Over the past 20 years, half of the reporting jobs in Nebraska have disappeared.
That’s especially obvious at local government meetings — the city councils, county boards, school boards, public power boards and other public institutions that most closely impact our lives.
Once upon a time, a dozen outlets might have covered these meetings. These days, some aren’t covered at all.
That’s why I’m pleased to announce that the Nebraska Journalism Trust, the parent company of the Flatwater Free Press, is teaming up with Civic Nebraska to relaunch Documenters. It’s an innovative model that trains and pays community members — people like you, and maybe quite literally you — to show up to public meetings and, well, document what they see.
Documenters participate in the newsgathering process and help us understand our community. They are high school and college students, working professionals, retirees. They attend local public meetings and share government actions via detailed note-taking. The fact-checked notes are then published for anyone to use — these Documenters are in fact building a permanent public record of the local decisions being made.
The program first launched in Chicago in 2018, and is now in 15 cities across the nation.
We’re doing this because it provides needed oversight of our government. It will help our reporters, who will work closely with the Documenters, to develop story ideas and stay more informed. It will be a resource for our media partners and, ultimately, allow for a more informed public.
It represents the third program under the NJT umbrella, joining the Flatwater Free Press and Silicon Prairie News.
But Documenters isn’t just about journalism. It’s about engaging the public in local government, creating what some organizers around the country have called a “civic side hustle.”
I love that term. I also recognize that civic engagement isn’t our area of expertise. That’s why we’re teaming up with Civic Nebraska, which will support Documenters in building their understanding of civil discourse and civic health. That means they’ll talk about how government works. They’ll dissect budgets and examine elections and learn how the public and elected officials work together to solve local problems.
“Documenters tend to be deeply engaged in their communities, and Civic Nebraska will provide them the tools to guide them in their larger community-building work,” said Adam Morfeld, Civic Nebraska’s executive director.
We’re going to borrow expertise from other organizations with a deep understanding of how Nebraska works. I’m excited that The League of Women Voters of Nebraska, Open Sky Policy Institute and Platte Institute have agreed to take part in this program, too.
We’ll begin by restarting the effort in Omaha, where it first kicked off in October of 2022. Over its inaugural year, the program trained 63 Documenters who covered 180 meetings. You can see their work here.
From there, we have bigger plans. There’s a growing need for this crucial coverage in communities across Nebraska, in urban, suburban and rural counties alike.
So we aim to expand the program, and help answer that need, with the help of News Channel Nebraska, the Nebraska Press Association and any of our news partners who want to take part. If you think your community would be a fit for a Documenter, let’s talk.
And if you think this sounds like something you’d like to be a part of, we’re hiring. We’re looking for someone to lead the design of our Documenters program, acting as the point person for the partnership with Civic Nebraska and building the statewide strategy.
Once that person is in the door, we’ll re-open the application process to become a Documenter yourself — to get paid to be the eyes and ears of the public.
From day one, we’ve set out to do classic journalism with a different approach, one laser-focused on putting regular Nebraskans first.
Engaged Nebraskans make for a better Nebraska. That core belief drives every decision we make.
So this is a no-doubter. It invites you to directly work with us to make government approachable. Understandable. Documented.
I can’t wait to get started.