This is Mediaquake, our regular interview series with journalists, activists, and scholars, asking big questions about journalism, capitalism, and the future of both.
City Bureau (@city_bureau) is a local media organization based in the South Side of Chicago. Through programs like Documenters, which trains and pays community members to attend public meetings and publish information about them, reporter Darryl Holliday and City Bureau co-founders Bettina Chang, Andrea Hart, Harry Bucklund are building a civic media center that is working to re-envision journalism. In July, City Bureau was awarded a $10 million Stronger Democracy Award in a grant competition managed by Lever for Change, with the additional support of organizations and philanthropists including Additional Ventures, ICONIQ Impact, The Patchwork Collective, and Cipora and Vlado Herman. City Bureau will use this award to expand its Documenters program in cities across the country.
Popula got together with Holliday to discuss media and capitalism, the state of local news, and how to democratize the means of journalistic production. Holliday answered our questions via email. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Kate Harloe: This series is trying to imagine a media system or journalism that exists outside the bounds of dominant systems of power. Through your writing and your work at City Bureau, you and your team are modeling that other forms of journalism—ones that challenge these systems—are possible.
I’d love for you to start by explaining how you got started in journalism. How did you get here? And how is City Bureau different from the typical local newspaper or outlet?
Darryl Holliday: To be honest, I don’t think about City Bureau as a publication most days. Even in the early days of the organization, we talked about City Bureau as one part newsroom, one part community organization and one part public school. I think of us as a community media center, rather than a publication.
I started out as an intern for the Chicago Sun-Times. At the time, they had a very large office with a somewhat skeletal staff. I was excited to be in a newsroom for the first time, so I didn’t notice the empty desks. I was eager and the paper needed cheap labor so I learned a lot there in a short amount of time, working with great people, like the Chicago photographer John White. Then, when a hyperlocal digital-first outlet called DNAinfo opened in Chicago, I was one of the first freelance reporters hired on the “crime and mayhem” beat (its actual name) in 2013. My job was to cover every homicide in the city; there were around 400 murders that year. I left to work with the Invisible Institute, where I contributed to the Citizens Police Data Project. In the meantime, I also worked on my side project, Illustrated Press, where we made journalism as graphic novels.
All of those experiences contributed to City Bureau. When I got together with my City Bureau co-founders, it felt like our pooled experiences as a publisher, reporter, editor and educator working in Chicago media could contribute to a more intersectional, participatory, community-driven model for local journalism. We didn’t have a name for it at the time.
We laid out our rationale for City Bureau in 2015. We “set out to address a structural crisis in journalism,” and identified four interrelated problems: inequitable, misrepresentative local reporting; a lack of diverse perspectives in newsrooms; distrust of media within communities of color; and unsustainable business models.
That language was in our first community presentation—we launched the organization with a series of town halls, not a series of articles—and it was in our first grant application, which landed us $25,000 to test out our first program. So City Bureau was different from your average newspaper from day one. We were called “Chicago’s j-school of the streets” in one of the first stories about us. I guess there’s some truth in that.
In an article you wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review late last year, “Journalism is a public good. Let the public make it,” you went deep on many of the issues contributing to the current crises—from apathy among industry leaders in addressing the lack of diversity in newsrooms to consolidation of power to the lone-wolf culture of the field. The industry’s misunderstanding of its own purpose and its problematic theory of change came in for special focus. Without these two foundational elements, you wrote, journalism becomes what Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner call a “power-replicating machine,” guided by profit and resistant to change.
How does a better journalism work? What does this world look like?
My vision for journalism is one where people are equipped to take on the issues of our time—so many of which are rooted in [the control of] information (i.e. who gets to access it, produce it, verify it and share it). I think local journalism should, first of all, improve lived outcomes. I also believe that those outcomes are more sustainable when people self-organize, and that local news should promote self-organizing, and encourage the development of inspirational, place-based civic infrastructure to support self-organization.
There’s a group of racial equity advocates in Chicago called Just Action who have defined a standard of practice—“acknowledge history, shift power and embrace accountability.” We have to acknowledge there’s a problem at the core of how news is produced. Then, we have to shift power by accepting that all people—including non-journalists—can play a role in the production of reliable information about their communities. That’s a space where we can develop new standards for accountability and purpose in journalism.
I see journalism skills as civic skills that belong, first and foremost, to the public. The professionalization, commercialization, and monetization of news and information are related aspects of a larger threat that is putting our democracy at risk. Many of our democracy’s problems are fallout from profit and personality-driven commercial media—where“journalist” could mean Tucker Carlson as easily as [insert famous journalist]. I don’t think ordinary people even use the word “newsroom” in their regular lives. And we all know that the market won’t support local journalism when advertisers are working so closely with Big Tech.
People should be able to drop into a local community hub that is outfitted with a civic newsroom. We need new leaders in local journalism, and projects that are developing participatory civic infrastructure are doing some of the work to cultivate those new leaders at a grassroots level. “Local info captains” could be like block club captains—and that role shouldn’t require a degree in journalism that puts you into debt.
