With partnerships and young reporters, Chicago’s City Bureau builds a collaborative community newsroom

Police accountability in Chicago would have been a meaty, important story anytime. But when City Bureau, a nonprofit community newsroom rooted in the city’s South and West sides, launched last fall with city policing as its initial focus, the timing hardly could have been more apt.

In mid-October the bureau published its first story, about protests over the acquittal of an officer who shot and killed a 22-year-old woman. Soon after, it held its first community forum, tied to the release of a database on police misconduct complaints. Then in mid-November, a judge ruled that dash-cam footage of an officer fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014 had to be released as a public record, setting off an activist campaign that would lead to the defeat of Cook County prosecutor Anita Alvarez last week in the Democratic primary.

The events thrust Chicago back to the forefront of a growing debate over police reform and accountability for abuse—and City Bureau, a creative startup that aims to train young journalists and improve coverage of underreported neighborhoods, also had a national story in its sights.

City Bureau is the brainchild of four young Chicagoans: Darryl Holliday, Bettina Chang, Andrea Hart, and Harry Backlund. Part training lab, part response to an era of slashed news budgets, the bureau is more a network and platform for partnerships than a traditional news outlet. Collaboration—among bureau members, with local neighborhoods, and with publications and other institutions—is central to the model.

The bureau is divided into three tracks, or tiers, of reporters. The first track is made up of high school gradautes who come to the bureau via Free Spirit Media, a youth media group. The second track is comprised of college-age students and early career journalists, and the third includes experienced younger professionals.*

Together, the bureau operates like “an amazing brain meld,” said Yana Kunichoff, a reporter in the top tier who also works as a producer at Scrappers Film Group. (The founders all still have day jobs, too.)

Kunichoff shared a byline on one of the bureau’s most ambitious stories to date—a long feature about how the police union shapes public and media understandings of police shootings, which was published in February in the weekly Chicago Reader and won a Hillman Foundation award this month. A story published with The Guardian US revealed a lack of accountability for officers who coerce false confessions; another, in DNAinfo, explored the history of police superintendents who have tried to reform the department.

At the bureau’s own site, meanwhile, a series of explainers unpack key themes and background information on the area of focus. A few weeks ago the bureau began its second reporting cycle, focusing on criminal justice.

The youngest reporters, who get mentorship and on-the-job training, live in neighborhoods most affected by the issues that the bureau is covering—and where relationships with the police are often fraught. A man-on-the-street video that accompanied a Guardian US story by Holliday and Kunichoff was filmed in Archer Heights, near where Laquan McDonald was killed. It was produced by high school students, along with Martin “Xavi” Macias, a journalism graduate student at Columbia College Chicago who is in the third level.

“The young reporters live this in a real way,” Kunichoff said. “The urgency comes from them.”

Chang, who serves as the bureau’s editor, said the young reporters inspire her. One day recently, she was speaking to a student who shared that his father was a police officer. She watched how he processed his emotions about that, and how they shaped his thoughts on police reform.

“It’s inspiring to see so much good vibes and complex thoughts,” she said. “I feel like the younger generation gets maligned too much, and I’m sick of it.”

Working with students from particular neighborhoods ties into the bureau’s broader emphasis on community participation, which also comes through in regular public forums and the use of new services like Hearken to gather input.

The structure is designed to help create a new pipeline for journalism talent and to fill gaps in reporting in the city. The bureau then partners with news outlets like the Chicago Reader or Guardian US for publication.

Robin Amer, news editor for the Reader, said City Bureau reporters initially provided coverage on quick turnaround stories, such as protests and police board meetings. That led to the bigger investigative feature on the role of the union.

“The Reader, like many outlets, is dealing with the reality of resource constraints,” she said. “So that’s limited staff, limited budgets. We were looking for every opportunity to work with partners in a way that would allow us to extend our capacity beyond the resources we ourselves have.”

For the bureau, working with other publications fits a pattern of partnering with other institutions; having those stories published provides a revenue stream beyond grant funding. The venture is funded by Illinois Humanities and the McCormick Foundation, which gave City Bureau $25,000 to cover programming costs for the first year and just a few weeks ago awarded another $50,000. (Disclosure: McCormick also supports CJR’s United States Project.) 

The foundation support is important, but Backlund, a 2011 graduate of the University of Chicago and the bureau’s managing editor, said City Bureau needs to be responsive to the market, too—creating stories that readers and communities want and need.

 “We want to have enough non-profit funding to be insulated from the market so we can still take risks,” he said. “And we also want to have enough skin in the game to care what is happening in the market so we can read the signals readers are telling us.”

Suzanne McBride, the founder and publisher of the hyperlocal AustinTalks on Chicago’s West side, said City Bureau’s approach is smart. “You need multiple strings of revenue,” said McBride, who is also interim chair of the Communication and Media Innovation department at Columbia College Chicago.

AustinTalks is grant-supported but also earns money by selling its work to the local Austin Weekly News. “If you already can find existing places for your work to go or partner, that makes a lot of sense,” McBride said.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about how to make these emerging community journalism models work best, McBride notedlike whether they can, or should try to, scale up. But one thing is clear: “It’s incredibly important work and it has to be done.”

* This paragraph has been corrected to more accurately describe the composition of the different tiers. Also, a later sentence has been corrected to reflect that Xavi Macias is in the third tier, not the second.

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.