How Outlier Media Works for Detroit

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

At the News Integrity Initiative, we’re launching a series of profiles of NII grantees in order to highlight their groundbreaking work. We can’t think of a better way to kick off this series than with Outlier Media in Detroit, founded by Sarah Alvarez. Outlier Media expands our imagination about what information is valuable to people and how to deliver it to them. Sarah has created an elegant model that uses some automation to reach large audiences, while also offering community members the chance to talk to and get help from real human beings. It is a model that offers seemingly endless opportunities for plugging all sorts of data into it for the benefit of communities, which is why we hope to see it both fully funded in Detroit and tested in many other places.

Thanks to Lindsay Muscato for conducting this interview.

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.

What that looks like day-to-day is texting with the people of Detroit and making sure their information needs are met.

It’s a model that takes a lot of work and a lot of data, but it’s the best way we’ve found to deliver valuable information to the people we serve, while holding those in power accountable.

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.

The really hard part was figuring out what information, deliverable via text, would be both valuable and actionable. So for that challenge, we turned to United Way’s 211 service, for clues to what Detroiters needed most. Our first year, it turned out to be housing, housing, and housing. Which, fortunately, is a topic I’d covered before, and a topic with a lot of public data.

This is where it got even harder, though. All of that data? It wasn’t in one place, or one city or county department. It certainly wasn’t in one format. You can’t Google these kind of things, they’re not answerable in an easy way. I was not a data reporter before I started Outlier, but I had to learn that. Now we have a combination of public data, FOIAs, web scrapers and scripts that connect them. (Now we also have Katlyn Alo Alapati, who’s writing scripts that allow us to update so much automatically!)

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.

Now we’re able to do much more. The choices are to: check the tax status of your home; rental inspection and information on your rights; electric, gas or water service issues; questions about a vacant property; and then the last option is “I don’t need this info right now.” Each of those take people down a different path and they get different data depending on what their information need is. The replies are one-on-one, it’s via text. It’s like, “Hi this is Sarah from Outlier, tell us what you need.” We usually keep interacting over text but we also give our phone number, and some people give us a call.

These days, we reach about 220 Detroiters each week, which means we’re in regular touch with more people than newsrooms many times our size.

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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Molly de Aguiar

Molly de Aguiar

President, Independence Public Media Foundation