About alvarez

Journalist and founder of Outlier Media.

Is bureaucracy or public safety keeping MDOC’s parole numbers down?

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By Joey Horan and Tom Brouns, special to Outlier Media

February 25, 2021

Angela Spangler expected her partner, Justin Eskildsen, to be released from Marquette Branch Prison on January 9. He had served his minimum sentence, nearly two years, and had been granted parole.

But as that date crept closer, Eskildsen sensed something was off — he hadn’t received any paperwork detailing his release. At the end of December, he called home to let Spangler and their four kids know he wouldn’t be out on the 9th. 

“It was devastating,” said Spangler, who lives in Grand Haven. “You count on somebody to be here and everything’s all set. Now we’re stuck, we can’t do anything, we don’t even know when he’s going to get released now.”

The reason for Eskildsen’s delay: he had not completed a course recommended to him by the parole board. He was halfway through the course when a massive COVID-19 outbreak swept through the prison in October, infecting nearly 90 percent of the population and putting all classes on indefinite hold.

Nearly 250 incarcerated Michiganders are caught in similar limbo. The parole board won’t release them until they complete their coursework, but their coursework has been significantly delayed due to COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons across the state. The Michigan Department of Corrections would not confirm the exact number of people in this situation. In early January, the number was reported as “more than 240” by Deadline Detroit

Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesperson, did say that classrooms present a heightened risk of virus transmission because prisoners from different housing units who are otherwise separated throughout the day congregate there.

Gautz said prison officials are now working to organize class cohorts by housing unit. He also said MDOC is exploring virtual classes.

“We’re trying as hard as we can to get people through those classes,” Gautz said. “What we won’t do is change the standard of parole.”

Quarterly reports issued by MDOC show the parole board released fewer people in 2020 than it did in each of the previous three years. 

Gautz explained that the decrease in paroles is because there are currently fewer people in prison — 33,000 — than in previous years. “The number of prisoners who are eligible for parole has continued to decline as our population declines,” Gautz said.

Jacqueline Williams is not satisfied by this explanation. She prepares incarcerated Michiganders for the parole process for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization that operates the Michigan Criminal Justice Program. Williams believes prisons should be releasing more people than typical considering the severity of the pandemic in the state’s prisons.

“The parole board is operating as a sort of business as usual model,” Williams said. “I believe that the state as a whole, if they would really like to complete and carry out their mission of trying to provide public-safety, that they really need to understand the depth of what that means.”

When a recommendation is now a requirement

More than two-thirds of Michigan’s prison population — more than 23,000 people — have caught COVID-19 and 138 people have died from the virus as of February 24. Nearly 4,000 prison staff have caught the virus, and four have died.

Williams said Eskildsen’s case particularly troubled her because the course delaying his release was recommended, rather than required, and unrelated to his current charge. Eskildsen is serving time for driving while intoxicated, but he’s being held up by a delay in a domestic violence prevention course. 

MDOC declined to provide Outlier with the number of people awaiting release because of recommended, rather than required, programming.

“I can understand if it was a totally related case,” said Eskildsen, who has previously been charged with misdemeanor domestic violence. “But they’re holding me up for something I already served time for, that’s part of my past.”

While Eskildsen’s parole has been delayed because of coursework, Outlier reviewed other cases where parole was denied outright because of incomplete coursework. A parole denial typically results in a person waiting another year before seeing the parole board again.

Chrystal Baker at the Women’s Huron Valley Prison was denied parole because she had not completed a required substance abuse class. 

Baker’s denial stated that “programming is not available in the community and the risk cannot be adequately managed in the community before completion.” The prison, however, has not offered substance abuse coursework since March of 2020, said Baker.

Baker’s husband, Ted, also said he provided the parole board with proof of available substance abuse programming in their hometown of Port Huron. Gautz of MDOC said the Parole Board does allow certain programs, including substance abuse classes, to be completed in the community. 

“The classes are here,” Ted Baker said. “I went to Sacred Heart myself and got the package and I sent it to the parole board.”

Both Bakers said the denial was mystifying and devastating amid the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, Chrystal has not tested positive for this virus.

“There’s no reason why I should be sitting here on a 12-month continuance for something I didn’t do,” Chrystal Baker said. “And if there was a reasoning, they should have put it on the paper. But it strictly says programming. That’s it.”  

