by SOJC students Shannon Golden, Carley Landry, Sydnee Walker
In an effort to further engage with readers, Planet Detroit incorporated a new feature on their website: Ask Planet Detroit. This survey tool allows readers to ask specific questions about local environmental issues. When they receive a submission, one of the freelance writers on the team is assigned to the question, connects with the reader who asked it and investigates answers to the question. Finally, the writer publishes a “Dear Abby” style short-form article that addresses the question while leaving the reader anonymous. Planet Detroit specifically focuses on covering environmental issues that disproportionately impact low-income people and communities of color.
Organization Background: Planet Detroit is a non-profit organization based in Detroit, Michigan that publishes a weekly email newsletter about local environmental issues. Nina Misuraca Ignaczak publishes and edits the site and a team of freelance writers contributes each week. It is funded through grants and sponsorships from members, organizations and foundations.
Project Goals: In hopes of giving people a space to pose questions about local environmental issues, the team launched Ask Planet Detroit. They wanted to bridge the gap between the segregated cities and suburbs of Detroit under the common goal of understanding environmental issues. In their initial launch, they highlighted three main goals:
- Understand and respond to community information needs related to the environment.
- Report stories that explain and illuminate environmental justice and health issues and solutions in Detroit.
- Launch a community information hub on planedetroit.com to serve as a resource for the region.
Project Resources: Ignaczak started Planet Detroit in 2019, with a $25,000 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project. They provide free information, stories and content on their website, and offer memberships ranging from $5 to $15 a month.
Using the survey software Typeform, Planet Detroit incorporated this two-minute questionnaire onto the home page of their website. The Planet Detroit team is currently composed of nine contributors, all of whom are freelancers. When someone fills out the Ask Planet Detroit survey, Ignaczak assigns it to a freelance writer who is tasked with following up with the reader and reporting on the question.
The team uses donations from sponsors and grants from foundations to help fund general operations, coverage of specific topics and special projects. They subscribe to standards of editorial independence adopted by the Institute for Nonprofit News. This means that they maintain a strict firewall between their news coverage decisions and the sourcing of funds. They do not accept financial support from government entities, political parties, elected officials or candidates.
Tools & Technology: Ignaczak and her team decided to use Typeform to survey their readers for Ask Planet Detroit. She found that this data collection software functioned well on the Planet Detroit website and could be integrated more seamlessly into its interface than a Google Survey. Ignaczak does worry that Typeform is too expensive for how much readers interact with it on a monthly basis.
Impact: Since incorporating Ask Planet Detroit as a facet of their website and Newsletter, they have received dozens of questions about local environmental issues from readers. They currently expect three or four survey responses a month. Ignaczak and other freelance writers have written short-form articles to answer some of these questions. So far, Planet Detroit has published nine stories to Ask Planet Detroit Questions, ranging from queries about air pollution to multifamily recycling.
Here’s How it Happened
Before Nina Misuraca Ignaczak started her journalism career, she worked with local governments and organizations on environmental planning projects and increasing public access to natural resources. She noticed that the majority of the people working to address environmental issues were white. It struck her that environmental issues that related to communities of color were labeled as environmental or social justice. Ignaczak, who lives in metropolitan Detroit, witnessed first-hand the segregation between a majority-black city and majority-white suburbs. She wanted to find a way to highlight environmental issues as human issues. For her, the environment should matter to everyone.
Ignaczak decided to use her own passion for environmental justice and her skills in journalism to bridge the gap between local communities and provide information and resources on complex environmental issues.
Here’s What Worked
1. Increasing engagement with readers
Ignaczak says that this tool has helped connect Planet Detroit writers with readers and local communities. It offers readers a low-stakes way to express their concerns when it comes to environmental issues. In turn, Planet Detroit writers are better able to address those issues in their reporting. It has also allowed readers to engage with the Planet Detroit team despite not being able to hold in-person events during the coronavirus pandemic.
2. Thorough reporting in response to readers questions
When a reader submits an Ask Planet Detroit survey, one of the writers immediately reaches out to that person about their request to clarify anything they don’t understand. When reporting on the question, they make sure to source from as many perspectives as possible, including local government, grassroots organizations, relevant individuals and community members impacted by the issue. By including a call to action and additional resources, they encourage readers to continue investigating on their own.
3. Using Typeform to streamline community interaction
Typeform has offered the team a fast and easy way to hear from readers about environmental issues. Ignaczak foresees Ask Planet Detroit functioning, in the same way, moving forward, with the help of this software.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Limited outreach tactics
One challenge the team has faced in terms of connecting through Ask Planet Detroit is diversifying its outreach tactics. They tried to engage with readers via text, but Ignaczak says that approach fizzled out because they did not have the capacity to maintain connections. They worried about purchasing phone numbers without first expanding their audience by papering neighborhoods and using other outreach methods.
2. Allow readers to connect with each other
Since starting Ask Planet Detroit, Ignaczak has noticed that some readers are eager to offer expertise in subjects related to Planet Detroit stories (e.i., expert gardeners and artists). Right now, Ask Planet Detroit connects the team with their readers, but there are limited ways for readers to engage with each other. Ignaczak thinks that building this community will be an important next step for Planet Detroit.
3. Addressing all kinds of reader inquiry
Sometimes readers make inquiries about controversial, complex or new environmental issues. Planet Detroit’s mission is to report on prevailing science, so they are sometimes met with questions they don’t feel they can adequately address for their readers. Sometimes, they have to turn down a question. Ignaczak says she struggles to decide whether to write about questions like this.
The team also hasn’t seen questions yet that has led them into a deep, investigative story, but they hope to see more in the future.
Here’s What Else You Should Know
- Planet Detroit is beginning to host in-person events again, including book clubs, botanical tours at local parks and panel discussions. They hope to offer more events for readers as a way to promote the newsletter and the Ask Planet Detroit feature.
- The team has also considered using the Ask Planet Detroit format to answer questions that readers may not have submitted, but that they know needs to be investigated.
To learn more, feel free to reach out to Nina Ignaczak on Twitter, or check out the following to learn about the project:
- Planet Detroit Website
- Service journalism during a year of crisis: How INN members provide crucial information to communities