If newsrooms are short staffed, regardless of medium, and there’s no one around to cover local governmental meetings, how will people know what’s going on?
In nine cities, organizations are working to train citizens to attend meetings, paying them to take notes and provide information to those same newsrooms, helping to fill the gaps in coverage and keep those in authority accountable.
Julie Christie is director of data and special projects at Resolve Philly, which has teamed up with Chicago’s City Bureau Documenters Network to help equip Philadelphians with the skills they need to share information with news networks in their city and beyond.
Resolve Philly is a nonprofit organization focused on supporting local journalism in a way that is more community centered, focused on finding solutions and ensuring equitable coverage across the city’s diverse population. With a stated purpose of challenging the journalism industry as a whole to be better when it comes to community work and solutions journalism reporting. It’s based on evidence that “when local news focuses on solutions, centers the community in the entire process of producing journalism, people develop more trust in local news,” Christie says. “When you trust your local news, you’re more likely to support it. We push our local newsrooms to be collaborative. We do a lot of work that builds bridges between people who have never had an interaction with a journalist and newsrooms learning to trust those community members back. It’s kind of the opposite when it comes to the community, distrusting first and verifying around that instead of pushing journalists to trust communities when they share what’s happening to them. There’s no reason why (citizens) would be lying about what they’re going through.”
There are 27 newsrooms in Philadelphia working with Resolve Philly, each of them working together in collaboration to amplify and share resources instead of competing for coverage. “It’s easier to do the news when you’re not worried someone’s going to scoop you when you know they’re using their resources to get that different angle or dive deeper on something you don’t have the resources to do in your newsroom,” Christie says.
The Documenters idea comes in to help train Philly residents to support journalists, teaching them how to take notes and paying them for their time.
“It does a lot of things, both for community residents as well as for local information systems and local journalism. It’s a huge network now of a bunch of cities, which is great, because we all get to learn from each other,” she says. “This is creating another safety net to make sure that public meetings will not go unheard by citizens those meetings are for.”
After all, the Documenters might not run back and turn around a story for that evening’s broadcast or the next morning’s website refresh, but they’re providing notes on the important meetings in their towns, including overlooked bodies like planning and zoning boards that shape how the city develops and grows over time. Understanding that not everyone who wants to know what’s happening in their neighborhood has the luxury of being able to attend these meetings, it remains a right for people to know what was discussed in those meetings of their elected officials.
This also is not something that can be turned over to artificial intelligence, such as listening to a meeting and providing a transcription of the conversation.
“If you’ve lived in Philadelphia, you know things no AI will know,” Christie says. “When you’re there taking notes, you can pick up on what this neighborhood is that people are talking about and why it’s important that (a particular topic) is being mentioned in the meeting. When a person speaks up, AI won’t pick up on who rolls their eyes, when the energy in a room changes because of something somebody said. When you have people in person taking notes, you get all that, you get the history and context of what it means to be a Philadelphian.”