How to turn your readers into watchdogs

These Detroiters signed up for a free collaborative workshop to help investigate bulk buyers in the Wayne County tax auction. (Detour Media)

Local news is in crisis, apathy among young citizens is at an all-time high and the rise of smartphones is turning neighbors into alienated strangers.

We’ve all read the headlines and heard the prophecies. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to change it. Making local news relevant begins with small steps, and small events. Like last week in Detroit, when 35 readers joined us in Detroit’s Tech Town neighborhood for a collaborative workshop to help us investigate law-breaking real estate speculators.

To back things up… I’m Ashley Woods Branch, the founder of a local news community in Detroit called Detour. My partner Kate Abbey-Lambertz and I launched Detour to create a better local news habit for younger readers, and to help bring users together, online and in person.

Thousands of local readers open the Detour newsletter twice every week for curated news, events and original community journalism. Throughout the year, we’ve worked with an amazing local accountability journalism nonprofit, Outlier Media, to spotlight troubling issues with the Wayne County tax auction. The county has sold a staggering number of properties through the auction — about 145,000 in the last 15 years — many to speculative and unscrupulous buyers. The county doesn’t track whether buyers are purchasing houses without paying the back taxes they owe on other properties, which is against the law. More to the point, manipulating the system this way has serious consequences for residents — it contributes to a cycle of neighborhood blight and housing market dysfunction, while letting predatory rental schemes flourish.

Investigating each property sold from the auction is a monumental task. With our crew of citizen journalists, we were able to vet dozens of buyers. We’ll use the information they found in our reporting going forward, and we’ll continually let our readers and members know that they play a role in the work they do.

I’ll share how and why we trained our readers to act like journalists for the evening and how our process works, because it’s easily replicable in your town.

The value proposition

Four reasons why hosting a watchdog workshop might make sense for your newsroom:

1. You want to highlight the investigative work you are already doing.

2. You want your readers to understand why paying for journalism matters and how valuable local journalism is to your community.

3. You want to connect with community organizers, reporters from other news outlets, or concerned citizens who are interested in making change happen.

4. You have a big project that could benefit from increased citizen participation.

And here are some lessons we think are important to share if you decide to host your own watchdog workshop!

Target workshops to a broader membership strategy

More than 150 of our readers are now paid members of Detour Detroit. Their $3/month support directly funds our investigative journalism with Outlier Media, and we publicly thank our members when we publish stories developed through the partnership.

While holding an open workshop is part of our overall mission to demonstrate the value of local journalism to readers, it’s most compelling to the hyper-involved 5 percent, our members and super-users. Spend time surveying your members and most engaged readers to find out which issues they are most interested in, and build events that speak to their needs. As a growth strategy, this will also help you find more users who are similar to those who already give you money.

We’re very grateful to the funders of the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund — the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, the Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation — for helping support this work. It’s worth asking whether any local foundations in your backyard would help support a citizen journalism training program. This is important work

Make it easy

Your readers have likely never participated in an act of public journalism before. Make sure to limit your scope. In this case, we asked readers to help us add to a database of auction buyers’ other properties and any previous tax delinquencies, a process that involves looking at several records databases at best and poring through documents to find real owners hidden by multiple shell companies at worst. The database logs the owners and individuals, whether they had bought in the auction previously, and whether they owed taxes at the time they bid on new properties (which is against state laws but is not tracked).

Outlier created a step-by-step digital guide in a Google Doc, including screenshots, to help volunteers search for this information in public record databases. Their data journalists had done the initial work of FOIA-ing and analyzing auction records to identity the buyers we wanted to focus on (those purchasing eight properties or more) and even created a scraper for one of the public databases to simplify one step of a complicated process. Make sure to budget time at the beginning to walk through the process and to make volunteers available to help those with questions.

Make it usable

Tell participants how you plan to use their findings and your next steps in the reporting process. Make sure to follow up with them as you continue reporting and publish stories — and give them credit! Also make sure you’re adhering to best practices and be explicit about what they are. For our workshop, Outlier created individual Google sheets for each participant to record their findings to limit the potential for errors. We directed participants to write notes and flag any properties or owners with potential conflicts, which we will then examine more closely.

Open your doors

Maybe it’s that we still want to “break the big stories.” Or it’s a control thing. But we local media organizations lose out when we fail to find partners for public events. This mindset has been an issue for almost every local outlet I know. We’ve adopted a philosophy shift that strategic partnerships makes our events more inclusive and interesting, plus helps us do better work. In our case, partnering with Outlier Media’s team was what truly made this workshop possible.

The Outlier team includes:

Sarah Alvarez — founder and executive editor, Outlier Media

Katlyn Alo Alapati — Outlier Media multimedia data journalist

Imani Mixon — Outlier Media investigative reporting fellow

Joey Horan -Outlier Media reporter

Candice Fortman— Outlier Media chief of engagement and operations

Because we led with an open spirit, we received a lot of pre-event support and awareness from other local media outlets — a rarity in our competitive news town. And we were really grateful that a handful of local journalists, including investigative ace Christine MacDonald of the Detroit News, felt comfortable enough to dig in alongside our readers.

Don’t make it painful

This sounds self-explanatory, but spring for the best pizza you can find from a local business (we ordered from the excellent Supino Pizzeria in Eastern Market). Buy a few cases of local beer along with the bottled water. Even if your editor or newsroom leaders can’t stay all night, ask them to give a welcome at the beginning and meet members. If your event feels grim and uninviting, people won’t return. Also — ask for feedback! Collecting opinions on how to improve only makes us stronger.

What we learned for next time

Ah, the axiom holds true — take your number of registered guests, and cut it in half. That’s who actually shows up after a long day at work, especially during a Midwestern winter. We’ll look for a cozier room that actually has A/V capabilities and pick a music soundtrack in advance (vibes matter!)

We’ll also try to find more ways to streamline the process we used to share and collect data, so we have fewer tasks to complete during the event. And we’ll think of more ways to foster the collaborative spirit and better serve participants with a range of experience — possibly pairing people up or dividing tasks in a different way.

Most importantly, we’ll make sure to again and again explain the value proposition to our attendees — this is why what you are doing matters, and this is how you become part of the solution.

Ashley Woods Branch is the CEO of Detour, a startup local news community founded in Detroit. Detour publishes the free Detour newsletter twice every week.