Finding and filling info gaps during COVID-19

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In Detroit, many of us are worried or fearful or anxious. Many of us are grieving. We are also experiencing what it feels like to be inside an information gap. Trying to navigate the world without information you need to survive is difficult and marginalizing.

At Outlier our news model has always tried to assess and fill information gaps. We continue to do that work now. We are adding more information to our SMS system so Detroiters can get information they need about how to navigate health and safety, food, childcare, and housing during this outbreak. Text “CORONA” to 73224 to tell us what you need right now. We are doing this work with the collaboration and support of news organizations across the city.

We also want to create a record of this time for Detroiters now and in the future and will be working with residents and writers across the city to do that work.

Detroit is being slammed by this disease, and this will be the experience of many other cities and towns as the weeks go on. We are working with reporters in communities across the country to help them quickly identify information needs and then fill those gaps with reliable and accessible reporting.

Outlier is powered by people and we feel anxiety and fear and grief too. We also feel deep gratitude for our wonderful city and those who have to expose themselves to this virus in order to help others. We will continue to work to serve this city and adapt to its changing needs, and we will soon begin to highlight the experiences of Detroiters during this outbreak. As always you can reach all of us through our text system, on email or on the phone.

Outlier Media, MuckRock Foundation combine to bring accountability reporting and tools to more communities

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Bringing together FOIA, open data, and civic engagement to reboot how journalism is done

MuckRock and Outlier Media are combining to equip newsrooms and communities with new ways to create actionable transparency that holds institutions accountable for and in collaboration with communities around the country. Together, we’re expanding our work of not only helping others release and share information, but also pioneering better ways for the public to understand and use it.

Since 2010, MuckRock has built digital transparency tools used by thousands of newsrooms while producing original reporting that opens up government. Whether exposing hidden surveillance systems or the militarization of American policing, pushing to release and read through the Mueller Report, or helping file tens of thousands of requests, we try to make transparency participatory and meaningful for everyone.

Outlier Media shares this mission. Founded in 2016, Outlier Media is a Detroit-based service journalism organization that combines text messaging and traditional reporting to deliver information that residents can use to hold landlords, municipal government, and elected officials accountable for long-standing problems in the housing and utilities markets. Their reporting has helped thousands of Detroiters stabilize their housing and held government officials, powerful institutions and real estate speculators to account.

But despite increasingly clear challenges and needs to change how we work, too often institutions charged with informing the public still fail at equipping communities with tools that help question, understand, and reshape their world.

Instead, we get endless breaking alerts, soundbite buffets, and other symptoms of information overload that leave the public feeling exhausted, confused, and disengaged from the work of accountable democracy.

In response, MuckRock’s mission has grown: How do we not only help the public get access to information but understand and use it to shape a stronger democracy for tomorrow?

And while we need all the help we can get, we are not alone in this effort. As one of our long-time partners, Outlier Media has also been rethinking how journalism, transparency, and accountability should work in the 21st century.

Outlier Media has mixed data journalism, public records, live events, and a text messaging service to bring a new kind of accountability to Detroit housing and utilities issues.

Outlier’s approach has put clear and actionable transparency directly in the hands of people who need it most. Their work has contributed to programmatic and legislative reforms throughout Detroit such as increased accountability for the Detroit Land Bank, the city’s largest property owner, and a more effective rental registration program for Detroit residents.

“MuckRock’s vision for our next 10 years aligns perfectly with the Outlier approach of public interest journalism, and Outlier was looking to expand its model to new communities,” said Michael Morisy, MuckRock co-founder. “Together, we’ll be able to do both— mixing Outlier’s service-oriented, data journalism with best-in-class reporting tools like MuckRock and DocumentCloud as well as a network of users that spans 3,000 newsrooms and tens of thousands of journalists.”

We’re particularly excited about finding new ways to serve our users with new reporting resources, access to data and documents, and increased direct editorial support for our member newsrooms, no matter their size or beat.

What the future holds

Going forward, the Outlier Media and MuckRock Foundation teams will be working as one, with a new combined entity name forthcoming.

Sarah Alvarez will oversee journalistic work across the portfolio of sites as editorial director; Mitchell Kotler will manage software development as chief technology officer; Candice Fortman will serve as chief of innovation managing communications and people; and Michael Morisy will be chief executive officer of the combined organization (see our full staff list here).

