Prototyping Sidewalk News and beyond

The intersection of East 149th Street, and Willis, Melrose and Third Avenues in the South Bronx, known as The Hub.

Long before I came to CUNY, the idea for Sidewalk News began with an ad on a bus shelter for City Harvest, a non-profit food rescue organization in New York City. I began to notice that this ad space, which was right outside of my apartment, often featured public service announcements. I began to wonder if there was a way to use ubiquitous public spaces like this one to both inform communities about current affairs and strengthen the local news ecosystem.

From the beginning, it has been my goal to use outdoor advertising spaces for news. But that focus has become the source of my biggest frustration. I have found it surprisingly difficult to work with, or even learn about, the out-of-home (OOH) advertising industry. Just finding basic information — the cost of purchasing an ad space, the procedures for developing a campaign, the availability of inventory — has required dozens of hours of research, and I know that my knowledge is still only surface-level.

When I applied to the Entrepreneurial Journalism Program in the fall of 2018, I was confident that I could get a “news ad” up on an OOH ad space by mid-May. At some point, I began to realize how unlikely that was. Due to requirements for minimum ad buys, unresponsive ad agencies, and a general opaqueness throughout the industry, I now realize that building the relationships and infrastructure to use OOH will require a sizeable commitment of time and money, more than was possible during the four months of the Tow-Knight Fellowship. Forming relationships with the advertising industry is my priority moving forward.

For now, I’ve decided to prototype my idea in a more informal space. I’ve partnered with the Mott Haven Herald, a local newspaper in the South Bronx. This week, I’ll be putting up three posters in the windows of businesses along Willis Avenue for a short period. The stories — focused on local issues like affordable housing and a proposal for a new jail — will be shortened versions of existing stories from the Herald. Each poster, designed by Parsons student Emily Franklin, includes a phone number that readers can text if they want to receive a link to the full story. My hope is to spark interest and gather some data on how people interact with these posters and the stories themselves.

From these prototypes, I want to test three hypotheses. One is that people will stop and read the news if it’s put in a place that is part of their everyday routine, like a laundromat or a deli. Another is that people will be driven to learn more about both the story and the Mott Haven Herald after seeing these posters. The third is that local business will see the value of supporting local news and consider sponsoring future “news ads”.

Regardless of what happens with these prototypes and Sidewalk News in general, I’m heartened by the enthusiasm I’ve received about this idea over the past four months. In dozens of conversations, I’ve loved seeing other people understand why I find this idea so exciting, valuable, and achievable. I think there’s a real appetite for bringing local news onto the streets and amongst the people, and I believe that I can be the one to make it happen.

2019 Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism Fellow at CUNY; Founder & CEO of Sidewalk News

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