters Across the Country
From its start in Chicago and first pilot in Detroit, the Documenters network has expanded to Atlanta; Cleveland; Dallas; Fresno, California; Minneapolis; Omaha, Nebraska; and Philadelphia. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Indianapolis recently joined the network too.
City Bureau is exploring ways to adapt the model for rural areas as well as statewide or regional networks. Launching a Documenters site requires fundraising to support one or two full-time coordinator positions and to compensate the documenters.
“It's been incredible to see journalism as an industry that welcomes community participation in a way that builds trust, builds connection, and builds capacity in local residents,” Resnik said. “It’s moving beyond this idea that there is this audience that just needs to know what reporters think is important to active partners in the news gathering process.”
Lauren Slagter is a writer who's passionate about the power of storytelling to cultivate empathy and spur change. Her reporting on poverty, housing, and education issues has won numerous public service and enterprise reporting awards from the Associated Press, Michigan Press Association, and Hoosier State Press Association. Her creative writing has been published in Flyover Country Literary Magazine and Great Lakes Review. Lauren lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and has roots in a handful of small Midwest towns.