How Outlier Media Works for Detroit

Preventive journalism and distributed watchdogging, one text message at a time.

Q. Can you give us an overview of your model for journalism in Detroit, and why it’s different from a lot of what’s out there?

When journalists talk about audience engagement, and listening to their readers, they don’t often mean listening to them one-on-one, on a daily basis. But here at Outlier that’s exactly what we do. I set out to build a service for low-income news consumers — because their information needs are ignored by most types of media, which means that accountability suffers. In the process of building out an organization, we’ve realized there are two things that makes us different: 1) we are focused on our news product having utility over every other quality and 2) the more democratic that news gathering and distribution is, the more valuable the news product is.

Q. Tell us more about how your model works. What does Outlier do, and what’s the origin story behind the model?

We fill information gaps, meaning that we let the needs of our audience determine our coverage. Our two beats right now are housing and utilities such as electric and gas, and water. We try to make sure the information we deliver is both valuable and actionable because with fewer local journalists in Detroit, we believe we have to distribute some of our mission. In our case, we can redistribute the watchdogging function by giving people the information they need to make sure their landlords, the city and the county are following the rules. We follow up with anybody who wants more or extra info or who has something they think a reporter should know or can help with.

Snippet of a conversation between Outlier Media and a Detroit-area community member (courtesy of Sarah Alvarez)

Q. Why text messages?

It wasn’t hard to figure out that we needed to use text messages. Traditional news organizations don’t reach a significant number of low-income news consumers, so we knew, from the beginning, that our outreach needed to be much more direct. We buy lists of cell phone numbers from a data broker, and then “cold text” Detroiters with an intro to our service. If they want to engage (and about 40 percent of them do), they enter their home address.

Q. What are your interactions like with readers? What kinds of information do they receive?

When we first started, we were sending people data about the property where they lived. The tax auction in Wayne County is a giant driver of displacement, and a lot of people are renting and don’t even know if the house that they’re living in is on the tax auction block. If it’s sold, they can be evicted by the new owners, and that happens pretty commonly. We were giving people info on things like the owner, auction status, and blight tickets on the property.

Q. Do you have any advice for other news orgs that might want to take this on?

I’ll be honest — I don’t have a lot of faith that news organizations want to do this but just haven’t figured out how. It’s that they haven’t figured out why it’s worth their while. Low-income communities and low-income news consumers are still undervalued. It’s a rare news organization that says, “Yes, I want to learn to serve a bigger portion of my community, and I’m willing to change things in order to do it.” It’s very hard for most news organizations to give up power over what they think is important.

It’s a rare news organization that says, “Yes, I want to learn to serve a bigger portion of my community, and I’m willing to change things in order to do it.” It’s very hard for most news organizations to give up power over what they think is important.

Outlier is based on the idea that the needs of our community are what drive us. What I think is important is not what I’m going to report on. It’s not about the news cycle, or my expertise or what I find interesting. Trust me, if I did not have to report on utilities I wouldn’t. It’s so hard. But unless we redistribute the watchdog function so that everyone can be acting on the same information and making choices that increase accountability, we’re not going to make any change. Some places, it will. Maybe the Washington Post or the New York Times. But here in local media, that’s not enough… one bad story doesn’t change much. It’s going to have to be really bad. And should people have to wait for things to be so bad that they’re worth a major investigation?

Q. Can you say more about that aspect of Outlier’s mission, making sure that people don’t have to wait for situations to get really bad?

One thing I’ve talked about with other reporters who do this kind of work — like the folks at City Bureau, or Spaceship or Jiquanda from Flint Beat — is that, when we’re doing our jobs, our communities value us because we are making a problem less. We are preventing a problem or mitigating the effects of a problem. It’s almost like preventive journalism. It’s not that something terrible happens and then we’re writing about it and then maybe something changes. We’re reporting on communities that face a lot of challenges, and if we can make some of those challenges less awful, by providing good information and keeping everyone honest, and making sure there’s consistent watchdogging going on, that’s why we’re valued. It’s not because we’re something great to read.

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