People fill the San Diego city council chambers at a hearing over a proposed ordinance that would ban encampments on public land in the city of San Diego, April 13, 2023. The Documenters program is based on the idea that democracy works best when everyone is engaged and involved. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Why this matters

American life is built on democracy, and healthy, informed communities depend on residents who are active, educated and involved.

Today, we celebrate U.S. Democracy Day with a gift to the community. We are launching the inewsource Documenters, a new program based on a very old idea: Democracy works best when everyone is engaged and involved.

The Documenters will give all of you – and your children and grandchildren – an opportunity to witness local government at work and get paid for it. The program is built on the fact that public meetings such as city councils, water boards and school boards are workshops for democracy, where residents can observe, learn about and act on the systems that impact their lives.

Many urgent, local issues are aired and decided at public meetings, often without oversight by the local media, which has been painfully shrinking. The slow bleed will continue, especially in light of the sale of the region’s information bedrock, the Union-Tribune, to a vulture capital company. 

This is where you come in.

inewsource has been working for more than a year to bring the Documenters program to San Diego as a key part of our new Community Engagement Lab. We’ve raised money to run the program, hire staff and to train and pay what we hope will be a legion of Documenters in this county. Imagine: hundreds of everyday folks, proudly wearing a Documenters badge, taking notes at public meetings and posting them on a website for all to see.

Thank you to our local partners making this new program possible: Conrad Prebys Foundation, James Silberrad Brown Foundation, Parker Foundation, and Richard and Carol Hertzberg.

We foresee high school and college students getting first-hand experience with local government in action. We see parents watchdogging school board officials and flagging issues that should be further investigated. We see seniors putting their life experience to work at public meetings where important decisions are made but are rarely attended.

We see democracy in action.

Documenters was incubated at a nonprofit newsroom in Chicago, and thousands of people across 11 cities have gone through Documenters training. They attend public meetings, and post their notes on a special Documenters website. They are making local government more transparent and accessible by surfacing issues that might otherwise die in the dark. And their presence sends a message to public officials that what they say and do is being watched and magnified on the web and on social media.

Here is how the Documenters will work here:

  • All public meetings will be listed in one place on the Documenters website.
  • People interested in becoming a Documenter will be trained by our staff and volunteers on all aspects of public meetings. How do you read an agenda? How do you find support materials for items on the agenda? How do you act, where do you sit, where do you submit your notes? 
  • Documenters will choose a public meeting they want to attend. As independent contractors, they will be paid $20 an hour for prep time, meeting attendance and note posting. (If you need help with transportation, you can talk to us to make arrangements.) You will receive a byline on your notes.
  • The program manager and an assistant will coordinate the Documenters’ time, edit notes and post on the website. 

Because San Diego County is such a big place, we are starting the Documenters program in the southern neighborhoods of San Diego and across the South Bay, areas of our county where important community stories are often overlooked by traditional media. Once we are up and running, we will welcome suggestions for expansion to other cities and communities.

We are working with City Bureau in Chicago to build out the San Diego County part of the Documenters website, where there will be a listing of all the public meetings we hope will be attended.

Based on the experience of other Documenters programs, we are soaring with excitement and confidence. Here are some success stories from this new type of participatory media from around the country:

We hope you are as excited about this opportunity as we are. To find out more about the Documenters, check out the main website where San Diego County will be listed soon.If you’d like to comment on the program or let us know of your early interest, please contact us at

This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces.

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Blog: Updates from the newsroom on philanthropy, awards, staff and more.

Lorie Hearn is the chief executive officer and editor of inewsource. She is a lifelong news-aholic who started her reporting career writing her Girl Scout newsletter at age 12. High school and college were filled with school newspaper work, and after graduation, she worked as a reporter for newspapers...