In the last window of the last day, I attended a session by three journalists from Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ, about their two-year-old project called Curious City. The project aims to empower citizens of the Windy City — by not only offering to answer their questions, but by including the information-seekers in the reporting process and getting others in the community involved along the way. The project has uncovered real news — discovering that the city was trying to abandon a valuable firefighter-safety program, for example — but also tried to get to the bottom of weird smells or deployed a veteran cop to help find the best donuts. For 60 minutes, I heard about engaging human beings instead of tricking an algorithm.
A few hours later, my iPhone and I were on a CTA train, and my screen was white-hot, with gunfire and anger again in the streets of Ferguson, and with thousands of protesters flooding downtown Hong Kong. Just like Tony Haile had said, the news I was reading in the palm of my hand got into my soul in a way that much of what had transpired at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers did not. This is the battle of our 21st Century — the quest for a true democracy — and whether regular people are going to have power over their lives, or whether that power will keep flowing to big, algorithm-writing corporations and the 1 Percent that they enrich. Ironically, just hours after the end of ONA, I read about the rise of “corporate journalism” — wealthy firms creating their own newsrooms that will the void of shrinking newsrooms that once served the public, the ones that were represented in Chicago.