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Editor’s Notes

Spotlight PA, News Lab at Penn State launch community-based program to keep tabs on local elected leaders

by Maggie Messitt of News Lab at Penn State and Sarah Rafacz of Spotlight PA State College |

Centre Documenters take notes at a Spring Benner Walker Joint Authority meeting in late November.
Georgianna Sutherland / For Spotlight PA

Public participation is crucial to democracy. Elected officials need to hear from the people who live in their communities to make informed decisions that benefit everyone.

While an abundance of news sources makes it easy to have an opinion about what’s happening in national politics, it’s the decisions made by local governments that directly affect our everyday lives.

But keeping up with your local government’s various boards and commissions might not be the easiest thing to do. Maybe you can’t regularly make it to the meetings in your municipality because of your work or child care schedule. Perhaps lack of reliable transportation keeps you from attending.

And that means that sometimes our local elected officials conduct meetings when none of their constituents are present.

So the News Lab at Penn State and Spotlight PA have partnered to launch Centre Documenters.

Unlike journalists, documenters aren’t writing news stories or prioritizing what information they share. They simply take notes on what is discussed and decided at a meeting, and they make those notes available to anyone who wants them — via a newsletter, texting service, and the program’s website.

Our documenters attend and document meetings in six under-covered townships across rural Centre County — Benner, College, Gregg, Halfmoon, Snow Shoe, and Spring.

Centre Documenters is part of a nationwide network, founded in 2018 by a community-based newsroom in Chicago. It is dedicated to building a corps of “curious citizens” equipped with the skills necessary to support local government transparency.

While the network has focused on cities, we saw Documenters as an important tool for rural communities across Pennsylvania with deep coverage gaps. It is also an outstanding opportunity for Penn State students to study local government in real time. As they attend meetings, they’re learning to be better listeners and observers. They’re advancing their note-taking and fact-checking skills, while also taking the time to process the decisions and conflicts they were present for in local rural municipality meetings.

Like all documenters in the network, Centre Documenters are paid to participate in trainings and to attend and take notes at public meetings. Initial funding comes from the News Lab at Penn State, specifically the Arthur P. Miller Newsroom Fund and the Norman Eberly Faculty Endowment Fund in Journalism.

Since September, the News Lab has recruited and trained 20 student documenters and three student editors. They’ve worked to navigate the challenges residents face when attending public meetings: cancellations, transportation, locating agendas, understanding the topics being discussed, and sometimes being the only people in attendance. As part of their training, documenters have attended and taken notes at 25 meetings.

Today, Centre Documenters published its first newsletter, just one way to stay informed about meetings and the program’s work. In 2024, Centre Documenters will cover 30 meetings and publish two newsletters each month.

Centre Documenters is also launching a texting service, allowing you to receive key takeaways and a link to meeting notes for a particular municipality or type of meeting. If you’re invested in water and sewer meetings across the county, you can receive texts after each. If you’re a resident of Benner Township and you’d like to stay on top of the decisions being made that affect you most, you can sign up to receive that information as a text message.

As the program grows, we hope to include additional municipalities in the county and also recruit, train, and pay residents in each municipality to join our team of documenters.

Maggie Messitt is the director of the News Lab at Penn State. Sarah Rafacz is the editor of Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau.

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