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Reporters Committee honors founders of Chicago’s City Bureau with 2019 Rising Star Award

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Sarah Conway described her first encounter with City Bureau as something she’d never seen before.

She attended one of its “public newsrooms,” where the nonprofit civic journalism lab based in Chicago’s South Side opens its doors so the community can discuss local issues, share resources and knowledge, and even learn to report and investigate stories.

Harry Backlund, Bettina Chang, Andrea Hart and Darryl Holliday founded City Bureau in 2015 in part because they saw a need to change how local newsrooms reported on and for Chicago’s south and west sides.

“They wanted to make sure the news coverage reflected the community that’s being covered,” said Jen Sabella, the co-founder of Block Club Chicago who previously worked with Chang and Holliday at DNAinfo.

On May 7, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will honor City Bureau’s founders with the second annual Rising Star Award in recognition of their work that aims to “model a more democratic way of making media.”

Tiana Epps-Johnson, the founder and executive director of the Center for Technology and Civic Life, and a member of City Bureau’s board, says this kind of approach helps restore trust in journalism.

“When you can see your perspectives and your neighborhoods in a way that really reflects the dynamic nature of where you live, you begin to have a different experience and relationship with the institutions that are telling those stories, and what those institutions look like changes too,” Johnson said.

City Bureau alumna Bia Medious said the public newsrooms help teach the community about what journalism is and isn’t, what it should and could be, and how it could be improved.

Medious, who is now at Chicago radio station WBEZ, first became involved with City Bureau as a Documenter — their program that trains and pays citizens to attend public meetings and publish information about what happens at them. That led her to City Bureau’s paid fellowship program, which pairs experienced reporters with emerging journalists predominantly from communities that have historically been underrepresented in newsrooms and news coverage.

Since the programs began, City Bureau has trained more than 80 journalists and become a leader in Chicago’s nonprofit media landscape.

“They’re creating this pipeline of opportunity for a lot of people to get into reporting,” said Conway, who also completed the reporting fellowship and is now a reporting resident. “They show that you can create a newsroom where there’s more equity and you can do coverage on communities that actually reflects how people in those communities see themselves.”

Sabella said she can already see the impact these efforts to identify and train a diverse group of reporters has had on newsrooms across the city.

“They are identifying young people from different backgrounds who care about the city and they’re training them,” said Sabella. “We have already hired people who come from City Bureau.”

So has Jamie Kalven, founder of the Invisible Institute, which has partnered with City Bureau on a number of reporting projects.

“City Bureau has almost become our kind of journalism school, a journalism school of actual practice,” said Kalven.

City Bureau fellows and residents also participate in mentorship programs with youth media partners and work closely with local groups to gather input from those most affected by a story’s topic.

“If all the media organizations try and incorporate just a little bit of what City Bureau is doing, I think everybody in the public is much better off for it,” said Medious.

In addition to honoring the founders of City Bureau with the 2019 Rising Star Award, the Reporters Committee is recognizing the following individuals with 2019 Freedom of the Press Awards: David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media; John Carreyrou, investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal; Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News; and April Ryan, Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks and a political analyst for CNN.