It’s All Journalism: Citizen journalists help CitizenDetroit document public meetings

As newsrooms continue to shrink, communities are losing valuable information when civic boards meet and no one’s there to explain what happened.

Documenters, an organization that started in Chicago a few years ago and has branched out to Detroit, wants to change that, by training and hiring interested and curious citizens and dispatching them to attend public meetings, take notes, and file their observations.

“We’re very intentional about being accurate about facts and trying to get Detroit to be the most civically engaged in nation,” says Vassilis Jacobs, the senior policy analyst at CitizenDetroit and a Documenters manager.

His team is working closely with WDET, Detroit’s NPR station, to expand Documenters deeper into Detroit. Eleanore Catolico, a civic reporter at the radio station, came to Documenters while in Chicago in 2015. She picked up where she left off, taking extensive notes in Detroit’s charter school board meetings and relaying that information to Documenters’ online portal.

“I’ve learned a lot about the civic reporter role,” she says. “It marries the two focal points of the program in an interesting way. We’re training journalists to provide more equitable coverage in the city but also giving people the opportunity to learn skills and attend meetings and get paid for it and learn the importance of city government.”

The notes taken by Documenters are uploaded onto a website and shared for story idea leads and inspiration. Catolico says she sometimes uses information obtained through a Documenter’s notes, building it up with details and insight that would not have been attainable otherwise.

“The program is really about awakening democratic involvement of people here in the city of Detroit, learning about these boards and commissions, and getting the information inside these boards and commissions and authorities out,” Jacobs says. “Getting nuggets of information out, like water shutoffs in the city and the rate that’s happening … or whether boys can wear shorts in Detroit public schools.”

Without fully staffed newsrooms to make those calls and attend those meetings on a consistent basis, people are losing access to vital information they need to live their lives. The Documenters help bridge the gap, giving journalists information on civic meetings while helping people learn how to take good notes and earn money in the process.

Catolico says notes provided from Documenters has helped inform her reporting, especially when she needs to cover a topic she with which she’s not familiar.

“When I’ve talked to other reporters, they’ve been impressed by how easy it is to use the site,” she says. “It fills a need for them.”

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