“If you ask me,” Ted Baker said, “she’s sitting there on death row for a DUI.”

When asked about Baker’s denial, Gautz wrote in an email: “[She] Has multiple drunk driving convictions, including multiple accidents. Has performed poorly in the past on community supervision in terms of maintaining sobriety.” 

Gautz said there are often more factors going into the parole decision making process than meet the eye. But the raw numbers for the pandemic year of 2020 show that even when complex decisions came before the parole board in a time of crisis, the pandemic has not shifted how the parole board determines releases.

“What is riskier?”

Jacqueline Williams of AFSC believes the data demonstrate a flawed and narrow risk assessment by the parole board. “What is riskier: to keep more people inside throughout the pandemic, allow the virus to boomerang back and forth from prison to community over and over again, [or] have someone participate in a free world substance use program?” she said.

Matt Wiese is president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan and Marquette County Prosecutor. His organization broadly supports strict adherence to sentencing requirements. Wiese said he would not have a problem seeing otherwise parole-ready people released on the condition that they take required programming in the community.

“If that’s truly the only thing holding them back,” Wiese said, “I wouldn’t have a problem with them as part of their parole doing the rest of the program [in the community].”

Baker does not have the option to complete a course in her community because MDOC has put her in a bureaucratic bind. The parole board determined she is a risk to society because she hasn’t gone through a substance abuse class. But she can’t reduce this risk because the MDOC hasn’t run the class she needs in nearly a year. 

Kristopher Martin, who is incarcerated at Macomb Correctional Facility, was also confident going into his parole hearing last September.  He had received an MDOC report stating he was a “high probability for parole.” That “high probability” guideline is based on a scoring system that takes into account various factors — like prior criminal record, age, and conduct within the prison — to calculate someone’s readiness for parole.

When the Parole Board departs from the guideline, it “must be for substantial and compelling reasons,” as outlined in a departmental policy directive.

In Martin’s case, the Parole Board did depart from the guideline and denied him parole. The “substantial and compelling reasons for guideline departure” consisted of a single line: “P [sic] must complete department recommended programming before considering risk reduction.” 

As in Baker’s case, the board said they could not evaluate Martin’s risk to society without him completing coursework that the MDOC had not made available to him.

It is impossible to know whether Martin’s parole denial is just because he hasn’t taken the class or if the parole board would still consider him a risk even if he had taken the class. Gautz of MDOC points to the fact that Martin’s crime, driving while intoxicated, resulted in the death of another person. 

Martin’s mother, Jewell Martin, is frustrated by the decision. Her son has been incarcerated for more than five years, during which the MDOC did not make the course available to him. The MDOC typically waits until the final 18 months of a person’s minimum sentence to enroll them in their required programming. 

“You can’t go [to class] when you want to go, you have to wait for them to sign you up and get you in the class,” she said. “They didn’t make sure he got his class done.” 

The denial has put Martin in a serious medical bind. He is living with a brain and spinal condition, a Chiari Malformation, that causes nerve damage and requires surgery. Martin is choosing to delay the surgery because he does not want to lose his spot in substance abuse classes and risk another 12-month parole denial.

“If I have the surgery, miss my class even one day, I get kicked out and have to wait months to get back in,” Martin said via JPay, a prison email service. 

Back in Marquette Branch Prison, Justin Eskildsen’s release may be imminent. He completed his recommended coursework in mid-February, but he still doesn’t know when the parole board will actually grant his release. For Angela Spangler and their kids in Grand Haven, that continues to mean “less food on the table.”

“Meanwhile his family suffers and falls farther behind without his help,” she wrote to Outlier in a text. “The kids need their dad.”

**An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of one of our sources. It is Spangler, not Spangeler. The story has been updated and we regret the error.

How can delivering info to meet basic needs drive an entire newsroom?

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By Malak Silmi

January 21, 2020

Since April more people have used Outlier’s text message information system to help them find food assistance more often than anything else. About 35% of our users have needed help with food since the pandemic started. Ebony Hamilton, a single mother living with her children in River Rouge, was in the same position in mid-November when she used Outlier’s info service.

