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March 3, 2022, 10:20 a.m.
Business Models

“If you try to do this with email, you’ll fail”: How Dallas Free Press uses text messages to reach communities of color

“Before we even had a website, we launched our texting service in both neighborhoods, and in both English and Spanish for West Dallas.”

This Q&A is part of a series from the Institute for Nonprofit News on how nonprofit news outlets serve communities of color. Nieman Lab is republishing it with permission. You can read more about the series here.

Keri Mitchell is executive director of Dallas Free Press, which launched in 2020 with the goal of serving news deserts in Dallas communities. The interview was conducted by Sara Shahriari, INN’s director of leadership and talent development, and Emily Roseman, INN’s research director and editor.

Sara Shahriari and Emily Roseman: Tell us a bit about your news outlet. What’s your outlet’s primary mission? What sort of services does Dallas Free Press provide?

Keri Mitchell: The primary mission of Dallas Free Press is to amplify voices in disinvested Dallas neighborhoods and explore solutions to our city’s systemic inequities. We focus our community journalism efforts on the South Dallas and West Dallas neighborhoods, and we partner with the Dallas Weekly, a legacy Black newspaper in South Dallas. We do a lot of showing up and listening at community gatherings and spend a lot of time building relationships. We use those experiences to decide what topics and issues to tackle, and what needs to be communicated via text versus social media versus a story on our website.

Shahriari and Roseman: Could you tell us more about yourself? When did you start working at Dallas Free Press? What does your role look like?

Mitchell: I’ve been a community journalist my entire career. I started at small newspapers in the Houston exurbs and when I moved to Dallas, I went to my local library branch and found this magazine in a lobby news rack called the Advocate, which covers several Dallas neighborhoods. I recognized it as community journalism but with a magazine approach, which I loved because I’ve always been better at the big picture, why-it-matters side of journalism. That was in 2005, so I went through all of the revolutionary changes to digital journalism and advertising on the job.

In 2017 I wrote a story trying to demystify the politics of the local school board — local Dallas elections are nonpartisan — that was well read and respected. But I flat out didn’t have the resources to do everything I wanted to with the story. We had to keep churning out more website stories and fill up next month’s magazine to stay in business, so I left a lot of good reporting behind. And even if people loved my story, I couldn’t compete with the barbecue restaurant opening down the street in terms of web clicks.

I finally came to terms with the fact that if we want to do civic journalism that sheds light on big issues, and we want to serve communities where advertisers aren’t interested in eyeballs, communities who don’t have the resources or the trust to subscribe, we have to find a different way. I started looking at news efforts across the country, and I saw that this kind of journalism could be possible with a nonprofit business model. So after a lot of research and a lot of prayer and a few panic attacks, I launched Dallas Free Press in January 2020.

Shahriari and Roseman: Who does your outlet primarily serve?

Mitchell: South Dallas and West Dallas, where we focus our community journalism, are historically redlined neighborhoods where the vast majority of residents are Black and Latinx.

Shahriari and Roseman: Dallas Free Press uses text messaging as the main form of communication with residents of South Dallas and West Dallas. Could you tell me more about why and how you chose this strategy?

Mitchell: It’s a pretty simple answer — our readers told us to. Even before launching Dallas Free Press, as we discussed the idea of a community newsroom with West Dallas leaders, they told us, “If you try to do this with email, you’ll fail.” They said we needed to get information directly to people’s phones. They also told us that if we didn’t have Spanish-language content, we would fail. So before we even had a website, we launched our texting service in both neighborhoods, and in both English and Spanish for West Dallas.

Shahriari and Roseman: How do you decide what gets texted? Who leads this work? How many team members does it require?

Mitchell: We actually launched the service with two very talented bilingual interns — one studying to become a journalist and one a community organizer — who carried it for the first few months. It started mainly as a way to communicate about Covid-19; we sent at least one text a week with the neighborhood’s case numbers by ZIP code and trends, as well as some sort of resource, such as a new testing site or a food drive-through. When the vaccine rolled out, we switched to the neighborhood’s vaccination numbers and neighborhood vaccination rates. We announced via text when they had reached herd immunity.