In the short term, you won’t see many changes. Our developers are hard at work revamping DocumentCloud and improving MuckRock, while our operations team will still be responding to support tickets, calling up agencies, and mailing out follow ups. If you’re a journalist or other user who keeps their requests embargoed, that privacy is still sacrosanct.

Outlier’s text based housing information service will continue without interruption to serve the needs of Detroit residents. We have an agreement to hand the service over to a local news organization later this year.

MuckRock’s editorial will live in our news section and in our newsletters, but with some new faces contributing. We will also have an increased focus on local accountability reporting and resources that help newsrooms, non-profits, and ordinary people ask hard questions — and get answers.

Get involved

We’ll also be expanding ways to get involved with our work, whether participating in a crowdsourced Assignment, attending a local event, or one of many fun surprises planned for 2020. To be the first to hear, sign up for our weekly newsletter.

When we started MuckRock a decade ago, our vision was to use transparency to make government more open, accountable, and responsive for everyone, particularly as newsrooms shrank and disappeared in communities across the country.

The work of Outlier Media — long-time MuckRock users themselves — has inspired and challenged us to think through how our tools and original reporting can better serve urgent community needs more directly. We couldn’t be more excited to get to work — together — on this important mission.

Frequently Asked Questions

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 will you work with individuals, groups, and newsrooms who use MuckRock for their own work?

Anyone who uses our services to file a request, transcribe or analyze documents can trust us not to intrude on their work, just as before. MuckRock users have the ability to make a request private or to embargo a request and we honor those agreements.

For those who want to work collaboratively, we will have more capacity to support and bring together journalists, researchers, activists, and regular citizens who do want to work together with us to analyze and share government documents or fill an information gap in their community. Our goal is to support this work when asked, not to hijack your existing project. If you have a collaboration you’re interested in, just let us know by emailing sarah@outliermedia.org.

Will we continue to see the kind of work Outlier started in Detroit?

You will! The work Outlier started in Detroit is continuing without interruption, though we will be handing over our SMS housing information service and reporting to a local news collaboration within the next few months. We are setting up a service similar to Outlier’s Detroit work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin this year as well. If you are interested in our information needs work for your community email candice@outliermedia.org.

What is the best way to support this work?

The best way to support our work is to join it! Learn about using MuckRock and DocumentCloud, and sign up for our newsletter. If you would like to donate to our work, you can make a tax deductible donation on our dedicated donation page. Also, keep an eye out on our Assignment page for ways to take part in our crowdsourcing projects.

Photography generously provided by Bimal Nepal of Bimal Photo Studio. See more of his work on Facebook.

Detroit Tax Foreclosure 101: What You Need to Know

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There are a few news stories every year about Wayne County’s tax foreclosure auction. We’ve done those stories too, because we know people want and need information about the impact of this event on individual residents and the city. Still, we wanted to do something with our years of tax auction reporting that might be more useful than a story so we developed this tax auction 101 guide. The information in this guide is reported and verified with the help of thousands of Outlier users. One side is information for those who are worried about how tax foreclosure might impact them. The other side is for all Detroiters who want to understand how the tax auction continues to impact the city. Our next report will help you understand why many Detroiters are seeing their water bills go up-even as they use less water.  

Just hover over the image to turn the page or download this guide-and feel free to share!

Outlier-Foreclosure-Timeline-Project-v3

Detroit has housing issues, but residents have ideas for more solutions

Since a blockbuster Detroit News report found Detroiters had their property overassessed by a total of $600 million between 2010 and 2017, frustration has been palpable. Calls for restitution, always familiar, are more frequent and louder. Solutions put forth by city government — new payment plan options and a $250 million bond proposal to demolish blighted homes — have been met with skepticism or turned down as solutions altogether.

Outlier invited residents, advocates, reporters and experts to come together and have a conversation about challenges and frustrations they face with Detroit housing, but with a focus on the solutions they would like to see in their community.

The following is a catalog of what we heard during that session, followed by a list of housing resources the attendees shared. Some of the ideas have been edited for length or clarity.

  • Quicken Loans should give anyone who qualifies a zero interest home loan if they live in a home for 5 years. Taxes should be forgiven. Anyone who illegally lost their home should be given a Detroit Land Bank Authority home with a zero interest loan.

  • The biggest home repair need we see is roofs. The cost to repair is very expensive and not met by existing grant or emergency programs.

  • Retroactive property tax exemptions.

  • A bond for home repair grants with no income limits because all residents and homeowners will be paying for this bond.

