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April 27, 2017, 9:42 a.m.
Reporting & Production

These national journalists are building a local site to bring a different kind of news to East Texas

The Tyler Loop fashions itself as a data-savvy, digital alt-weekly for the growing, increasingly diverse city of Tyler.

Two transplants — a magazine writer and a data journalist, both from national news outlets — walk into a bar in east Texas.

They start a small-scale, hyperlocal digital publication devoted entirely to the east Texas city of Tyler.

Tasneem Raja, who most recently had been leading coverage at NPR’s Code Switch vertical, and Christopher Groskopf, Quartz’s data editor, had settled in Tyler together and wondered during some post-election soul-searching how they might do their part to move forward with a divided electorate operating in information filter bubbles.

(Raja and Groskopf are married. By way of explanation, Groskopf first moved to Tyler to be near his son from a previous marriage.)

With a local paper in the Tyler Morning Telegraph, some local television stations, and some Dallas-area NPR affiliates reaching Tyler, the city isn’t a news desert. But, Raja and Groskopf said, the college-student-heavy, majority-minority, growing city of more than 100,000 located in a once dry county that is starting to get craft breweries was still missing a publication that covers the interests of its changing population.

“We’re seeing a gradual but obvious sea change in the kinds of culture people are interested in. We felt that if somebody doesn’t grab this moment, that would be kind of a shame,” Raja said. In the weeks leading up to the launch of the site, she had met at length with various community members — “I was extremely overcaffeinated” — from rabbis to advocates to try to unearth noteworthy work that might be going on under the radar around town. “There are huge swathes of the city that feel unseen and unheard by existing outlets. Something we’ve been wrestling with — do we call ourselves ‘progressive,’ for lack of a better word? That’s not exactly how we identify, but we’re also hearing that those are the kinds of stories people are hungry for.”

In the process of moving to Tyler from Chicago in 2011 — and shifting to remote work — Groskopf began a Hack Tyler project, initially for personal edification, to figure out both how to apply his data journalism background to civic use and how to get to know the city a bit more. His posts were picked up by The Atlantic, and some residents began to catch on to his efforts. The Hack Tyler project eventually faded, but: “I got out of it an interesting network of people who came to me through that project,” Groskopf said. “Pretty much all of my closest friends are people I’ve met this way. It’s not a direct evolution, but we’ve rolled that over into a conduit of ideas and feedback and support for Tyler Loop.”

The site will stay “small-batch,” as Raja and Groskopf describe it, likely starting with just one piece by each of them per week, plus contributed work as it comes. There’s a newsletter, and there’s just the simple site itself. Coverage will be laser-focused on the people and goings-on in Tyler itself, and thanks to Groskopf’s data journalism background, the site will publish some data dives as well — including stories on how national and state-level policies affect Tylerites at the local level — that none of the other outlets have been doing. (Some of the latest: a data-focused piece on whether Tyler’s supposed “economic boom” has really benefited everyone in the city, and a feature on a Tyler-based startup that works with women entrepreneurs.)

There are no plans, for now, to make money to pay themselves, though Groskopf and Raja are currently working on a comprehensive Taco guide, and crowdfunding a very modest amount through a GoFundMe ($250). There are no plans to do breaking news (maybe more day-two analysis stories) or statewide stories, though Raja said they’d be very interested in working with the likes of The Texas Tribune to localize some of their data-driven investigations.

Together, they’re hoping to fashion the site into a sort of hyperlocal, digital-only alt-weekly for the city that’s meant more to “play foil” to the existing local outlets in Tyler.

“When we first started thinking what we wanted to see, just for ourselves as people who live here, we kept talking about how Tyler needs something like an alt-weekly: the place in town that’s going to go deep on issues like income inequality, segregation, environmental issues,” Raja said. “So not just, ‘Hey, this thing just happened,’ but ‘Hey, this thing happened, here’s why you should care, and here’s the bigger context.”‘

“And it won’t be all doom and gloom,” Groskopf added. “We’ll go deep on the local food scene, or interesting cultural things aimed at people under 40, which some of the local media isn’t paying as much attention to.” (Tyler is home to multiple colleges, including UT Tyler.)

Even if, in a few years, Groskopf and Raja decide for some reason to stop maintaining the site, Raja said she hopes that editing Tylerites who’ve expressed an interest in writing about their community and keeping the site’s coverage consistently local will “boost local reporting skills and storytelling firepower in Tyler that can last even if the Loop were to become no longer the main venue for these writers.”

They had discussed, then discarded, some business models for sustainability, including raising some money.

“We went down the checklist. But it came down to, that’s not what either of us wants to do right now,” Groskopf said. “Among many other things, we live in a place that has a low cost of living. We can spend our spare time doing this, and doing it well on a small scale, and are taking advantage of that for as long as we can.”

Vintage postcard of a Texan’s view of the United States, by Matthew Stevens, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 27, 2017, 9:42 a.m.
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