(CLEVELAND) — Throughout many American cities, the death of local news organizations has led to the public losing access to much-needed information from their local government, such as city council hearings, according to experts.
A study by the Clinton Foundation and the Knight Foundation found that only 11% of the news produced in Cleveland served “a critical information need,” according to Lawrence Caswell, the managing editor of community for the nonprofit news organization, Signal Cleveland.
“Even though these meetings are open to the public, very little of the information from these meetings gets out to residents,” he told ABC News Live. “Even though the whole reason [of] why they are open to the public is to make sure that the residents can get the information from these meetings.”
But for the last three years, Carswell’s news organization takes part in a national program that worked to fill that void by turning to civic-minded residents and training them to help document the public meetings.
There have been more than 400 people who have participated in the Documenters program for Signal Cleveland, according to Caswell. Interested residents sign up, get specialized training from him and his journalists and are free to go to any public meeting and start taking notes.
The notes written by the Documenters, who are paid, are then posted online in weekly briefs for the public.
City Bureau, an Chicago based non-profit organization, started the Documenters program, and has several chapters based around the country.
Kellie Morris, a Documenter, told ABC News Live that being part of the team is straightforward as she didn’t need any special level of education or background to record all of the details of meetings.
“I’m just writing from a layperson’s position as I see it and what I see as important. And that’s the whole point — that anyone can be a documenter,” she said.
In addition to the weekly briefs, the Documenters meet monthly with Signal Cleveland’s staff to discuss the events they covered.
Mark Naymik, the managing editor for Signal Cleveland, told ABC News Live that the details and information provided by the Documenters have greatly helped the news organization’s coverage of the city.
“To look for news that I can then draw out as a story or assign to someone or use it in a newsletter, it’s become invaluable,” he said.
Caswell said the monthly meetings not only help the Documenters and journalists explore news topics to cover, but they also encourage dialogue about civics among residents.
“The benefit of this space is that you have all of this diverse group of folks who are connected by their interest in sort of participating civically,” he said.
Caswell added that the program is still growing and he hoped that it can continue to fill the void left by the loss of the local press.
“We really feel like that’s the basis for sort of building capacity for self-directed problem solving and I think, fundamentally, a stronger local democracy,” he said
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