Erin Gretzinger is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
“Is this journalism?”
When Sarah Alvarez founded Outlier Media, she often heard one question.
That age-old question has plagued innovation in journalism across every major medium transition. In the case of Alvarez’s Outlier Media, the innovation in question was texting the news.
In recent years, newsrooms across the United States have turned to texting as a tool to reach and connect with their audiences. Other newsrooms like Outlier Media have centered their entire products — from news gathering to publication — around texting.
Supporters argue that texting provides a path for journalists to share information in an accessible, personalized format not achievable by other means. But others worry about the hyper-focused nature of the communication and the close relationships that might develop in the process, two issues that would seem to challenge traditional conceptions of journalism.
Texting also poses new questions about how newsrooms can build authentic relationships and restore trust in local journalism.
Outlier Media, launched in 2016, describes itself as “service journalism on demand.”
The outlet sends personalized data over SMS text to Detroit residents. After individuals subscribe, they can request to speak directly with a journalist, a service 40% of users take advantage of.
Before founding Outlier, Alvarez worked in public radio, where she found herself disappointed with public media’s focus on reporting stories that catered to a small, elite audience, and which often excluded low-income and other underserved communities.
“What I think the news should do is serve as broad a spectrum of the public as possible and also prioritize people who need information,” Alvarez said.
While this was Alvarez’s initial motivation in establishing Outlier, the model of “texting the news” came later. She first looked at social media, web options and even building an app. But user research quickly revealed texting as an affordable way to directly reach people.
“What I wanted to do is provide something that would be the most accessible,” she explained.
Keri Mitchell founded the Dallas Free Press with similar goals in mind. The Dallas Free Press, launched in 2020, uses community journalism to fill information gaps in Dallas’ news deserts, with texting as its main method of news delivery and engagement.
In preparing to launch Dallas Free Press, Mitchell connected with community members about how to deliver the news product. Their response: texting.
“They said, ‘If you tried to do this with email, you’re going to fail. And if you do this in English only, you’re going to fail,’” Mitchell said.
Other outlets that use texting have similar missions of reaching communities not reached by traditional journalism models. It also serves as an important way of meeting information needs in Latino communities, as seen at outlets like El Tímpano and Documented.
“At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is push the boundaries of what journalism is and what it should look like in the city because we believe what exists isn’t serving people well,” Mitchell said.
‘Is this journalism?’
The personalized nature of texting generates challenges to traditional conceptions of journalism. Specifically, critics have questioned outlets’ objectivity, often interpreting their on-the-ground texting tactics and community focus as indications of bias.
According to Jane Singer, professor emeritus of journalism innovation at City University of London, questions about the nature and ethics of journalist-audience relationships have grown with the rise of social media.
“There was a lot of talk about what should that relationship be,” Singer said. “Should you respond to comments? Should you get into a dialogue with users? How does that affect your role as a journalist?”
But Singer said these concerns, framed as ethical questions, are often a “knee jerk reaction” to innovation.
“Traditional journalism says, ‘I can’t know you, I can’t like you, I can’t show any favoritism toward you. This kind of journalism is very different. It says, ‘I want to know you are and what you care about. And I want to listen to you and try to understand you, so I can best serve you with the journalism I do.’”Kari Mitchell, Dallas Free Press
When Outlier first began, Alvarez would send out short, informational text messages, respond to requests for data regarding housing, and occasionally write watchdog stories in response to what she heard from subscribers who texted her back.
Alvarez recounts that people misunderstood the direct communication involved in the service-oriented texting model. Some people took it for advocacy journalism, while others didn’t view texts as a legitimate news product. Alvarez was forced to defend her work, combatting misconceptions that she merely pulled facts off the internet.
These conceptual challenges made it difficult to raise money. Alvarez almost quit several times.
“The fact that people didn’t understand what we were trying to do, it made it really hard for us to survive,” Alvarez said. “I think it was seen as pretty far outside of not just the mainstream of what journalism did, but what journalism should do.”
Mitchell also faces questions about the engagement aspect of the texting model. “I do have funders who ask, ‘Are you a newsroom? Are you doing community building?’ And the answer (to both) is yes,” she said.
Mitchell said funders and potential partners have also shied away from Dallas Free Press because of their “explicit bias” toward local underserved residents. Alvarez noted Outlier’s “harm reduction” focus has also been framed as biased.
However, both newsroom leaders argue that their focus on historically underserved communities is not only permissible but ethically obligated.
“Traditional journalism says, ‘I can’t know you, I can’t like you, I can’t show any favoritism toward you,’” Mitchell said. “This kind of journalism is very different. It says, ‘I want to know you are and what you care about. And I want to listen to you and try to understand you, so I can best serve you with the journalism I do.’”
Pandemic shifts ethical landscape, boosts adoption
The funding for — and legitimization of — service-oriented texting models began to turn a corner in 2020, according to Alvarez. She largely credits the pandemic’s influence.
