The decline of traditional news media, caused in part by advertisers moving to digital platforms, is a crisis, but not just for unemployed journalists. Every folded newspaper or laid-off reporter means citizens see less of what their governments are up to and are less able to hold them accountable. Minneapolis Documenters — part of a Documenters Network that started in Chicago with affiliates in Detroit and Cleveland — launched in January to increase governmental transparency. Jackie Renzetti, the program's civic producer, trains citizens (and pays them $20 an hour) to produce reports on government meetings including the Minneapolis City Council, the Minneapolis school board and the Hennepin County Board. The reports are made available on the Documenters website. Renzetti, who has a background in journalism and media education, tells us more below.
Q: Minneapolis Documenters is sponsored here by Pillsbury United Communities, a nonprofit that serves people who face racial or economic barriers to government participation. How does the Documenters program help lower those barriers?
A: Local government meetings aren't inherently easy to follow, and can be tricky to even access, depending on when and where they are held. Our program trains participants to break through procedural jargon and navigate public documents. As a result, we're building what we call a "community-owned public record," which serves as a resource for civic participation and government accountability. We publish all our notes on our website, and push out highlights on social media (@DocumentersPUC). We're also working on adding meeting information for every county, city and school board meeting so that it's in one centralized location.
Q: You say that Documenters is a form of participatory journalism. Could you say more about that?
A: Participatory journalism invites people to contribute to the news-gathering process at whatever level they can. While our most active documenters cover two meetings per week, some will pop in once a month, or whenever their schedule allows. I think this flexibility is key to keeping participation possible for everyone.
Q: How does Documenters add to existing news coverage of public meetings?
A: While most news stories about public meetings focus on a specific development, our notes guide readers through the whole meeting. We include details that probably wouldn't make it into a news story, but are still of public interest — and could even spark additional news coverage. In addition, we consistently have eyes on every meeting for Minneapolis advisory and government boards, Hennepin County government and the Minneapolis school board. While we're fortunate to have a healthy media market in the Twin Cities, we know that newsrooms generally don't have the capacity to do this. I see the Documenters program as a more sustainable and community-centered way to fill the government watchdog function of traditional media.
Q: So Documenters isn't intended to replace other outlets?
A: Rather than trying to compete with other media, break news or write a perfect story, we're focused solely on providing helpful information. We want to support the broader local media ecosystem, and welcome reporters to use our notes for story ideas.
Q: Can you explain what Documenters are asked to record and how the notes are structured?
A: We encourage Documenters to take notes on each agenda item in a way that makes sense for them. We use headings and timestamps to the meeting recording to make it navigable for readers. We always include a bullet-pointed summary up top, along with another section that we call "Documenter's Notebook." This is where we encourage Documenters to include anything else that stood out to them, or ask follow-up questions. We embrace the unique perspective of every Documenter, and we've seen follow-up questions in other city programs lead to great reporting.
Q: How are Documenters recruited, and what kind of training do they get?
A: I've been promoting the program through flyers around town, networking with like-minded organizations, and social media. I prioritize outreach in the neighborhoods that Pillsbury United Communities serves, which have experienced systemic barriers to civic involvement. Anyone is welcome to join by attending a training, which is offered quarterly. Our 20 active Documenters are diverse in race, age and gender, as well as experience level with civics or reporting. Our training introduces people to how public meetings work and relevant legal concepts. We emphasize making a conscious effort to listen to all perspectives and to focus on outcomes.
Q: How would you describe the progress Documenters has made so far?
A: We've trained about 40 people and have covered over 100 meetings. I'm especially proud of our work covering the local redistricting process for Minneapolis City Council and Park Board boundaries. Documenters covered each Redistricting Group meeting, and my colleagues from Pillsbury United's KRSM Radio and North News and I drew from their notes to create resources summarizing the process and explaining how people can get involved.
Q: What's next?
A: Going forward, my priorities are centered on building relationships with community members and organizations, including local media, and exploring opportunities based on Documenters' interests and feedback. We're excited to launch an e-mail newsletter and host in-person events in the coming months. We're also interested in adding multilingual components and expanding our coverage area to nearby cities that aren't as well covered as Minneapolis. I'm inspired by the collaboration among Documenters programs and newsrooms in Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago, and I can't wait to see what we can all do together in the Twin Cities.