Hamilton was homebound without access to a car, just like around one-third of Detroiters. Hamilton let us know the resources our system was connecting her to were saying they now had long waitlists, or that she couldn’t qualify for help. We reached out to our partners at the Detroit Free Press and asked if they could look into and then cover this gap in the safety net.  

Meanwhile, Gleaners Community Food Bank made a food box available I could drop off at Hamilton’s home while we looked for a more reliable source of food. (Disclaimer: our editor serves on Gleaners’ Board of Directors. We encourage our partners to cover issues with food assistance and don’t cover this issue ourselves because of this potential conflict of interest). 

Hamilton told me she was also struggling to get her landlord to make repairs on her home. She mentioned the landlord was not answering her calls. When I walked up to her front porch to deliver the food packages the smell of her flooded basement was overwhelming. There was no heat in the house.

“We’ve been having these problems since June, and I haven’t ever talked to the landlord or been able to contact them to get it all repaired,” Hamilton said at the time.

We found Hamilton’s house had been sold from one out-of-state LLC to a local investment property LLC called AVE FENIX 62 LLC in June. Hamilton had no idea and we still didn’t have an actual person identified as the landlord.

For food assistance, I connected Hamilton with the River Rouge School District, where six of her children are enrolled. The district agreed to drop off food every Wednesday. 
“I told them about our living situation and how I couldn’t get the kids logged into the school with everything going on,” she said.

Deputy Superintendent Alisa Berry-Brown said the district has wellness care coordinators who can visit families to better understand what aid they need and how the district could help. She says her district is well connected with statewide resources.


Within a few days,the school district managed to get an inspector sent to Hamilton’s home. They were able to accomplish what neither Hamilton nor we had been able to do, get the local housing commission to return our phone calls.

A supervisor with the Inkster Housing Commission later said the Commission told the landlord they would hold back their Section 8 rent subsidy if repairs were not made. The last of those repairs were finished earlier this month. 

Now that Hamilton’s situation has stabilized we’re reporting out if other tenants living in properties managed by the same company as Hamilton’s property are facing similar problems. We’re also interested in reporting, with our collaborators at Chalkbeat, how Detroit’s schools are approaching the housing challenges coming up for students during the pandemic. 

This is why we call our text message system the engine of Outlier’s reporting. Our text message exchanges lead to questions and answers we couldn’t have anticipated.

The Detroit issues we’re watching in 2021

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We are working towards a better 2021 by exposing and filling the accountability gaps the pandemic has created or worsened in Detroit. The things at the top of our list of concerns are below. Help us keep an eye out. Reach out if you need us or want to talk through a tip or a story. We are looking forward to a brighter and easier 2021 with you! 

Real estate speculation: Even as record unemployment means more people are having a hard time paying rent the real estate market in Detroit hasn’t slowed down. The last economic crisis and the tax foreclosures that followed ushered in a boom of speculative buying that has been impossible to untangle from blight and vacancy today in Detroit’s residential neighborhoods.

Next year we expect the lawsuits against some of Detroit’s most notorious real estate speculators to move through the courts after being slowed down by pandemic-related case backlogs. In February, the city filed cases against father and son duo Stephen and Steve Hagerman and Micheal Kelly. Another case against Salameh Jaser was filed but then dropped

google street view of a Detroit property several years apart
Alex Alsup’s street view project, which you can find @ZugIslander is a necessary visual gut-punch of just how little time it takes a neighborhood to change or even disappear.

The city is suing over what it calls an “invest and neglect business model.” Their argument is that any enforcement tools like blight tickets, fines, and tax foreclosure the city relies on to keep properties in productive use are ineffective because the business model is the public nuisance causing widespread blight.

COVID-19 reinfections: The Michigan Department of Corrections has at least 115 people in their prisons that have tested positive for COVID-19 again more than 90 days after testing positive the first time. Angie Jackson from the Detroit Free Press broke this story that frankly deserves more attention and concern. 

Jackson spoke to people who are not COVID-19 “long-haulers” but tested negative in between their two positive tests, and we have had sources reach out to us saying the same thing. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has not yet responded to our questions about what they are doing to confirm whether or not these are in fact, reinfections, saying only, “We are reviewing case and test data to determine information about individuals who have had a positive test 90 days or more from their initial positive test.”