  • Instead of paying demolition companies $15K to $32K in my neighborhood to demo buildings that could be rehabbed, give families a $20K grant for repairs. Train up citizens through Detroit Training Centers.

  • Detroit Public Schools should partner with neighborhoods and builders/trade programs to teach housing rehab. Ann Arbor has a similar program. The money from the sale could be re-invested into the program. This can create safe walking routes, more vibrancy, affordable housing and graduates with skills.

  • We need residents and the government to come together to develop an oversight committee so this never happens again.

  • There are no consequences. There haven’t been consequences for decades for investors who buy up property, don’t keep it up and buy places again and again. There need to be consequences.

  • We need restitution. We can’t overlook the tax foreclosure and Hardest Hit Funds being used for demolition. We need restitution before we can do anything else. We’re giving tax breaks to millionaires. Why don’t we have money for restitution?

  • We should have restitution for individuals who were overcharged and the people who live in the neighborhoods that were decimated by tax foreclosure.

  • We need to go after the property owners who are putting their assets into LLC’s.

  • There is a home repair program in Milwaukee that is a zero percent loan. It doesn’t have to be repaid if you pass the home onto descendants. The loan only has to be repaid if you sell it.

  • We have to find a way to stop the tax foreclosure process or have a moratorium.

  • We need more public housing and better public housing. There are 90,000 properties already owned by the government, so that can be the solution.

  • People have gone through a lot of financial trauma and need help and resources for that trauma.

Resources mentioned:

Race for Profit by  Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Growing Detroit’s African American Middle Class, a report by Detroit Future City
Modern day redlining reporting from Reveal

Reveal’s lawsuit against the Treasury Department to unmask some LLC’s buying up property

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Housing Detroit: A Community Conversation on the Issues and Solutions

Outlier Media Presents: Aaron Glantz

Aaron is the author of Homewreckers!  How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks,& Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes & Demolished the American Dream. He will visit the Detroit Public Library Main Branch to talk about his book and for a conversation about housing in Detroit moderated by Outlier Executive Editor, Sarah Alvarez.

Homewreckers brilliantly weaves together the stories of those most ravaged by the housing crisis. The result is an eye-opening expose of the greed that decimated millions and enriched a gluttonous few.

Aaron exposes the high class rip-offs – among them, D.Trump and cronies, who often used taxpayer money to make fortunes off the working class and the middle class. Homewreckers! shows us the mad greed that harmed or ruined millions while further fattening the gluttonous few. Glantz recounts the transformation of straightforward lending into a morass of slivered and combined mortgage “products” that could be bought and sold, accompanied by a shift in priorities and a loosening of regulations and laws that made it good business to lend money to those who wouldn’t be able to repay.

Aaron Glantz is a senior reporter at Reveal who produces public interest journalism with impact. His reporting has sparked more than a dozen Congressional hearings, a raft of federal legislation and led to criminal probes by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission. He is also the author of three books including “The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans.”  His work has appeared in a broad range of media outlets, including The New York Times, NBC News, ABC News and the PBS NewsHour, where his work has twice been nominated for a national Emmy Award. He’s been given a Peabody Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and Online News Association award.

A very special thank you to our media partners for this event:

Visit & Learn at Outlier Media

Join us on Sept. 27 for a day of sharing and learning with Outlier Media. This event is hosted by Outlier Media and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University through the Peer Learning + Collaboration Fund.

The day will include a deep-dive into how Outlier Media works, open discussion with its founder and team, and a reporting bus tour to show attendees who Outlier is serving. Lunch will be provided.

There is no fee to attend, although a $25 deposit will be required as space is limited and some folks will be traveling from quite a ways to make the trip — we can’t have anyone taking a seat who won’t show up. The deposit will be refunded the day after the event.

The Center for Cooperative Media is making available travel stipends for journalists who would otherwise not be able to attend this convening through the Peer Learning + Collaboration Fund. The deposit will be waived for Peer Fund award winners. Apply ASAP so you can get your grant before the trip! We strongly encourage newsrooms who have the funds to cover their staff’s travel costs.

APPLY HERE

Note that if you’re applying for a travel award through the Peer Fund, you must do that AND reserve your spot via this Eventbrite page.

If you have any questions, contact Stefanie Murray at murrayst@montclair.edu.