Shahriari and Roseman: What kind of testing and learning did you have to go through to get to this workflow and process? Any mistakes made along the way?

Mitchell: We’re still learning! As we expanded beyond Covid-19 to other topics, we had a few weeks that we sent a text every day. We saw people start to unsubscribe and we pulled back. We’ve found a sweet spot in up to three texts a week — usually some sort of resource, an event, and a round-up of neighborhood news. Ideally we pre-schedule these, but news is news.

One issue has always been translation, which meant we often delayed the Spanish version of our texts, and sometimes weren’t able to send them at all. Now we have a bilingual journalist on staff, which makes a huge difference. We’re working on a more conversational tone, which our texts have always had to some extent, but we receive more responses with questions, prompts and such, so we’re trying to be more creative. Which can be challenging with only 640 characters!

Shahriari and Roseman: What have you seen as a result of this work?

Mitchell: The main challenge is getting people to subscribe, which most are willing to do at the neighborhood events we attend, either for a $5 gift card or just because they want to. We haven’t had a lot of success asking people to sign up digitally, but we’ve had a ton of success via in-person interactions, so we’re putting our efforts there.

I’ve been surprised and thrilled that very few people have unsubscribed from our texts. We’re clear about who it’s for — people who live or work in our neighborhoods — and what it is — news, information and resources specific to the neighborhood. Like our West Dallas friends told us, when we give people the option between email and text, they almost always choose text, or both. I love that people respond to our texts, sometimes even with just a simple, “Thank you,” which means so much. We pay attention to the responses, and we use them as a barometer to determine what else we should — and shouldn’t — cover.

Shahriari and Roseman: Besides text messaging, how else is Dallas Free Press thinking about reaching and serving communities of color?

Mitchell: We’re thinking about how partnering with neighbors and community organizations on events has fostered trust and enabled reach, and has been much more effective than hosting our own events.

Shahriari and Roseman: How are you measuring the effectiveness or impact of this work?

Mitchell: We conducted this survey in partnership with UT Austin’s Center for Media Engagement in early 2021 as the baseline for our organization’s work in our neighborhoods, and will continue building on that research each year.

Shahriari and Roseman: What advice do you have for other news organizations who want to start better serving people of color within their communities?

Mitchell: Show up. Over and over and over again. Show up at run-of-the-mill meetings and celebratory community gatherings so that people don’t just associate you with crises and chaos.

This was the advice given to me by a South Dallas community leader as I started exploring the possibility of Dallas Free Press: “We want to see you, hear you, smell you, touch you, taste you.” It may sound cringey, but after years of community journalism, I knew exactly what he meant: If you show up, it means you’re listening and you care. It means you’re willing to focus your time and energy on us. And if you show up, we’ll get to know you and begin to trust you.

We don’t often think of showing up as part of journalism. We’re supposed to be outside observers, not active participants. That may be true regarding elected officials or those who hold power, but it’s not true for community journalism, which always carries an inherent bias toward the communities it covers. This is even more crucial in communities of color, where explicit bias is really more of a centering and amplifying of Black and Brown voices.

Shahriari and Roseman: What’s next? Is there a story you’re looking forward to in 2022?

Mitchell: We worked hard last year to solidify the new Dallas Media Collaborative, and I’m excited about the stories we’re exploring together on housing justice. We’re also adding a Report for America fellow to our team; that role, coupled with another initiative, will change the way we cover public meetings and civic issues.

I can’t wait to see the stories published by high school journalists who are part of our pathway from Dallas high schools to Dallas newsrooms, and I’m loving working with an incredible local storyteller on a movement journalism project around the history of Dallas’s Black schools.

I’m most excited about pushing the envelope on what journalism looks like. Because of our nonprofit model, we don’t have a publication to fill, weekly website click quotas to meet or anyone to answer to — except our South Dallas and West Dallas readers. So we’re free to ask:

What matters most to our neighbors? And what are the best ways to tell those stories?

Photo of Dallas Free Press founder Keri Mitchell (left) and community leaders discussing potential solutions to affordable housing by Nitashia Johnson.

POSTED     March 3, 2022, 10:20 a.m.
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