by SOJC students Anna Fleischman and Jadon Faulconer
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (NNS) and Wisconsin Watch are news outlets with a focus on meeting local needs. Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the two organizations collaborated to create News414: a texting service that connects Wisconsinites with resources regarding food insecurity, evictions, employment and more. Reporters do more than answer questions, they follow up with residents to ensure they’re receiving the help they need while building relationships within their community.
Organization Background: NNS covers Milwaukee neighborhoods while Wisconsin Watch produces investigative and service journalism to provide their communities with actionable news. Both are nonprofit news organizations.
Project Goals: The goals of the project are to continue to reach Milwaukeeans to connect them with resources while also allowing community interests to guide reporting. The project leads hope to be an example to future projects with the same goals. Project Manager Bevin Christie said News414 is concerned with “addressing news deserts, specifically in the city of Milwaukee, and 18 neighborhoods, and to capture the voice of those neighborhoods when deciding what needs to be reported.”
Project Resources: News414 received $234,000 in funding from Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge and $110,000 from both organizations. The project also received assistance from Outlier Media and had the benefit of the networks and platforms of the two nonprofits which helped the project disseminate information through preexisting social media platforms.
Tools & Technology: The News414 program is an automatic texting service, using a dashboard designed by Reach NC Voices and PublicInput.com, so messaging and data rates may apply. Because the program began during the pandemic, they purchased phone numbers with a 414 area code to reach out to community members. However, they know that this is not the whole community, so they are working on expanding their program with organic subscriptions as pandemic restrictions are lifted. Reach allows mass text messages to large numbers of people at one time.
Impact: This kind of journalism allows for far more community engagement, especially when News414 publishes its investigative reporting driven by community contributions. Christie said, “we were able to exceed the goal, which was 600 subscribers, by over 2000.” The service has reached over 2,200 Milwaukeeans through over 330,000 text messages since the spring 2020 launch. This kind of engagement allows the community to have more control over what is being reported. By learning what information residents need, journalists know what to report on to provide their community with meaningful information. Through this program, NNS and Wisconsin Watch can see what kinds of news that community members interact with and publish more of it. It also allows community members to contact journalists about things that are happening in their community in real-time. And beyond that, News414 pools information from many resources about many topics into one place, making it accessible to community members. This allows people to get the resources they need without having to do extensive research.
Here’s How it Happened
Starting Out: The inspiration for News414 came from Outlier Media, a Detroit-based texting service that communicates information and resources to its community. News414 was in development prior to the pandemic, but COVID-19 exacerbated the need for clear information about local resources and opportunities and further demonstrated the need for NNS and Wisconsin Watch to expand their efforts and form direct relationships based on the needs of their community.
Development and Interactivity: Service journalism is the blueprint for News414. With development assistance from Outlier Media, the texting service answers individual queries and directs residents to resources. Resident queries are usually followed up with to ensure the information they received has helped them. The service has reached over 2,200 underserved/misrepresented Milwaukee residents through over 330,000 texts since fully launching in May of 2020.
Here’s What Worked
1. Two-way relationship
This platform allows for community members to access information from the news outlets, but it also allows them to participate and provide information that influences News414’s reporting.Now that vaccines are being widely distributed and in-person interaction is returning, News414 is putting more focus on their original strategy of cultivating subscribers: community events. “Being in spaces around the city, and organically working with the community to hear their voices to make sure that they’re represented in the news that’s being reported through NNS as well as Wisconsin Watch,” said Christie. “Our tagline is ‘our voices, our stories, our solutions.’”
2. One easy database of information
The News414 system allows community members to access information on five main issue areas: “food access, housing, health and safety, jobs and money, and mental health and domestic violence,” all through texting the number. It gives quick and easy access to resources around the community and helps members understand their rights when it comes to housing and other topics.
3. Connecting reporters to stories
Because community members can text in and offer information, journalists are able to find stories they otherwise might not have. “News414 can connect the people who are creating news to people on the ground, so that what is being reported is really representative of the community and is coming from the ground up,” said Jeff Roman, , who is now the executive director of the Milwaukee County on African American Affairs and Christie’s predecessor as project manager. One way they plan to build these connections that they haven’t had a chance to yet is through community events. “Being in spaces around the city, and organically working with the community to hear their voices to make sure that they’re represented in the news that’s being reported through NNS as well as Wisconsin Watch,” said Christie. Due to the pandemic, they have not had the opportunity to organically grow their engagement like they had originally planned, but now that more community members are getting vaccinated, they are able to host more in-person events to help with engagement and connection.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Expanding Accessibility
Since this program is still new, they are working hard to expand accessibility to reach as many people in their community as possible. “We are focusing on two zip codes in Milwaukee for 2021,” said Christie. “And that’s 53215, which is predominantly Spanish speaking. And then 53206, which is famous nationally for being the zip code that sends the most black males to prison in the country.” After reaching these two areas, they are also looking into expanding into Hmong to accommodate the Burmese population in the area.
2. You need a phone to access the service
News414 is as accessible as it can be at the current moment, but in order to use it, you do need a phone with a functioning data plan, which could restrict the homeless population’s access to these resources. That is a given with this kind of program, but as it develops, it would be helpful to see how they can expand it to be more available to all community members.
3. It’s an expensive program to operate on a large scale
Even with the program only offered in English, it appears to be expensive to maintain the level of engagement that they want. Outside the texting service, News414 employees follow up with people who use the service to help with their situations and learn more. As the program grows, it will be interesting to see if it is sustainable.
Update: Their pivot away from purchasing phone numbers — and toward cultivating organic subscribers through events, advertising and partnerships with other news outlets/neighborhood groups — is reducing costs. They budgeted $15,000 this year for texting outreach (including a monthly fee for the texting platform and costs for each text), and they are so far well under budget.
Here’s What Else You Should Know
This program was pitched before COVID-19. The pandemic, of course, made the initiative more urgent and shaped much of the initial content. They are still gathering information about how this program will impact the community. “I really feel like after we do this engagement throughout the summer and into the fall that we would probably have a better idea,” said Christie.