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.