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March 1, 2018, 10:28 a.m.
Reporting & Production

By mass-texting local residents, Outlier Media connects low-income news consumers to useful, personalized data

“I was not satisfied with covering low-income communities for a higher-income audience. I wanted to cover issues for and with low-income news consumers.”

If you received an unsolicited text message about a free service offering to check the public record of your house or landlord, would you respond?

What if you were a renter without much money and debating whether you should withhold next month’s rent because needed repairs aren’t being done? Or if the house next door is unmaintained and affecting your own living situation?

For many Detroit residents, replying to that sort of out-of-the-blue text might be worth a shot. When I first texted the service of Outlier Media, within a minute I was informed about what it does, how I could use it, and (after a prompt to send an address) that the Outlier database didn’t have records on the building I was interested in (the Motown Museum). Seconds later, Outlier had asked me if I needed more information about housing, inspections, or utility shutoffs. And though I didn’t ask for a follow-up, 51 minutes later Sarah Alvarez, the founder and lead reporter on Outlier, had answered my query manually. (The museum’s address has $1,249.24 in taxes due from 2016 but is not on the tax auction list, I’m told.)

By drawing on a hefty database of information compiled from city and county public sources and automating initial responses, Alvarez has built the one-woman-show of Outlier Media into a resource for low-income news consumers in Detroit in search of tangible, individualized information. In 13 months, Alvarez has sent messages to about 40,000 Detroit cell phone numbers in her quest to reach “as many Detroiters as possible”; between 1,200 and 1,600 Detroiters have used Outlier to search for information on an address. (Opting out from Outlier’s messages is always an option as well.) She developed the system as a JSK Fellow after reporting for Michigan Public Radio.

“Even though the journalism was very good, I was not satisfied with covering low-income communities for a higher-income audience. I wanted to cover issues for and with low-income news consumers,” said Alvarez, who came to journalism after working as a civil rights lawyer. “I covered issues that were important to low-income families, but I was not a housing reporter. Using Outlier’s method and delivery system, it’s such efficient beat development. I learned so much about housing so quickly. You can talk to hundreds of people in a week instead of just talking to a few.”

But she also focused on what reporting she could rapidly (and realistically) provide to people. Alvarez pulled local data from United Way’s 211 line, a hotline set up for people seeking resources on topics such as domestic violence, veteran support, addition rehabilitation, and housing and utilities assistance. “I knew if I could find out what people were complaining about, I would know a good starting point for my reporting,” she said. After comparing it to data from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “housing was far and away the biggest thing.”

Alvarez dug into the data she could find to identify what information in the realm of Detroit housing is most needed but also most actionable on an individual level. Thanks to FOIA, public data, and data scrapers, she has access to the number of blight tickets per address, names of a property’s registered owners, whether or not it is at risk of tax auction, and how much taxes are owed.

After she buys lists of phone numbers from a marketing company with an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau, Alvarez sends out her introductory cold-text to 5,000 numbers at a time using GroundSource as the texting platform. “The information is the first thing they get,” she said in regards to building trust in unsolicited text messages. “It’s scary enough to put in your address to someone on the other end that you don’t know, but I think this information is so valuable and it is not easy to get.” (Very few people text her initially like I did, she said, and she doesn’t do any marketing or outreach for Outlier. But some people save her number and reach out later when they have an issue with their housing.)

The first few interactions are automated, from her introductory message to the prompt for entering an address to follow-up messages — about additional searching, the need for an Outlier journalist to follow up, or if the texter thought the service was helpful (very, kind of, or no). But some messages prompt Alvarez to respond directly. One Detroit resident recently sent to Alvarez:

Texter: Im having a problem with an empty lot next to my house. It has an owner but he is refusing to care for it. The field is causing rodent issues, killed one of my dogs (because of flies eating my dog), ive broken a few lawn mowers trying to keep the lot maintained for my childrens safety….what should i do? I have contacted the owner and he is refusinf to deal with the situation Also, the land is caving in aome places, the trees are digging holes in my garage roof, and the trash has caused my garage to start sinking and having foundation problems….please please help

Outlier response (after the texter sent their address): This is Sarah Alvarez from Outlier following up with you. The address next to you is [address]? I see that there is only 1 blight ticket so I think what you should be able to do is to get more blight tickets for the property. I think the Department of Neighborhoods should be your best bet. In District 2 you can call Sean Davis at [phone number; he’s the deputy district manager]. If they give you the runaround please let me know. It’s their job to help you through this and it’s my job as a journalist to hold them accountable.

While the city of Detroit has been redeveloping, its journalism has also seen some reinvigoration and investment, with the Detroit Journalism Cooperative and the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, and experiments such as City Bureau’s Documenters pilot program. For the past two years, Outlier Media has been funded by a grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, though that ends next month. Alvarez is exploring the idea of asking texters to pay for lookups beyond the initial outreach — say, 50 cents per additional search — though the limits of sending payment via text could restrain that idea. She’s also keeping an eye out for publishers who might be interested in including Outlier as part of their news organization. She has lined up funding from the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund to bring on a second reporter for at least one year to focus on utility issues, which she said was the second-most sought-after information in her research. (Kenichi Serino is joining the Outlier team today as a senior reporter on the utilities beat.)

“We’re going to really look into [utility shutoff policies] to see as a consumer what can be done in regard to shutoffs and deposits,” Alvarez said. “That one’s the harder one than housing, but again, the data is harder to get, and you want to be able to deliver high-value information.”

Aside from the direct data lookup service, Alvarez also leverages Outlier to pitch stories to Detroit newsrooms or work on her own enterprise reporting, such as these. “When there is a bigger piece or a bigger investigation, my news consumers have been very eager to help. It’s a very reciprocal relationship,” she said.

Most people think about the job of journalists as reporting individual stories, but Alvarez firmly believes Outlier’s service falls within the traditional definition of journalism: “My job is to get vetted information to the people who need it most,” she said. “The reason I do it is to create more accountability, which is at the heart of what I think journalists should do.”

Image of Detroit’s Motown Museum by Ted Eytan used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 1, 2018, 10:28 a.m.
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