How Documented uses WhatsApp to Help Undocumented Latinos Navigate Through COVID-19

by Xifan Cai


Documented is a non-profit news site organization in New York City that focuses entirely on reporting and helping the undocumented Latino immigrant population in the city. Unlike traditional news media, Documented engages with its sources through a mobile app called WhatsApp. Users are able ask questions and raise concerns and can get professional answers quickly. It has become an extremely effective channel of communication as COVID-19 sweeps the country and forces people to social distance. By adopting and practicing this circular reporting model, Documented can work with the community to identify and publish issues that matter to the community.


Project Goals: Nicolas Rios, Audience Editor at Documented, says the project’s “major goal is to create journalism that works as a problem solver for an existing need, instead of the linear, unidirectional journalism that professional journalists practice from the newsroom.” Documented does journalism that serves the best interest of the Latino community in New York City.

As a news organization, Documented shuns traditional journalism and prefers a more engaged approach to journalism: “We wanted to leave behind extractive journalism for an inclusive journalism where our audiences take part in creating news content,” said Rios. By including community members throughout the story development process, Rios says he gets “an understanding of what is important to them.” This means that Documented gives the community a voice to reach various immigration professionals such as lawyers, judges, and politicians. 

Tools and Technology: Documented uses WhatsApp to communicate with its audiences in order to produce more effective reporting. From its research, Documented concluded that WhatsApp is the most popular instant messaging app and source of news for the Latino community in New York City. The research also revealed that no other news outlets used WhatsApp to reach the community. Documented uses WhatsHash as a dashboard to manage outgoing WhatsApp communications. 

Impact: People want to know the current politics and how it could impact them, however national TV moves fast and is difficult to digest. People care a lot about their privacy, because many fear exposing themselves to immigration enforcement. A lot of Latinx, especially the older population, use WhatsApp and Facebook to talk with their families in their home country. They also consume news on these mobile apps. Rios said, “we created the WhatsApp project to provide information pertaining to healthcare access for undocumented individuals, contact information of domestic violence help organizations, access to necessities like food, and help to extend a tourist visa.”

Documented has become a valuable resource to over a thousand undocumented Latino immigrants in New York City. The people can just find them on the app, and say their problems, challenges, difficulties, without fearing arrests or deportations. Better still, even some lawyers, judges, and politicians have volunteered to provide support and answer complicated legal questions. Rios said, “the people have confidence in the organization, for they know my colleagues and I are not just professional journalists; they are people they can trust”.

Documented has created a useful repository of information, which they call the “evergreen library”, in 2020. It is a collection of digital articles made available online. In the same year, Documented’s online traffic grew by one hundred ninety-four percent, with Evergreen articles accounting for sixty percent of the traffic. The number of members of the community also grew by three times more, to a current total of over a thousand. Since the pandemic began, Documented has published and disseminated four research studies to the community and the professional user base in English.

Organization Background: Documented is a non-profit news organization that disseminates information online with the content of policies that affect the lives of Latino immigrants in New York City. Twenty percent of the people served are females in their twenties. Rios says Documented provides “original reporting on the ground-level impact of shifts in labor policy, law enforcement practices and bureaucratic requirements and on the effects of new federal directives.” Documented gets money through fundraising and donations. In 2020, November and December fundraisings, sixty percent of donors were all new.

Project Resources: Documented has now three full-time individuals–the two co-founders and Rios–one part-time employee, three volunteers alongside a pool of many freelance reporters. They have conducted four rounds of user research through email and WhatsApp, and held more than 50 meetings with individual users. For their second user research, Documented worked with Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media and nearly 10% of the user base volunteered. The organization outsources articles from freelancers. The organization spends $30 every month on phone bills and 20 hours every week responding to messages and announcing information on WhatsApp.

Here’s What Worked

1. Fostering Relational Journalism

Documented works with the community not just as the subject of its news item, but also as an active partner in creating the content. This regard for the community cultivates mutual trust between the community and Documented.

2. Keeping Identification Private

Privacy has been a huge concern for many immigrants, because they fear of exposing themselves to immigration enforcement. Documented ensures the private data of individuals remains secure and uses WhatsApp Broadcast List instead of Groups to keep numbers of members a secret.

3. Focusing On Local-Level News

As the pandemic began affecting the immigrant community, and each state differently, Documented shifted resources to report on policies that had direct impacts on them. It worked. A Q&A titled “COVID-19 and Immigrants Rights”, which featured many of the biggest concerns the immigrant community had in March 2020, was the site’s best performing link.  

Here’s What Could Have Worked Better

1. Investing in Facebook Ads

Reflecting on the start, Rios says, “we would have invested money on Facebook Ads, so we would reach more people.” He recalls how a surge of memberships during the pandemic meant many people needed help but did not know about Documented. Had they advertised the organization on Facebook, many Latino immigrants would have benefited.

2. Focusing on What Matters Most

Rios reflects on the start and thinks they had the wrong priority in earlier days. Documented focused on top Washington politics that did not impact the lives of undocumented immigrants in NYC directly. Rios says, “What Donald Trump or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said did not apply directly to our audience.” So, Rios suspects they lost some people from the start because those people did not see relevance in Documented’s materials.

3. Producing Evergreen Content

Rios believes Documented should have settled on evergreen content earlier. That way, it would have generated more content than now. Rios says, with evergreen, “people google for something, they find our resources, and they read it, and then they become members of our WhatsApp community,” which means earlier adoption could have attracted many members and given help to even many.

Here’s What Else You Should Know

  • WhatsApp is a Third Product: Rios said Documented started with a newsletter. The distribution was traditional on the streets. They then established a website where they posted information. The idea of WhatsApp came later, when Documented wanted a direct connection with the audience.
  • Inspiration Behind WhatsApp: The whole idea of using WhatsApp arose when Rios joined New York University’s Studio 20 master’s program in 2018. The class had a project in which members would “research an audience, before even thinking about products or ideas,” said Rios. Rios’s assignment was to research the Latino community in New York. It is from the assignment that he and his colleagues pitched the WhatsApp idea as a solution to the information access challenges the Latino undocumented community faced.
  • Way Forward – A New Audience: Documented is seeking another immigrant community to connect to the resources they need. Rios says, “we are exploring new immigrant communities in NYC to replicate/adapt our model of circular journalism. We hope to be serving a second community by the end of this semester.” So, Documented is growing.

Learn More

To learn more about Documented and their WhatsApp project, email, or check out their homepage

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