The way things have always been done does not the right way make: an essay for reporters

When you take a job at a small organization that is trying to re-envision a longstanding industry the kind of industry with deep old boys club this*is*how*things*are*done roots you’re quick to come up with an elevator pitch. I tell people I’m a journalist, and people usually understand that. I say I’m a data reporter, still on the same page.

But then I say I’m a news apps developer for a small service journalism startup that specifically targets the housing information needs of low-income Detroiters via SMS, and I usually get some flustered blinking, maybe an uncertain half-smile, or, “that sounds cool,” which really means, “you’ve lost my interest.”  1

Our organization was founded to respond to people who have been historically ignored. We report on housing because 2-1-1 data says that’s the subject people call most about. We deliver our news product over SMS (yes, good old-fashioned, green bubble text messages) because 60% of Detroiters don’t have consistent access to internet. That’s our bread and butter.

The texting service also allows us to directly interact with our news consumers and understand where the stories actually are. It’s how we learn that agencies that advertise being able to help with heat shut-offs in the dead of winter are turning people away. It’s how we learn that residents can complain about a dangerous neighboring property for over a decade and the city still won’t tear it down or clean it up.

Our secondary product is much more traditional. We write articles to be published by newsrooms like The Detroit News and Bridge Magazine– always investigative accountability reporting, always focused on housing, and always a story we pursued because there was an issue that wasn’t actionable enough to just send info via text.

Take for instance, this story on a property management company in Brightmoor (a west side neighborhood) that used red balloons to scarlet letter tenants behind on their rent. There wasn’t anything actionable we could tell those residents, no real channel for recourse, but we could draw public attention to it.

I’m an outsider, raised mostly in Denver and recently graduated from the heart of Silicon Valley. There are a lot of things that I still don’t know about Detroit (For example, I’ve been to one coney island. I’m a vegetarian, so all I can say is that I thought the fries were bland and I just don’t get it.). I do know that, if you are honestly trying to get crucial information to people who are struggling to pay for utilities, making an app free on iOS isn’t just stupid; it’s a cruel joke.

Make no mistake, the Outlier Media model is a call out. We are calling out all the newsrooms that have been publishing poverty porn for high income audiences 2 and not doing a damn thing to get information that could help the people affected by the issue  INFORMATION THAT THEY HAVE CERTAINLY COLLECTED OVER THE COURSE OF THEIR REPORTING  to the impacted communities.

Thank you to all the incredible pioneers of service journalism who are marching with courage into unknown territory and certain scrutiny for the good of our industry. Thank you to all the reporters that push for access and responsiveness in every editorial meeting, only to be shut down or treated like a thorn in an editor’s side. Change is painful, but it’s coming. We are at a time when skepticism of the industry could not be better justified. Working on a team that wants to change that industry narrative makes me feel incredibly grateful to be a part of it.


1 Other times, I get this sort of grimace that means I’ve come off as a self-righteous do-gooder. Probably because that person is about to tell me they, in some manner, make the rich richer or something. But it isn’t my job to keep you from being reminded that the rich get rich at other people’s expense.

2 We get it: you need to keep the lights on with advertising revenue. But you can stop being so damn predatory about exploiting people’s stories and damaging their reputation FOREVER because the internet is FOREVER.

Choosing service over story: when reporting isn’t enough


By: Sarah Alvarez- Founder and Executive Editor, Outlier Media

Edited by: Imani Mixon- Investigative Reporting Fellow, Outlier Media

On Tuesday night when the temperature plunged to nine degrees and the wind chill to -10 degrees, Terry Montgomery was trying to heat his home on Tyler Street with a space heater. Montgomery was nervous the landlord had stopped paying the heating bill because he had just gotten a letter saying the landlord hadn’t paid the tax bill, meaning the house is likely headed for auction. Montgomery wants to move out, but his immediate need is to stay warm.

It is tax foreclosure season in Detroit. In the first few days of April, a judge will issue foreclosure judgments on homes with unpaid tax debt from 2016 — even if it’s for a few hundred dollars. Right now more than 45,000 homes are subject to foreclosure. Not all of these homes have people living in them, but when they do it is most often renters — more than half of occupied and foreclosed homes last year were rentals. These renters have been calling and texting us over the past few weeks, some are absolutely panicked and some are calm. None of them are resigned because they all want more information about what they can do to keep their housing situation stable. Many, like Montgomery, have even more pressing housing issues.

