From local journalism to civic media: A conversation with Darryl Holliday
Stid is the executive director of Lyceum Labs, a fiscally sponsored project of the Defending Democracy Together Institute.
One of the temptations we face in this topsy-turvy era is trying to go back to the kind of democracy we think we once had. Whatever our particular “golden era,” it almost certainly had problems that we don’t want to recreate. And, given all the changes that have accumulated since that time, odds are we could not get back to it, even if we tried. Our challenge is thus: How do we go forward? How should we practice democracy now, given all that has transpired, the doors that have been shut, and new ones that may be opening?
Darryl Holliday is a journalist and social entrepreneur who has been grappling with these questions in the realms of local journalism and civic media throughout his professional life. In 2015, he co-founded and up until last year led City Bureau in Chicago. The organization’s mission is to serve as “a journalism lab reimagining local media. We do this by equipping people with skills and resources, engaging in critical public conversations, and producing information that directly addresses people’s needs.” City Bureau and a growing network of like-minded institutions across the country seek to empower a new kind of local journalism, one that activates, is practiced by, and materially supports the people themselves.
Last year, Holliday co-authored a report that surveyed this landscape: "The Roadmap for Local News: An Emergent Approach to Meeting Civic Information Needs." Philanthropic funders are now paying more attention to the importance of local media for a healthy democracy. The Roadmap sketched out by Holliday and his co-authors (Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat and Mike Rispoli of the Free Press) could not be more timely. It is also counter-intuitive, in a bracing way.
The conventional wisdom implies that the goal should be, in effect, to make local journalism great again. Holliday and his co-authors argue there is no going back, only forward:
“Too much time and energy has been spent propping up and mourning the declining legacy systems. The opportunity now is to shepherd and accelerate a transition to this emergent civic media system. This new ecosystem looks different from what it will replace: while the commercial market rewarded information monopolies, what is emerging now are pluralistic networks in which information is fluid, services are shared, and media is made in cooperation with the people it seeks to serve.”
I recently caught up with Darryl to learn more about his work and the opportunity that he and his colleagues have been working to illuminate and realize. The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Daniel Stid: Let’s start by hearing about your professional journey, from your initial days as a journalist to co-founding and leading City Bureau in Chicago.
Darryl Holliday: We actually might need to go back to my childhood in New York City. I’d use a Polaroid to take pictures of people who would come to our house. I’d put the photos in a three-ring binder and write notes about the people in each one. Looking back on it, that was journalism. So in some ways, the drive or the urge was always there.
I interned at the Chicago Sun-Times while I was in college. I learned the term “death knock” in my first week. It's when they send younger reporters out to places where there has just been a murder to knock on the door of a family member who just had someone die. It's a very harsh but very typical newsroom way of talking about people's trauma. I interned for three months and then got hired on full time after that as a cub reporter, doing Metro features. It was great but rough work.
That led me to DNA Info [a Chicago neighborhood news website], where I was a “crime and mayhem” reporter – that was literally the title of my job. I would start my day at the morgue at 5 am, walking by all the drawers. They would have some of them pulled out. The morgue didn't put any information online. They just had a bunch of binders with the deaths of the day and their addresses. I would go to the addresses and talk to the families about what had happened. I'm still processing the impact of those years on me – it was a lot. I moved from that into more neighborhood reporting and focused less on crime.
The pivotal point for me was working at Invisible Institute, a media-production company led by Jamie Kalven. He had been working in Chicago journalism and advocacy for decades. He was literally responsible for a change in the law. For a long time, Chicago did not make data on police complaints accessible, so there was no way to track or do analysis on which police were generating dozens and dozens of complaints, or who was submitting complaints, where they lived, and what happened to them. A suit Jamie brought, Kalven v. The City of Chicago, made the data public. The Invisible Institute then built a database we could use to do deep network analysis on the police officers getting all the complaints.
That kind of opened my whole brain up to new possibilities. You can do on-the-ground reporting. You can do investigative work. You can do real community work. But you can also make cool tools that are very practical and useful and engage people. Jamie let me incubate City Bureau at the Invisible Institute. I began pulling in some others who would become co-founders with me. We built City Bureau at the intersection of reporting, editing, education, and publishing. We wanted to blend community organizing with high-quality reporting. After a year of planning and incubation, we launched City Bureau in 2015.
DS: How would you define civic media and journalism for people for whom this still may be a new term, as it was for me when I first read your report?
DH: We used the framework of “inform, engage, and equip” at City Bureau. As we define it in the Roadmap report, “Civic media seeks not simply to ‘inform’ or ‘entertain,’ but to equip people with the information they need to make the places they live better: civic information.”
Every definition I've seen for civic media is focused in some way on activation. A lot of traditional journalism tends to be more about informing. Civic media is more pro-social. How do you democratize roles and skills and get them into people's hands so that they can act in their communities? That might include training and workshops, or bringing people into the process of crowdsourced database building. It's using all kinds of ways to engage people more deeply in the production, not just the consumption of media.
DS: There is a lot of discussion now about the importance of local journalism, and the need to save it. In the Roadmap report, you and your co-authors take a different tack, suggesting the goal is not to try to breathe life back into deeply challenged enterprises, but to hasten the emergence of new ones, and new ways of thinking about the links between local media and healthy democracy. Say more about why.