Prison health is public health, y’all. It’s important the state track down these answers and allow us to inform the public, especially as there are few precautions being taken to prevent outbreaks in MDOC facilities.

City Government: For the past few years, a few news organizations along with Citizen Detroit have been collaborating on a program out of Chicago called Documenters. Detroiters can get paid to attend city government meetings, take careful notes, and upload edited versions of those notes where everyone can access them. More civic participation and more citizen oversight of essential services and taxpayer money is a win-win! Here’s a New Year’s resolution you can cross off your list early, sign up to get info about upcoming trainings and events right now.

Keep the lights on: We’re still making our way through the most recent filing in the Michigan Public Service Commissions’ case concerning utility shut-offs during the pandemic. MPSC is now requiring Michigan’s private (but publicly regulated) utility companies to hand over more data about how many customers are getting shut off for nonpayment and how many are getting help through payment plans or state assistance. 

The increased transparency is great. Not so great is that MPSC reports people needing help to pay their bills are still having trouble finding it. Last month 1,726 Consumers Energy customers were disconnected because of nonpayment and 2,718 DTE customers were disconnected. Our earlier analysis of 2017 and 2018 shutoff data showed that more than half the customer’s shut off for nonpayment went more than a year before being reconnected.

A Message from Outlier Media

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Outlier Media is preparing for some major changes as we look to the future. We are broadening our focus a bit, but we remain dedicated to filling local information and accountability gaps.

When Outlier Media started five years ago, we wanted to build a news service for people who are undervalued by most newsrooms – low-income communities and people of color. Too often, legacy news organizations write only about – but not for – these communities and focus instead on an ideal reader that already has the information and resources they need. That focus makes information and accountability gaps worse for communities that can least afford them.

We wanted to take the basics of good reporting – rigor, clarity, accessibility, and public service – and discard almost everything else about how the news is delivered and to whom. We believed it was possible to deliver good information to the people who need it most – and hold institutions accountable to those communities.

We have been successful in creating Outlier Media as you know it today: A source of news in Detroit tackling critical issues: tax foreclosure, blight, eviction, utilities, and now even COVID-19 and voting. We get the information directly to those who need it with our SMS-based distribution. But in our work, we haven’t been able to tackle the second part of our mission: the accountability gap.  

That’s the gap we want to focus on next. 

Thanks to a generous grant from the Democracy Fund, we will spend the next few months reporting about how newsrooms can truly hold those in power to account for their actions. Our team wants to better understand what makes accountability reporting successful — and what causes it to fall short. We want to make these practices replicable even by smaller newsrooms driven to do this important work. We think this is a reporting project we simply have to undertake so the work that comes after can have a more likely impact. 

That doesn’t mean that Outlier Media is changing the fundamentals. We are keeping our SMS-based information services in Detroit active, and we are developing a new platform that will allow local newsrooms to connect with that pipeline. We also plan to finally get around to building our own publishing platform. 

This is not an ideal time to shift from our existing work, but we feel compelled. Our democracy and our communities depend on journalists being able to do high-impact reporting that holds institutions – including media – accountable to their communities. But, we are also seeing a tremendous amount of harm over the past few years that needs to be addressed if we want a future where that harm is lessened. And so, we here at Outlier Media think it’s our job to try to meet this moment.

As we change our focus, our team is also changing. Our beloved data reporter, Katlyn Alo, is joining the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle as a newsroom developer. There, she will continue to work on ambitious reporting projects and grow her skill set. But she isn’t leaving us entirely: Katlyn will be joining our Board of Advisors.

Additionally, we decided not to finalize a merger with the MuckRock Foundation that was announced earlier this year. We are moving forward as an independent organization. MuckRock has moved to a fiscal sponsor support role for Outlier and they remain an important collaborator.

We want to work with a community of practice with aligned values. If you are interested in collaboration, advising us or creating meaningful partnerships we want to hear from you. Send us an email and let’s work together towards a future of accountability for communities who have suffered in its absence. 

We expect more change will come. But our dedication to building inclusive, collaborative, public service journalism has not wavered. We look forward to what we can do together. 

Is prison health public health?