“The coronavirus pandemic helped people understand — even those with access to money and power — just how devastating the information gap can be,” she said. “Finally, it was easier for funders to understand what we were talking about.”
The pandemic drove outlets across the country to experiment with texting, according to the Online News Association. Other recent disasters have led to the adoption of texting, such as the Southern winter storms that prompted the Texas Tribune and the Austin American Statesman to jumpstart a texting service within 24 hours.
For Chalkbeat, a national nonprofit news outlet that covers education, the pandemic was the push they needed to consistently integrate texting into their newsroom, said Caroline Bauman, Chalkbeat’s community engagement manager.
While they had previously used texting for one-off projects, Chalkbeat repurposed texting during the pandemic to reach and engage with readers about their local school board meetings. Although it started as a pandemic-era pilot, Bauman said Chalkbeat decided to continue and expand the project because of its benefits.
“We’ve heard multiple times that when reporters go out into the community, they’ll meet people and introduce themselves … And they’ll (hear a subscriber) say, ‘Oh, I know who you are. We text!’ It feels like there’s this sense of real camaraderie and a personal connection, which is what we really strived to create,” Bauman said.
In a study on WhatsApp as a news delivery and engagement platform, researcher Karin Boczek found journalists in Germany actually preferred texting to deliver news products because it allowed for user contact without the hostility of social media.
“It came to be a completely different opportunity for doing journalism,” Boczek said. “Because it’s (texting) a messenger and people are used to using it as a two-way channel, I think it’s much easier to get really helpful comments and really good input.”
Close relationships still pose challenges
Many professional guidelines and norms exist for source relationships, but Singer said more personal relationships built through texting could pose different ethical challenges.
After years of social media hostility impacting and even traumatizing journalists, Singer said individual-level safety and personal separation for journalists in intimate settings should be a prominent consideration.
“If a person has a really significant problem that they’re asking for help with, it kind of puts the onus on you (the journalist) to help them,” Singer said. “So I think that potentially, there are some kind of self protection issues that the journalists would need to think about because that is a very close relationship with an audience member.”
In the same vein, Boczek said newsrooms should ensure that individuals’ identities are verified to protect journalists.
“People could just pretend to be someone else,” she said. “I think it’s still very important that you do your journalistic homework.”
However, Singer emphasized that journalists have always had relationships with sources. Defining those relationships in texting just poses another layer to the existing ethical debates.
“It seems much more of a continuum than anything like a bright line to me,” she noted.
Another ethical consideration in Singer’s view is the potential resource drain on news organizations between choosing to help one person and reporting stories that affect a lot of people.
However, Alvarez pushed back on this common critique. While solving even one person’s problem is considered a win at Outlier, Alvarez has not found the model’s resource investment to be inefficient. Conversely, she believes it is better for journalists to take a bottom-up approach to their reporting.
“I understand why people can feel afraid of that kind of thing, but in practice, we have found that it only increases the quality of our work,” she said.
Overall, Singer said texting falls in line with one of the biggest ethical shifts of the digital age: the changing relationship between journalists and their audiences.
“We’ve now really gotten to a point where texting is maybe the next iteration of that, where there is this increasing awareness of knowledge … about and direct interaction with members of the audience, not as sources, but as consumers of information,” Singer said. “You can kind of see this trend over time, but that’s becoming an increasingly personalized relationship.”
A path forward for local news
In the Roadmap for Local News report that came out in February, its authors promote civic journalism as the path forward for local news. Texting services were one of the products listed to help achieve civic-minded journalism goals.
In news deserts where there is a lack of local media coverage or infrastructure, Boczek said small-scale texting services run by journalists could fill the gap left by older models that are failing to gain traction or build trust.
Alvarez said texting is a part of the conversation in bigger shifts in the media ecosystem — especially in the context of local news. Looking to a future with more texting models, Alvarez said the ethical and practical landscape must adapt as newsrooms start listening to more voices through texting.
“You are going to need to be responsive to more people and figure out how to work with different people,” she said. “But overall, I just feel like that’s such a positive thing, because it makes the feedback loops stronger and more trustworthy.”
“I think a responsive newsroom is what we want to build when we think about what news should be as civic infrastructure. And the only way you can be responsive is by bringing more people in.”
Despite its community-based focus, Bauman cautions that, like any form of journalism, texting could be used in an unethically extractive manner.
“It’s not immune to that danger. It can be used to buy up a bunch of phone numbers, send a mass text and try to build the source list, as opposed to providing a service,” she said.
But when used to build relationships, Mitchell said texting is a key way to give journalism – and the democratic and civic tools it provides – back to the public.
“Information is power. And information, in itself, is something that is used to wield and hold power in communities that have historically been disinvested,” Mitchell said. “We’re trying to kind of break that holding power by making it free and accessible to as many people as possible.”
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