Editor’s Note: The Reader helped fund the Documenters program in Omaha through its nonprofit the Omaha Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
The legislative chambers of Omaha’s City Hall don’t evoke gravity. It exudes bureaucracy with its purple and blue seats, white ceiling tiles and orangish wood typical of so much office furniture. But looks are deceiving.
This is where local government officials make some of the area’s biggest decisions — and it’s where a new program hopes to employ citizens in a refreshed battle for transparency and civic engagement.
“When regular citizens want to go and connect the dots, oftentimes it’s kind of late,” said Abbie Kretz, director of Omaha Documenters, a new chapter of a national network that trains and pays citizens to cover their local government. “Things build upon each other right?…If you’re not really aware of it, it can be hard to figure out how to participate until it’s often too late.”
Omaha Documenters, which launched this fall, is the latest addition to a national network started in 2017 by City Bureau in Chicago that has since expanded to Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Fresno, Minneapolis and Omaha. The network also received a Stronger Democracy Award, along with $10 million which will go toward expanding the network further. The underlying goal is simple: empower community members to cover local meetings, ask questions of their public officials and report back to their neighbors. Each chapter organizes interested candidates, no writing experience necessary, and then trains and pays them $15/hour to attend meetings, interview people in their communities and research long term projects about civics.
Everything produced by the program is free to republish. Its repository of searchable, tagged notes give local media, nonprofits, grassroots organizations or whomever, a great tool to reference old meetings and keep officials in check.
It’s a different model from how communities used to stay in tune with their local goverment. Years ago the responsibility sat squarely with local newspapers. But staff cuts and changing media trends have opened new opportunities for more collaborations and grassroots approaches.
“If we look at newsrooms today, they have been cutting back significantly in the last 10, 20, or even 30 years. We used to cover a full meeting of the City Council right? Well it is no longer happening,” said Omaha Documenters Director Abbie Kretz.
The first Documenters orientation was held virtually on Oct. 13. Kretz said the orientation introduced the program to people who want to get involved in their community. What’s more important, she said, is listening to what they think is important in coverage.
“What do these people want to learn? What are other community partners interested in? And how can we either do more research on it or provide trainings and background on that,” Kretz said.
After training, documenters can sign up for assignments on the program’s website which may require note taking, live tweeting or other skills. Assignments are made based on applicants skill sets and experience. Once documenters complete assignments, notes are edited and posted on the program’s website.
The initiative all started with the goal of addressing inequitable coverage in the city’s diverse neighborhoods on the south and west sides. City Bureau found many people felt their communities were undercovered by local media, and when they were featured it often dealt with crime. Chicago Documenters Community Coordinator Natalie Fraisier said the goal was to provide people a new platform to take back that narrative.“Documenters and the City Bureau are all about media equity and making sure that folks have the information they need to hold their government accountable,” Fraisier said.
Fraisier said one of the best parts of the Documenters program is watching people go from interested in a topic like transportation or policing, to make a difference.
“We had one Documenter, Samantha, who started writing about the housing situation in the city and then went and got a job at a housing nonprofit in the city and she recently won a $2 million grant to beautify a park on the west side of Chicago,” Fraiser said. “Stuff like that is what really makes me proud.”
There’s also a huge opportunity to address big civic questions beyond individual meetings. Noah Kincaide of the Detroit Documenters program said their chapter’s voter guide for Detroit’s primary elections made a big difference — and it all started with a documenter.
“We paid her to build an outline of how the Voter Guide will flow and then some of our editors…assigned Documenters to write their sections,” Kincaide said. “We broke it down into 10 different chapters, eight of them were written by Documenters…We put the whole thing together, add artwork to it, made it really nice then put it up online and all our media partners shared it.”
D’Shawn Cunningham, an Omaha documenter said the reason why he decided to participate is to help implement changes in Omaha. By keeping track of local meetings and documenting plans as they form, this program has a real opportunity to increase transparency during what Cunningham feels is a critical time for the city.
“A Lot of us in the Documenters program feel like Omaha is at a juncture where we can become a city that is informed and makes its own plans opposed to being a city that just gets steamrolled by developers with politicians in their pocket,” Cunningham said. “If the plans and meetings are not announced or accessible, maybe that’s the project that the Documenters will be taking up.”