Mengxin Li

What Journalism Can Learn from Mutual Aid

November 19, 2020

This spring, as the coronavirus ravaged the United States, mutual aid groups proliferated. In Chicago, where I live, I watched businesses close and people suddenly lose their jobs. I saw “essential workers,” mostly Black and brown folks from the city’s South and West Sides, taking the bus to fulfill their duties at the peak of the pandemic. I saw our county jail become the nation’s largest known source of covid-19 infections, even as up to a fourth of those incarcerated were there on low-level offenses, because they couldn’t afford to pay their bond. At the same time, governments and medical institutions became overwhelmed, and I saw neighbors spring into action to meet the needs of their communities. These self-organized networks distributed masks and medical supplies, delivered groceries and packages, provided child and elder care, and transferred cash. Groups of clergy members, death doulas, therapists, social workers, and healers offered mourning support for those who had lost loved ones.

The rise of mutual aid solidarity networks has resulted from untenable economic disparity and social breakdown. That should tell journalists something we badly need to hear: when government and civic institutions fail to provide equal benefits across society, marginalized people will create new systems. The news industry is no exception. Black Lives Matter Chicago, in an August report on police violence committed against protesters, put it bluntly: “We have to be our own media.” Their words underlined the fact that the dominant system of information-sharing in place in this country is badly broken.

Journalists tend to think of themselves as individual talents; driven by their own intrepid instincts, they find and uncover the stories of others. Instead, we should think of our work as one element within an interconnected ecosystem of social services. Imagine the scene of a fatal shooting, a single tragedy that involves numerous actors: first responders arrive, families grieve, organizers launch crowdfunding efforts, insurance companies assess costs, funeral services inter the dead, academics produce reports on firearm registration, government officials write crime-prevention laws, schools ban (or increase) the presence of guns. Meanwhile, the media tells a story that’s detached from this ecosystem—using generic details and a mug shot, both provided by police. These breaking-news articles are produced quickly, written to maximize attention, and designed to compete with similar stories from other outlets to be first, not necessarily useful. This approach to journalism—top-down, focused on individuals and events isolated from context—doesn’t serve readers: it skews the public perception of resource-starved communities, diminishes systemic harms by centering individual actions, and values institutional authority and expert opinion over the people for whom the stakes are highest.

In addition, the press tends to represent communities unevenly. In Chicago—where I cofounded City Bureau, a nonprofit newsroom focused on local civic journalism—there is a stark difference in residents’ news experiences based on where they live. According to a survey of nine hundred Chicagoans conducted in 2018 by City Bureau and the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement, people living on the South and West Sides were twice as likely as their North Side and downtown neighbors to think that coverage of their community was too negative; they were more likely to think that news coverage quotes the wrong people; they were more likely to feel that local media does not accurately depict what’s going on in their midst; and they were more likely to have never talked to a journalist. According to one recent estimate, the South Side and the West Side are only 10 percent white; the North and downtown are 50 percent white. In a survey of the majority of the coverage by twenty-one Chicago news organizations, conducted over two weeks in February 2019 by the Center for Media Engagement, 90 percent of outlets referred to locations on the North Side and in downtown areas of the city, yet just 19 percent mentioned the South Side and only 5 percent mentioned the West Side. When the West Side was covered, it was more frequently mentioned in stories about crime. Across the country, the American Society of News Editors’ diversity survey has shown again and again that newsrooms do not reflect the communities they serve. One revealing benchmark: of the newsrooms polled in asne’s 2019 survey, only a handful with twenty-five or more staffers met or exceeded parity in representation of people of color as compared with the communities they cover.

In the coming months and years, as each community in the US navigates four interrelated crises—systemic racism, a global pandemic, economic depression, and ecological disaster—journalism will need to adapt. As I witnessed the collective efforts taking shape around me this summer, I considered, not for the first time, the role that journalists occupy in a community—and our failure to address the fundamental human needs within it. I wondered: What is the mutual aid equivalent for local news?

Journalists should think of our work as part of an ecosystem of social services.