The past few weeks have been busier than any others since we started our news service three years ago. We are reporters doing triage. We put leads for investigative stories coming from these calls in a spreadsheet so we can get back to them later, we are updating and maintaining the integrity of the data we have but not working on new programming to automatically compile more online data we need. We’re paying for FOIA data and title searches because we don’t have time to be cheap. At the same time, because we are such a small operation, we have to spend a tremendous amount of time raising enough money to sustain us for another year — something that is by no means guaranteed.

Balancing these competing needs is just the rhythm of the day and I am almost never overwhelmed until I confront, in my weakest moments, how audacious it is to put my faith in such a fragile premise. I ask others to believe it too. To believe that information alone can be valuable enough to make a difference.

My belief system lets me down almost every day. Information hasn’t moved the needle for Terry Montgomery and we knew from the outset it was likely to go down like this.

The accountability gaps around utility service in Detroit are so gaping that the work of one small news organization is not enough. State regulations say a utility can’t shut off heat for a renter when it is the landlord who owes money. This information seems powerful but it is useless. Our utility provider, DTE, wouldn’t tell Montgomery or us if there had a been a shut-off or if the heating system was just broken. The only person who can learn if there has been a shutoff is the account holder, which is the landlord in this situation and he already has the information. Renters can’t assert a right they can’t pin down.

A city regulation says rental properties have to be inspected and property without heat would fail. Montgomery was able to get an inspection because we knew who to call, not because we knew they were required. A dedicated person on the city’s communications staff made sure all of our unreturned voicemail messages to the Buildings Department resulted in an emergency inspection.

Three skilled reporters worked on this over two days. We doubled down even though we knew we were unlikely to change anything. As of today, Montgomery still doesn’t have heat. He held back his rent in an attempt to push the landlord to respond to his questions. Now, he also has an eviction notice and yesterday morning part of his bedroom ceiling fell in.

Montgomery sent us pictures of the mess. It is kind of him to do so even though we haven’t been able to be very helpful yet. If he hasn’t lost faith in the power of sharing and demanding information, it makes it less likely that I will.

I need to keep the faith that our work is not meaningless. Reporting, when done with care and intention, can be a true service; this is the only idea I have ever truly evangelized.

We are able to give most of the Detroiters that we talk to the information they need. When we don’t spend all day on these calls I know we’ll be able to devote more time to reporting that exposes corrupt systems and practices.

When I say I know this, I mean today I’m refusing to have a crisis of faith.

 


Outlier is service journalism on demand. We deliver high-value information directly to news consumers over text message and offer every user the ability to connect directly with a reporter. Txt OUTLIER to 73224 to see how it works. If you’re looking for important info on any home in Detroit delivered right to your phone txt DETROIT to 73224.

What is an info gap and why is it bad?

Outlier is a different kind of news organization because we organize our work around filling information gaps.

When there is a disconnect between what the news media covers and what people need to know in order to meet their goals day-to-day, that’s an information gap. It is the difference between, for example, a news story lead poisoning in Flint and information for residents on how to stay safe and who to hold accountable. Some of these gaps are filled by government or social service or advocacy organizations but who’s checking to make sure that information is accurate and useful and that whomever is responsible for the problem gets held accountable? Journalists should be filling information gaps because:

  • they are large
  • they are concentrated
  • the economics of media right now grow these gaps instead of shrink them.

This is not something news organizations are doing on purpose. Basically, it’s economics.

Newspapers and online media make most of their money from advertising.  For public media the biggest chunk of revenue comes from members making donations. These business models depend on the idea of a loyal core audience.They benefit when this audience has more money to spend on subscriptions, memberships or the things advertisers want to sell. News is a hard business to support, so many news organizations want the audience they already have to be loyal more than they want to find new audiences who may have less money to spend. Over time, this had led to news organizations working to please middle and upper middle-class customers over everyone else. These folks don’t suffer from systemic information gaps so the value of most news now is as entertainment.

A lot of issues and perspectives outside those middle income communities don’t get much attention. If they do get covered it is more an exercise in translation for those middle income consumers. Since the news media plays a big role in keeping officials accountable to regular people, where there are information gaps there is also less accountability. Outlier uses data to identify information gaps and then seeks to fill those with valuable and actionable reported information for those who need it most. Watchdog reporting works better when there are more watch dogs, and Outlier seeks to get residents better information so they can create more accountability for themselves and their communities.

More reading:  Known but not discussed in Neiman Lab, Jay Hamilton’s All The News That’s Fit to Sell, Pew Research Center report on local news consumption habits.