This week Outlier’s Joey Horan published, in Bridge Magazine, an investigation into the Michigan Department of Corrections’ response to COVID-19. He found MDOC is using solitary confinement-like conditions for pandemic control and cutting off family visitation, but they are not engaging in widespread testing of prison staff. These policies mean the COVID-19 outbreaks in Michigan’s prisons are among the worst in the country. Horan spoke to dozens of people incarcerated at three prisons across the state; The Thumb, Huron Valley, and Gus Harrison. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SA: I want to start from the beginning. Tell me how you started this story.

JH: Two mothers came through the text messaging system, just expressing concern, both not knowing really what was going on inside and not knowing what the response [of MDOC] was. And in the course of my reporting, both of their sons got sick and tested positive for the virus. I heard about a near-riot over COVID test results at Gus Harrison. So then I started talking to more people at Gus who were being punished. From there I started talking to people about instances of solitary confinement being used because people were sick. I also started talking to Lois Pullano who runs the MDOC Family Advisory Board. She had been getting a lot of calls about solitary being used for people who were suspected of having COVID. 

SA: You point out in your piece that visitation was shut down in early March as were transfers between prisons. Mass testing of inmates happened but guards still aren’t getting tested unless there is an outbreak-and this is a new policy as of last week. Even though it was not inmates who brought the virus into the facilities you talked to a lot of people who said they felt like they were being punished. People said medical isolation without any possessions felt just like solitary confinement. 

JH: When you’re in prison the threat of punishment and loss of privileges hangs over everything you do. That’s just the general thing I need people to understand. The things that you have to live for in prison are your family visiting, the classes you can take, your yard time, your access to the gym, you know. Those things immediately get taken away when you’re not cooperative with officers or in this case, during a pandemic when every movement needs to shut down. And even pieces of property that we think are so insignificant, a little tiny TV that you need to plug headphones in to watch, people save for months or years. If they get moved to a solitary cell for medical isolation and their TV goes missing or it’s broken in the process, that piece of property is so important. These little freedoms that we take for granted have outsized importance in prison. The fear of losing them weighs over every interaction that people have with power in this setting.

SA: So the state is not doing all it can to control the virus in prisons. But really, what would it take?

JH: So most public health experts would say the only realistic way to control the virus from spreading would be a massive release program to reduce population density in prisons. That would require the Governor to suspend Truth in Sentencing. That falls to the Governor and is a whole political minefield. The MDOC really has done everything they can do under current law to release people eligible for parole. So that is number one, relaxing strict sentencing laws. Number two is a regular mass testing program of guards and staff. MDHHS is the agency that can mandate the testing and the terms of the testing but of course, there are budgetary concerns there-so the accountability is with the legislature too and it’s a financial cost. The MDOC was able to do mass testing of prisoners because the National Guard was there to help. 

SA: Why wasn’t staff tested at that time? 

JH: Exactly. If the national guard is at each facility testing every single prisoner that’s the time to test the guards. The union told me they were not approached by MDOC about testing. But, there was resistance from the union and prison staff to get tested because they were not guaranteed paid leave. At the same time, they were getting extra hazard pay to show up to work. 

SA: I know you weren’t able to include the voices and experiences of as many incarcerated people as you wanted to in this story. Why do you think it’s important to hear directly from these people?

JH: The MDOC will tell you what their policies are. Those can look okay, but it’s only from hearing from people that you understand how those policies play out. Even the power that people are supposed to have, the autonomy they are supposed to have within this kind of system is taken away so often. And, people inside these prisons have very little ability to advocate for themselves through the internal grievance system. And it’s just the basic level of humanity when you hear directly from these individuals. People then become-you know-people rather than crimes. 

SA: I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed by stories that are about systemic breakdowns at every level. If you’re not connected to somebody who is already incarcerated where are those pressure points for accountability? 

JH: The prison code is ultimately determined by the legislature, and who ends up in prison is determined by your local prosecutor. There is a bill that Stephanie Chang just introduced to shine a brighter light on how solitary confinement is used. There are so many organizations working towards transforming prisons so following them and connecting to them lets you know what is happening. The prison is the part that is very closed off but there are a lot of minor political choices that we as citizens make that we might not pay much attention to that are part of this process. 

This conversation was published originally in our monthly newsletter In the House. You can subscribe here.

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.

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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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.