DH: The U.S. desperately needs multi-sector media reform and a new, non-commercial media movement. The Roadmap advocates a sharper vision for non-commercial local news that's rooted in civic action, civic engagement, and investment in the outlets, models, networks, and individuals doing that work. We need to think about new ways to incentivize and support that work and about what kinds of policies can activate that kind of change.
It’s based on the belief that journalism skills are civic skills. They are the same in a lot of ways. People who are active and engaged citizens want to know who their alderman is. They want to know who the governor is and who the mayor's representative is. They want to know how to find information online. They want to be able to ask the right questions, they want to know when to turn up and where to go. These are things journalists do every day.
DS: What do you make of the new Press Forward initiative? As I read the announcements about its launch, it seems to rest on the nostalgic element of getting back to what we once had. The $500 million in philanthropy it is dedicating to “revitalizing local news” is a lot of money! But in terms of what will be needed on an ongoing basis to sustain existing local outlets and start up new ones, it is a drop in the bucket. What aspects of Press Forward do you think are helpful, and where do you feel like the thinking behind it may need updating?
DH: Good question. When I look at Press Forward, I see a good bit of our Roadmap. I see them using words or phrases like journalism as a public good, which I've written about in the Columbia Journalism Review. Their pillars are to prioritize transformation, center community needs, enable growth with equity and diversity of thought, and so on. I point this out because, while there are a lot of people who are just opining in the nostalgia camp, I see Press Forward trying to do a balancing act. I want them to lean more towards emergence, but even I will admit some things need to be reassessed and salvaged in the dominant media paradigm.
Dominant systems lead to emergent systems. In the Roadmap report, my colleagues and I focused on the emergent system – what kinds of networks, what kind of opinion practice, and what kinds of roles lead to a better version of journalism that isn't so beholden to what was. What I hope Press Forward does is inspire people in the field to be even more ambitious. We are in this really interesting window of possibility that is not going to last forever. I don't think we are making that clear enough to people. To me, Press Forward is a result of a decade of local news field leadership. We have been working on this for 15 years. Press Forward is one manifestation of a win, and we need to push it even further.
DS: To flesh out the forms the emerging models may take, looking beyond City Bureau and the Documenters Network you helped found while you were there, what are promising examples of the new civic media you’d like to see more of?
DH: Outlier Media in Detroit are longtime friends and colleagues of ours. They are doing amazing work using SMS text messages to learn what people in Detroit want and care about and then be very responsive to them one-to-one. Documented is doing incredible work around the needs of immigrant populations in New York and being innovative about how they reach them using WhatsApp. They also made a wage theft tool that went beyond just making a tool for a tool's sake and found all kinds of unique ways to bring people in. There is Signal Cleveland, which runs a Documenter’s site. Civic Lex in Lexington, Kentucky, is a small organization finding new ways to work with and within government as an independent newsroom. There's El Timpano in the Bay Area. I could go on and on. There are dozens of organizations that are taking the best parts of the dominant journalism model and refitting it for what's coming.
DS: Do you see potential interconnections between these innovations and the broader push of many funders and groups in civil society to advance racial equity, justice, and inclusion in communities that do not have a lot of civic resources?
DH: I see them as absolutely integral. That’s the future, straight out. But we need to be wary of reproducing the kinds of systems that discount these communities. I have a critique about how the links are being discussed. Take the language of so-called “news deserts.” They tend to count just traditional sources of news. Where do people go for information? In communities of color, it may not be the newsroom. Barber shops and salons are essential centers for sharing and learning news that will never show up in a news desert survey. Or to take other examples, YMCAs and public libraries. We need to be much more inclusive of and attentive to the various sources of actual, on-the-ground information exchange.
Even as some of these new efforts are interested in DEI and JEDI, or whatever they want to call it, some of the mechanisms that are being developed to count this stuff may end up reproducing the harm that a lot of folks are now speaking to. In some ways, newsrooms, and the traditional ideas of journalism, have colonized our imaginations. We need to think more broadly and better about who can be a journalist, about what local news looks like on the ground, and about how we can meet folks where they are.
DS: We have been talking about a series of entrepreneurial contributions you’ve made in civil society over the years. Now that you have handed off the baton at City Bureau and co-authored the Roadmap report, what are you going to focus on over the next 2-3 years?
DH: I am very much interested in the makeup and design of noncommercial news networks, and the governance aspects of them as they intersect with engagement and activation of people in the communities they serve. I've been talking to a few member-driven organizations across the country about how we can improve their networks. What should they look like? I've also had an idea for a book in mind for a while and I've been wondering if this is the time to write it.
What this is all leading to for me is that I want to find different ways to bridge the various sectors of civic information. I know people in public media who don't know anyone in public access, which is wild. The infrastructure in nonprofit news is not that well organized. I would like to see if I can play a role in helping to bring the leaders from these various information sectors – public access radio and television, public media, nonprofit newsrooms, civic media, government and even, again, our public libraries and YMCAs – into more conversation with each other. What can we come up with together?
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