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Jan. 27, 2020, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Text-for-housing-data service Outlier Media and MuckRock combine to close more information gaps around the country

The two companies are now one, and they’ll soon launch a service similar to Outlier’s Detroit project in Milwaukee.

Two nimble but powerful organizations are joining forces to continue reimagining journalism as a public service.

The three-person team of Detroit’s text-for-housing-info startup Outlier Media is becoming part of MuckRock, the 10-year-old nonprofit news site focused on accountability journalism through public records, they announced Monday.

Outlier is the third journalism service MuckRock has adopted in the past few years, and the two groups’ incumbent leaders Sarah Alvarez and Michael Morisy plan to help address more information needs across the country together. A new name for the combined company is forthcoming.

“If you’re able to get government documents and not make use of them, what’s the point? Outlier has a really good answer to [the question of] how you make public records have an impact on people’s lives,” said Morisy, MuckRock co-founder/CEO (and a former Nieman Lab contributor). “Journalism doesn’t have to be a story. Sometimes it can be very important but appear in very different ways.”

MuckRock began as a FOIA helper site that transitioned into a nonprofit, overseeing 71,503 filed requests (more than 21,000 were fulfilled) made to 14,165 agencies. In 2016, it absorbed the FOIA Machine journalism tool in 2016. Last year, it brought the financially strained DocumentCloud service under its umbrella and began charging for its use at varying levels, maintaining a free option. A quarter of MuckRock’s revenue comes from user subscriptions to its services; other revenue streams include published books, foundation grants, paid newsroom trainings, swag sales, and crowdfunding campaigns.

And on Outlier’s end, a merger is a happy new beginning:

“Because Outlier was really started as an intervention instead of [aiming] to be a longstanding institution — I think a lot of news organizations want to be institutions — what we wanted to do was deliver information, make a difference, and change the ecosystem in Detroit,” said Alvarez, who started Outlier in 2016. “Once we accomplished that, we felt like those functions should get rolled into another organization.”

She will become MuckRock’s editorial lead, staying in Detroit and helping to bring the pursuit of info needs to local organizations across the country. Outlier’s Detroit SMS housing information service and reporting will be turned over to “a local news collaboration within the next few months,” and the new combined company is working with Wisconsin Watch to set up a service similar to Outlier’s Detroit service in Milwaukee (with Google News Initiative funding).

Some members of the industry fear or are intimidated by automation and the risk of losing their jobs to robots. In Outlier’s case, the automation of texting batches of phone numbers with an offer to search housing, eviction, and blight ticket data — helping users make decisions about finding new places to live, taking care of neighboring properties, and holding local officials accountable — is an automation that provided immense value. Alvarez or data reporter Katlyn Alo (the third employee is Candice Fortman, chief of engagement and operations) would follow up if the database couldn’t pull an answer, and now Alvarez has effectively automated herself into a new job that will help spread the usefulness to more places. From our 2018 feature on Outlier:

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.”

[…]

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.

Outlier had also produced several reporting packages from the texting findings and published them in partner outlets: That included stories on Detroit’s rental registry ordinance in Curbed, on evictions and investments related to the University of Michigan in Bridge Magazine, and a tax auction FAQ in Detour Detroit. Now, Alvarez, Fortman, and Alo will take on more national accountability reporting and info needs projects. From the Outlier/MuckRock release:

Why are MuckRock and Outlier combining to form one organization?
Outlier’s reporting has been based on the idea that information gaps cause lapses in accountability, especially in low-income communities. MuckRock works to increase government transparency so we all are more likely to have the information we need. Together we’ll identify when information gaps and lack of transparency together cause harm for people and communities. We will help fill those gaps, increase transparency around the issues, and report on who is responsible for any harm.

What reporting can we expect to see?
In 2020 we will continue to support the work of our users by reporting on threats to open records and freedom of information. We will support the projects of partners who come to us with an idea for a data or document set they need or want to build a project around. We will also report specifically on issues related to utilities, policing, institutionalization and incarceration, and government surveillance. We know a lack of transparency and information related to these issues are already causing harm in communities around the country. We’ll publish our work directly on MuckRock.com, in our newsletters, and with our partners.

“How can we take all the data we have, this amazing community, and help local newsrooms better tap into that and help engage local communities around the work we do?” Morisy said. “Traditionally we’ve done a lot of crowdsourced projects about filing records requests. I think having the Outlier team’s engagement expertise really builds into that and really goes through on the vision of where we want to take things.”

While Outlier is bringing some of its grants into MuckRock’s wallet, Alvarez is ready to rededicate its work at a broader level.

“If you’re planning any type of endeavor you should have an exit strategy,” Alvarez said. “That’s not something that news organizations necessarily do a lot. It’s even more important now that there’s not money available to run news organizations for forever.”

Image showing redactions in the Mueller Report via Vox.

POSTED     Jan. 27, 2020, 10 a.m.
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