Visit & Learn at Outlier Media

Featured

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.

Detroit Tax Foreclosure 101: What You Need to Know

Featured

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

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

Featured

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.