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Our community on WhatsApp existed long before COVID-19 started to wreak havoc on the lives of immigrant New Yorkers. However, the coronavirus pandemic changed how our community functions.
Before, we had a linear relationship with our community via a weekly newsletter with a summary of the most important news of the week.
With the pandemic, community members took the lead: sending us questions to which we didn’t always have answers. That forced us to do what we do best: reporting.
The following are some of the steps we took from there to fully integrate our community into our reporting process:
1. Working as a bridge between users and experts.
We identified five initial arching topics: healthcare access, immigration policies, food security, tenants’ rights, and labor rights. On all fronts, things were moving quickly: countries were closing their borders leaving immigrants stranded, the Trump administration’s new public charge regulations were in flux and unemployment applications skyrocketed overnight.
We reached out to nonprofits that focused on these areas, as they were best equipped to explain the ramifications of this new reality. We sent questions that our users asked us, thus becoming a bridge between our audiences and experts.
We decided to publish Q&As and guides, as opposed to traditional news stories because multiple users often had the same question and, with the situation in constant flux, it made the articles easier to update.
In a little more than a month, we published 17 articles using this method of translating our users’ questions into articles.
All of them originated from questions sent by our audience and are now part of what we call Documented’s Master Guide of Resources (See article).
3. Experimenting on the go
As we explained in our previous post (See article), we understood what our added value was: delivering resourceful and actionable information to our audience, in Spanish.
We began to see that our stories were resonating. Our resources in Spanish were consistently our most-read stories, with people finding them through search. And our community on WhatsApp continued to grow.
We decided to begin experimenting with formats while trying to create information that would meet our users’ needs. We turned some of our Q&A guides into illustrations that we distributed via WhatsApp.
Later, we conducted an engagement project that called on people to fill out a survey sharing what challenges they faced during the pandemic, and an anecdote of someone who has made this difficult time more bearable. This callout was inspired by this project from MLK50.
We received dozens of responses, but some people sent us voice notes instead of messages. So we made a special episode of Documented Semanal en Audio with a collage of our users telling the community about how they navigated the pandemic in New York. (Listen here).
For those who answered via text, we created cards that were included in our weekly newsletter.
4. Reporting with the communities
In April, the City announced a donation from the Open Society Foundation to provide cash assistance to undocumented immigrants who had been left out of federal stimulus. City officials celebrated the announcement with a press tour, touting the funds. Upon hearing about this many of our users messaged us with complaints that the phone number and email address that the City had listed to access the funds either were not working or they were redirecting people to local nonprofits. When we asked the City to explain, they evaded our questions or did not respond.
We felt that something wasn’t right. So we assigned reporter Kevin Dugan to investigate. I started getting users to speak on the record as sources for an investigative story. At least five of them volunteered and gave us insights on their journeys as they called, emailed and physically approached the City and different nonprofits for answers on how to access the funds. They also gave us copies of the emails they were getting in response.
Based on their insights, and after reporting for a couple of weeks, we published an article that included the many irregularities that we found and that were leaving undocumented immigrants unable to receive benefits.
It resonated deeply with our Spanish speaking audience. We were reporting on the subjects that really mattered to them, and they shared the articles with their friends and family. We know this because the traffic on the story spiked and some community organizers told us that they first knew about our investigation from their members, instead of us.
At the moment of writing this post, the article in Spanish is the second best performing investigative journalism piece of the year on our website. The first is a story that was also helped by insights that came from our WhatsApp community (See article).
Since this success, we have asked our community for help and used our community members as sources when reporting about evictions (see article) and on the impact of the coronavirus on Latinx communities (see article).
I’m very proud to say that now our users call me by my nickname, Nico, that we get many thank you messages every time we send out our weekly newsletter and that when we take a day off, people ask us what happened.
Final thoughts on creating trust
Although editorial decisions are still made entirely by our editors and journalists, the fact that we can have a pool of thousands of advisors that, in practice, are our eyes and ears in the streets, has proven key to our publishing process.
However, we would have never achieved this level of engagement without building on trust first. When users understood that we were reporting with them, instead of about them, providing the information that they needed, and that it was safe to speak with us, we became useful and they started recommending us.
It was only after achieving trust that we were able to leverage our audience as a valid agent in our content creation process.