America has a long history of mutual aid efforts. After successive epidemics struck San Francisco at the turn of the nineteenth century, Chinatown mutual aid societies built the Tung Wah Dispensary (known today as the Chinese Hospital), the first medical facility serving a Chinese community in the continental United States. In the following decades, sociedades mutualistas in the American Southwest provided healthcare, insurance funds, education, and workforce advocacy for the Mexican-American communities that needed them. As Jessica Gordon Nembhard, a political economist, writes in her book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, mutual aid movements in the Black community endured from before the Civil War to the present day. “Freedmen and enslaved alike formed mutual-aid, burial, and beneficial societies, pooling their dues to take care of their sick, look after widows and children, and bury their dead,” Nembhard writes.

In the absence of professional journalism—in so-called news deserts across the country—critical information systems are left to the algorithmic biases of a few social media giants. Dig further, though, and you’ll find block club newsletters, school newspapers, library workshops, public access broadcasts, grassroots community teach-ins, and barbershop conversations that are for and of communities. Mutual aid efforts suggest a way forward, a new type of newsroom that serves as the nerve center for local information hubs by reflecting and connecting the people it serves, prioritizing lived experience and disavowing the notion of objective gatekeeping. These newsrooms will redistribute journalism skills away from selective and expensive higher-education programs and to the public. They will collaborate with nontraditional news sources to reduce a scarcity of resources exacerbated by competition. They will democratize the news industry by providing more access to decision-making processes. These newsrooms will do away with heroes and hierarchies by sharing the responsibility of shaping how news and information are created and distributed. And this new newsroom can’t come soon enough: since 2008, half of all newsroom jobs at papers in the US have been lost, while the need for accurate, trustworthy information rises.

Mutual aid efforts suggest a way forward, a new type of newsroom that serves as the nerve center for local information hubs.

Some newsrooms have already remade themselves. My workplace, for instance, is inspired by mutual aid organizers and principles. Founded by four people—a reporter, an editor, a publisher, and an educator—City Bureau now has thirteen staff members who run three year-round programs: Our Public Newsroom event series has hosted more than a hundred and thirty workshops that highlight community voices. Our Documenters program is a participatory media network composed of local partners and hundreds of nonprofessional reporters in Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit who are trained and paid to attend public meetings and report on policy decisions using a centralized hub for government data. Our paid reporting fellowship has trained over a hundred journalists—mostly journalists of color new to the field—who collaboratively create community-centered news and go on to work in local media. Our network isn’t limited to traditional journalists; it includes organizers, artists, teachers, librarians, students, parents, and many others.

We’re not alone in building newsrooms that are integrated into local ecosystems. Outlier Media, a nonprofit in Detroit, provides what it calls “service journalism on demand”: city residents can text questions directly to journalists in English, Spanish, and Arabic about subjects including food, jobs, health, schools, housing, taxes, and utilities. The Devil Strip, a free arts and culture news publication started in Akron, Ohio, in 2015, is the country’s first community-owned local news cooperative. Canopy Atlanta, an online news organization that launched in fall 2020, has built a community advisory board in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood to shape coverage reported by Canopy journalists as well as West End community members. These local news hubs tend to be smaller and fewer compared to what the public is accustomed to, but they operate with a set of values that encourages networked collaboration, resource-sharing, diverse representation, and new opportunities within their local ecosystems.

To survive the upheaval of 2020, journalists must relearn much of what we know. Confronting the existential issues shaping our world requires the creation and distribution of quality information—not simply a journalism degree. A healthy and democratic future demands that the skills journalists possess be distributed among many—not bestowed on a select few. The journalists we need today are not heroic observers of crisis—they are conveners, facilitators, organizers, educators, on-demand investigators, and community builders. Most of all, they strengthen the systems that make communities resilient.

Darryl Holliday is a journalist, participatory-media advocate, and media entrepreneur based in Chicago. He’s the cofounder of and director of the news lab at City Bureau​, a civic journalism nonprofit based on the South Side.