The current gateway into journalism for most people is through a university (aka “j-school”), which always reminds me of something I once read from Felix Salmon:
If you’re poor, or working-class, or a rural person of color, or mobility-constrained, or a single mother struggling to bring up multiple children, or otherwise part of a group that has historically been underrepresented in newsrooms, is it possible for you to go to J-school? Sure. Is it likely? Not in the slightest. Is it advisable? It is not.
No one should go into debt because they want to use information to solve collective problems.
In that same CJR article, you write that the solution to many of the current crises the field is facing is to intentionally democratize the means of journalistic production. I loved this so much! What does this mean to you?
There are more than 1,600 PEG stations—that stands for Public, Educational, and Governmental access channels—across the U.S. Local franchising authorities can require cable operators to designate them for public use. They’re flawed in some ways; too many PEG stations haven’t reckoned with digital (online publishing, streaming/YouTube, social media, etc.) or diversified their leadership (especially in terms of age and race), and they aren’t as organized as they could be when it comes to media policy. But I think PEG stations can and should play an important role in the revitalization of civic media centers across the country, so I really want to see them thrive. They’re great examples of community infrastructure, rooted in local production of information.
NPR and PBS are also examples of public media infrastructure, and they’re also the result of political and social movements led by people who saw the value in democratizing the means of journalistic production. Where do you, as a resident of a place, go to make an immediate difference in your community? Whether it’s the library, or the YMCA, or a community organization—that place should be outfitted with a civic newsroom.
We’re going to need to win a fight for public access to information infrastructure again and again. We need local ownership of information infrastructure in our communities, and like the airwaves, it should be accessible to all. Long story short, this is bigger than saving newspapers.
In your vision for a new media system, how do you think journalism is situated in relationship to capitalism? Could this journalism exist outside of the market?
Journalism is a process and news is the product. So my question is, can news exist outside of the market, especially in a culture where commercial media is capitalist media? I think the answer to that is no—and, in some cases, good riddance. The information that a community needs in order to understand itself and deliberate on equal terms may or may not be “news.” A “community newsroom” will look different than your typical commercial newsroom.
Maybe “news” is just a poor substitute for authentic, informative communication—especially across lines of difference. It feels like we’ve replaced actual deliberation with news articles and social media. The big platforms encourage emotionally charged, opinion-based behavior, and unchecked assumptions. It’s no accident that service or civic journalism is often produced by nonprofits, coops and publicly funded entities. All of those models are trying to find a way around capitalism and commercial incentives. Unfortunately, without policy interventions, we could end up with bigger broadcast behemoths as local newsrooms struggle to survive and evolve.
Victor Pickard and I recently discussed how the public media system, generally, is actually anti-capitalist, we just don’t talk about it that way. I often wonder if it might be to our benefit to talk about it that way. I’m curious about your thoughts on this.
It’s useful to refine the way we talk about this evolution in public media, and to continually reconnect what we’re building to what people tell us they need. I don’t think the current commercial media system supports self-determination, so our biggest competition is the status quo.
On its website, the Center for Public Broadcasting says that “public media is a public-private partnership in the best tradition of America’s free enterprise system.”
So, I’m not sure I believe that the public media system is anti-capitalist—but I do think public media is, on the whole, more democratic than commercial media. Those democratic values open up space to talk about what noncommercial (i.e. non-capitalist) media values could look like. Now that I’m thinking along these lines, I wonder what the qualifications for a public good can tell us about an anti-capitalist critique. To qualify as a true public good, we’d have to provide news that is both non-excludable (absolutely free) and non-rivalrous (available to everyone, always). That’s a great place to start an explicitly anti-capitalist critique.
In almost every conversation I have about these ideas, the question comes up: How do we build the political will and power to bring these ideas into being? You are quite literally bringing some of these ideas into being through starting City Bureau, so I’m curious about your thoughts on this question, generally.
My short response is collective action. One recent example is the Civic Info Bill, but we need a lot more movement building around media policy. It may be helpful to look to the past. How did the Carnegie Commission lead to the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio? How did the Prometheus Radio Project lead to wins for low-power FM stations around the country via the Local Community Radio Act? Prometheus called out “corporate media consolidation”—which is just commercial, or capitalist, media. In some ways it’s the same fight in a new era.
Like I said earlier, I think of City Bureau more as a school or civic media center than a publication, and that distinction is meaningful because one is about building knowledge and civic power and the other is about storytelling. Authentic social narratives are important—but I don’t think control of the narrative necessarily builds power. You need enough people to agree on a future and work to make it real—one part is shared narrative, or a vision, and another is collective action toward public policy.
Journalists should be invested in the fight for public broadband. I take cues from Free Press and folks like Mike Rispoli when it comes to public funding for local journalism; journalists can learn a lot from community organizers who’ve always had to fight for resources, power, and legitimacy. In the U.S., rights once taken for granted may evaporate in the coming years—and we’re already grappling with the early stages of economic and environmental crisis.
Journalists will need to adapt to that world or risk serving authoritarian powers. I try not to be an alarmist but the stakes are high, and reliable information is critical to everything else we care about.