by Christina Carden Flett and Nick LaMora
Working with local community members, Outlier Media produced a non-traditional, and nonpartisan voter guide for people in Detroit, Michigan. The project name was “Vote with Confidence: a guide from the Detroit Documenters.” The idea sprang from a Detroit Documenter — a resident who attends public meetings and records their findings. Together with the Documenter who developed the guide, Outlier Media staff collaborated with eight other Documenters who wrote assigned sections for the voter guide.
The project fostered collaboration between citizens and journalists; Documenters would write content while Outlier’s staff edited their work. Through collaborating with media partners, Outlier focused on outreach efforts to make information about voting accessible for Detroit residents. The guide was ultimately made for and by community members.
Organization Background: Outlier Media is a Detroit-based organization that focuses on service journalism in response to community information needs. Founded in 2016, Outlier works to empower Detroit residents by identifying, reporting on, and delivering the information they need to hold authorities accountable and create change in their communities.
The Detroit Documenters are Detroit citizens that work with Outlier Media to report on public meetings under the Documenters Network. Created in 2018 by City Bureau, the Documenters Network is a nonprofit civic journalism lab that helps people get involved in participatory civic media by training and paying citizens to attend public meetings in their communities and publish their results.
The organization’s goal was to produce a non-traditional and nonpartisan voter guide that would:
- Explain the basics of voting
- Provide information on how to vote
- Help people determine who and what supports their interests in the community
Noah Kincade, a Documenters coordinator with Outlier, described his personal goals as:
- Including as many Documenters as possible in the project
- Maximizing the voter guide’s impact to “demonstrate the power of collective civic action to all those involved”
- Financial resources were relevant when taking on this project, with an estimated cost of production sitting at $3,500. The lead Documenter was paid $500 for conducting the background research and drafting the outline. About $2,000 worth of staff time was spent on edits, graphics, and layout. Around $1,000 was paid to the Documenters for their written submissions.
- Relationships with other media organizations were important for developing and promoting the guide:
- Detroit Metro Times: A weekly newspaper in Detroit, Michigan, focusing on progressive alternative coverage
- Michigan Radio: A network of five FM public radio stations operated by the University of Michigan
- WDET 101.9 FM: Detroit’s NPR station
- Detroit Free Press: The largest daily newspaper in Detroit
- Planet Detroit: A weekly email newsletter updating about the environment in Detroit and Michigan
- BridgeDetroit: A nonprofit community news, information, and engagement media service in Detroit
- Chalkbeat Detroit: A nonprofit newsroom focused on providing information for families and educators
Tools & Technology
- Google Suite included the main tools that the team used, primarily relating to Google Sheets and Docs for writing, editing, and managing content.
- The Detroit Documenters website was used to post the assignments for Documenters to apply for and work on the project.
- Canva was used for designing content.
- Outlier Media’s website is where the voter guide was posted.
- Mailchimp and other social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were used to promote the voter guide.
The voter guide has the most page views of any article that Outlier Media published in 2022 and the second-most unique views, according to Google and website analytics, that the team had. More than half of the visits were on the day of the primary itself — despite publishing the article several weeks prior. This was a great example of the outcome the team wanted and provided a great resource to help people make up their minds about casting their votes.
The impact is also evident in the collaboration with other local media partners that promoted the guide on their social media platforms. A large portion of people who read the guide found it through Outlier’s media partners like WDET. Michigan Radio was a specific media outlet that dedicated two editors to the project. Kincade said that this engagement “underscores the utility of this kind of resource for Detroit news consumers in the city’s journalism ecosystem.”
The impact of seeing the project come to fruition was also considerable, as Documenters were able to work on and take credit for an important initiative. Kincade talked about how Documenters seeing their names included in such a worthwhile project is important for “civic participation and their resumes.”
Kincade also talked about the way that the project was impactful in connecting community members. “The voter guide was written for Detroiters, by Detroiters,” Kincade said. “While portions were written by staff at Outlier Media, roughly 80% of it was written by Detroit Documenters — citizens who attend and report on local government meetings. Most Documenters are not professional writers or journalists, but they care deeply for their city and the well-being of their neighbors.”
How it Happened
Outlier Media produced several how-to graphic guides in 2022, and the organization asked Detroit Documenters for ideas about other guides it could produce. Sonja Stuckey, a Documenter, came up with the idea for the project.
According to Kincade, “She was passionate about it and said her friends and family often come to her asking for help voting, so she wanted to produce something evergreen that could be used to help voters in any election.”
