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Newsletter Spotlight: Newswire by Chicago Documenters from City Bureau

How would you describe how your local City Council works?

The legislative body of your city? A laboratory of democracy?

Sure. Those are correct, but they also sound like…homework. After a long day of work (or quiet quitting, do what you gotta do), who has time for homework?

But what if you compared City Council to a soap opera or telenovela? Now you have my attention.

This Newsletter Spotlight is on Newswire by Chicago Documenters from City Bureau.

Disclosure: I have been a City Bureau donor over the past several years.

Key takeaways from Newswire by Chicago Documenters

  • It’s okay to have fun — especially with dense topics.
  • Showing vulnerability is powerful. “Look, we know this isn’t what you love to read, so we’re putting effort into delivering it in an enjoyable, amusing way.”
  • Help readers catch up on what they missed. Liberally link to previous emails in a series.

Back in May, Newswire went on a brief hiatus and emerged in August redesigned and with a new focus. In their own words, the relaunch was “designed for Chicagoans who want to make a difference in the life of their communities” [emphasis theirs].

Newswire design before and after

At first glance, the newsletter looks pretty similar. It goes to show the best design is built-in, and often invisible.

Before the redesign

In the original version, Newswire looks like a pretty standard newsletter. First is the dateline followed by a pull quote. Next is the newest work under the section header, “The Latest.” You see a flow from most important to less important as you move down. It ends with links to reporting from other local newsrooms.

It’s a good curation of City Bureau’s work, especially what the Documenters Program produces.

New strategy leads to new design

A lot of “redesigns” end up being redecorations. Slap a new coat of paint on the same newsletter product, change up some fonts, and get right back to sending.

Newswire doesn’t take this route. In fact, after the redesign, the colors and fonts are still the same. The same logo and even the dateline remains. However, the newsletter is substantially different.

The biggest change is the newsletter will now arrive on Tuesdays and Fridays. On Tuesday, it remains like the original, a curation of stories the Documenters have reported on, plus other updates. On Fridays, Newswire helps its audience understand how local government works.

In their own words, the Friday newsletter is: “An easy-to-read explainer providing insights into civic power, plus a preview of the upcoming week’s meetings and links to key news stories”

There’s a keyword there that makes a huge difference: power. More specifically, civic power.

This is a crucial distinction. What’s happening in government isn’t a flowchart. What happens is the result of who has power and how they use it. Furthermore, it’s hard to understand how city government works if you don’t understand power.

“A Crash Course in Budget Season”

This October, Newswire is tackling Chicago’s budget. The budget process crams high-stakes political wrangling and plenty of math — 16.4 billion dollars worth of math — into 4-6 weeks. Dense is an understatement.

City Bureau concedes that this is not as entertaining as what’s on streaming services. They say their data shows that newsletter readers are less likely to open an email with “budget” in the subject line. I love this admission. Accepting that not everyone wants to get into the weeds is important to guide them to useful information.

Civic participation is vital to a healthy democracy. But it’s a whole hell of a lot easier said than done.

Getting involved in city government takes a ton of energy and perseverance. The learning curve is intimidating. Procedures are hard to follow. There is a ton of jargon. Initiatives sometimes die or disappear for seemingly no reason at all.

How can newsletters help readers overcome these obstacles?

Rather than settling for explanations, City Bureau chooses to persuade. Starting with the subject line with a nice dose of FOMO: Chicago City Hall’s can’t-miss show of the year.

And this is where they introduce the idea that budget season is like a soap opera.

Budget season has it all: pathos, melodrama, memorable one-liners and over-the-top reaction shots (minus the “bevy of beauties with awfully obedient tear glands”).

Help readers catch up on missed “episodes”

The other impressive thing Newswire is doing is how each new budget email links to a previous email. Keeping with the daytime drama series theme, this is the newsletter version of the “previously on…” recap.

It’s hard to learn new stuff on the first try. To make readers get a win, and feel smarter and more informed as citizens, it’s crucial to reinforce the new information.

Here’s the second email in this series from October 14, 2022:

City Bureau Newswire 2022 1014 recap noted

I’ve noted three things here. For Number 1, the section heading “A Crash Course in the City Budget” was used in the first email. This is the title of our soap opera, so it makes sense that the newsletter keeps that title card going.

Number 2: The intro section mentions that this is the continuation of the series. Not everyone will notice the same title the second week. To be honest, I didn’t realize it until I had seen it 8-10 times. Here’s the highlighted section, with the link preserved:

A closer look at the nuts and bolts of local government and civic power. Last Friday, we kicked off a series on the City of Chicago’s budget season and why it has all the elements of a good soap opera or telenovela.

Number 3: Newswire again reinforces this is a series, with a theme. Keeping with the theme, they note this is another “~episode~” in the “show”. Repetition is a powerful tool for getting things to stick in peoples’ minds. Here’s the newsletter text (please note the link goes to a PDF):

Before we dive into this week’s ~episode,~ here’s a quick recap of the season so far: Lightfoot and her top finance officials have proposed a budget of $16.4 billion to keep the city running in 2023. She’s calling it a “stability budget” because of:

The third email in the city budget series keeps up the repetition and theme.

City Bureau Newswire 2022 1021 recap noted

Number 1: Once again, the section heading “A Crash Course in the City Budget” leads off this email. This is helpful because Tuesday’s email isn’t part of this series. It reminds regular readers where they are.

Number 2: The description paragraph now includes links to both previous emails, and uses “episode” to describe the editions.

A closer look at the nuts and bolts of local government and civic power. In last week’s episode (yes, we’re still running with the premise that the city’s budget season is a soap opera), we wrote about the concept of a budget as a “moral document” or “value statement.”

Number 3: This episode is calling back to the tropes of soap operas in an amusing way.

A return from the dead: Chicagwa, for sale?

Succession intrigue: The city’s former chief engagement officer is running for retiring Alder Leslie Hairston’s 5th Ward seat. Hairston, meanwhile, hasn’t stopped throwing her trademark shade.

Betrayal: Alder Harry Osterman (48th Ward) said we’re not “meeting the moment”—a phrase Lightfoot used in her budget address to describe past city budgets as responsive—when it comes to the mental health and housing insecurity in the city.

This is fun! And it’s hard to make city government fun. Taking a dense topic and making it relatable shows incredible depth of knowledge and understanding. The impact is worth it.

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