How we used a people-centered approach to build trust and become part of a community
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During our time at NYU’s Studio 20 Graduate program, my colleague Aldana Vales and I partnered with Documented, a nonprofit newsroom that covers immigration in the New York area, to survey undocumented Spanish-speaking New Yorkers. The idea was to use these insights to create something, either a product or content, that would be useful for this community.
Fast forward 20 months: we now have a WhatsApp news service with a base of users that not only receives information but is also part of the content creation and verification processes. Here is how we did it and what we’ve learned in the process.
1. We showed up
Although Latinxs ourselves, Aldana and I are not from New York, nor are we undocumented. Undocumented Spanish-speakers in New York City are a very diverse group and clustered by boroughs or nationalities. After researching and identifying communities and organizations, we decided to do what reporters do best: call people and show up.
We talked to community group leaders, participated in meetings and attended events, like the transgender Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) that is pictured above, where we met Latinx trans activist Lorena Borjas, who recently passed away due to COVID-19. We also spoke to people from Informativo Teopantlán, Make the Road NY, New Sanctuary Coalition and La Colmena Staten Island.
The idea was to understand a) what kind of content and information local undocumented Latinx communities were consuming, and b) what was missing in the current offerings.
2. We asked questions. Many questions
Our conversations happened mostly in person and didn’t have a fixed agenda, nor did we have a story in mind. We tried to understand content and news consumption habits, and what was missing in the current offerings. Some of the talks included questions like “What’s your day like? At what time do you consume news? Are these news sources from the U.S. or from your country of origin? What do you think is missing from the information you get on TV? On a day like today, what apps do you use to get news?”
After several weeks of conducting this research, we had enough information to see trends in the answers. The key takeaways were the following:
- Politics: People care about politics and its effects on their everyday lives. This includes state, city, neighborhood and community level politics, in addition to what’s happening in Washington.
- Privacy: Many immigrants within this community fear exposing themselves to immigration enforcement. It doesn’t matter if they are undocumented or not, people just didn’t want their information to be public.
- Networks: Univisión and Telemundo are successful at reaching people, on TV and digital. However, many said the tone of the coverage was too alarmist and the political coverage was too difficult to digest. They also found the news cycle too fast to follow.
- Language: Although young Latinxs tend to speak English and Spanish, older cohorts don’t.
- Social: Older Latinxs use mainly WhatsApp and Facebook to engage with their relatives in their home country. They also get news on these platforms. Most consumption occurs on mobile devices.
- Resources: Many told us they need useful information about how to navigate American bureaucracy. There is not a centralized information source on health, mental health, immigration, labor and education. Instead, it is scattered among private companies, NGOs and federal, state or city websites.
3.Journalism should meet audiences where they are
Documented provided immigration news, in English, via email and its website.
This community consumed information in Spanish, through WhatsApp and needed immigration news and useful resources, while maintaining their privacy. Based on what we had learned we decided to create a weekly news service on WhatsApp. We named it: Documented Semanal.
Because privacy is a priority, we decided against a WhatsApp group. People in the group would be able to see and reach other members. Instead, we created a WhatsApp broadcast list. From a user’s perspective, they are having a private conversation with Documented. We began by sending each user a weekly round up of immigration news.
4. Research, iterate, test. Again and again!
Our first edition of Documented Semanal was long. 826 words and 4,989 characters of plain text. No links, no bold formatting, no images.
After many iterations, this how our service looked one year after launch:
But there was still work to be done. Following discussions with Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media, who has acted as a mentor through the American Press Institute Listening Fellowship, we decided to conduct a second round of user research. Nearly 10% of our users volunteered to take part. Our focus, again, was to understand their needs. The difference this time is that we were also testing our own product.
5. We understood our role
We live in a messaging app where people talk to other people. When they do, they expect an answer. It seems obvious, but we learned this the hard way.
People started asking us questions and got frustrated when we didn’t answer. We initially thought this wasn’t a scalable method and that news services can’t reply to every single user.
However, when the Coronavirus quarantine began, we changed our approach, as we started to get an overflow of questions.
We decided to funnel them through themed call-outs on immigration law, health care access, labor rights, housing and fake news. Then we reached out to experts to get answers.
For our labor questionnaire, we went one step further and hosted a Facebook Live with labor lawyers.
The material that came from these efforts was then sent back to our audiences via website, social media and, of course, WhatsApp. Also, we replied to each user that sent us questions with a dedicated message containing the answer from an expert.
6. We understood what our added value was
We only send out information that is related to Latinxs and immigration. However, there are nuances.
We are not trying to cover breaking news as we can’t compete with larger media organizations. Also, links to straight news received low clicks and responses. On the other hand, resourceful information that was actionable got higher interaction rates. A Q&A on how the coronavirus pandemic would affect immigration law issues was the best performing link we’ve sent to our community (here is the English version).
Unsurprisingly, links to Q&As on labor rights and fake news are the second and third-best performing respectively. Our top performing links are all original pieces of content created with the help of our Documented Semanal readers.
After 15 months of having our product available to the public, two rounds of user research, three iterations of our flagship product, Documented Semanal, and many audience-driven efforts during the coronavirus pandemic, we are now able to say that:
a) Decisions for new products should always put audiences first.
b) Data analysis and conversations with audiences are key to improving the content creation and distribution processes.
c) Communities that use a product can actively help with content creation.
d) Products should be modified to meet the needs of the audience, not the likes of journalists.
Now, we know there is an actual community behind our product. We also know, with hard data, that our journalism is a service that helps to solve the real needs of our audience. However, this was a slow process that is still evolving, as are the needs of our users.
If you want to join our community, you can do it here.