About alvarez

Journalist and founder of Outlier Media.

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.