Stuckey developed the initial outline and background research for how the project would work. With help from Kincade and other Documenters Coordinator Lynelle Herndon, Malak Silmi (Outlier Media’s Report for America corps member), and several editors at Outlier, Stuckey defined her idea and Outlier Staff turned it into segmented assignments for other Documenters to write about.
The project took one month to complete from idea to execution. Outlier posted the assignments on the Documenters website, and 15 signed up to work on the project. They had one week to apply for an assignment of their choice and one week to research, write, and submit their content.
The guide was ultimately published in July and written by eight Detroit Documenters: Damien Benson, Dan Ignacio, Bryon Keys, Meg Krausch, Kayleigh Lickliter, Gina McPherson, David Palmer, and Paul Warner. Four reporters from Outlier contributed: Kate Abbey-Lambertz, Herndon, Kincade, and Silmi. The guide was edited by Sarah Hulett and Lindsey Smith at Michigan Radio, as well as Outlier editors Sarah Alvarez and Erin Perry. Kate Abbey-Lambertz designed the guide.
Although the guide started as a digital-only project, Detroit Metro Times took interest in printing the guide in its paper. Perry talked about how the alternative weekly decided to reprint the guide when it “saw how beautifully designed it was and how robust the content was.” Metro Times is distributed to more than 1,200 locations throughout metro Detroit and Ann Arbor, which increased the scope of who could see it.
The printed guide was published one week before the largest national academic conference for journalism researchers took place in Detroit. At that annual conference for the Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), the printed voting guide was a conversation starter that allowed Outlier Media to showcase the tangible collaborative efforts in Detroit journalism. Representatives of Outlier Media spoke on five conference panels about collaboration.
The voter guide was awarded a $5,000 award as a finalist in Current.org’s Local the Works contest, which “spotlights original initiatives that demonstrate the power of local media to inform, engage, educate, inspire, convene and transform communities.”
1. Empowering the Community
Sonja Stuckey, the Documenter who came up with the project, drafted the original outline and suggested the content that the voting guide covered. According to Kincade, the entire project was rooted in community participation and action with Stuckey coming up with the idea and seeing her vision come to life.
2. Fostering Citizen Participation
By working with the Detroit Documenters, Outlier Media was able to get citizens more involved in civic reporting by writing the guide and getting experience with writing for a journalism audience, Perry said. The project also fostered greater collaboration with community members and the journalists at Outlier Media, as each portion of the outline was assigned to either a Documenter or staff member when it came to who would write, edit, add graphic content, and design the layout of the final product.
3. Easing Transitions
While Documenters follow a set process for taking meeting notes, Outlier followed the same procedures for this project. This allowed the citizens involved to be familiar with the workflow. Outlier posted the writing assignments on documenters.org, allowed a week for people to apply for different sections, and then chose selected applicants and scheduled them for the assignments. By keeping this same procedure, Kincade said that it allowed Documenters to “focus their attention on the writing rather than the process.”
What Could Have Worked Better
1. Clearer Instructions
Kincade talked about how several Documenters turned in overlapping content, with an example of one Documenter covering how to research people on the ballot while another one addressed that topic when writing about how to look up a politician’s voting record and job performance. Due to the related content, Outlier decided to combine portions from multiple writers into single sections, which led to some confusion when writers saw other people in their bylines. With clearer instructions, Kincade said that they could avoid this overlap in the future.
2. Setting Expectations
Kincade said that he “would convey a clearer sense to the citizen writers that we plan to publish, share, and promote the final product massively.” At least one Documenter expressed that they would have put more time into their writing if they knew how much of “a big deal” the guide would become.
3. Including More Citizens
Although the project was successful in getting citizens involved, Kincade said that he “would attempt to include even more citizens in the production.” Kincade also said that he would have reached out earlier to other newsrooms that partnered with Documenters. Other newsrooms wanted to get involved when they knew what Outlier was doing, but the work flow had already been assigned at that point.
What Else You Should Know
Looking to expand the guide, Perry talked about different things Outlier learned from this experience to consider for future initiatives:
- Including audio segments
- Adding visual elements such as animation
- Creating a PDF of the guide to make it easily accessible and consolidated
- Having a debrief to better understand community needs and what worked
- Offering the guide in Spanish and Arabic to serve speakers in and around Detroit
To learn more, reach out to Noah Kincade by email or on Twitter. You can also check out the voting guide here: https://outliermedia.org/news/detroit-documenters-voter-guide-primary-2022/.