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University of Wisconsin–Madison

News414 responds to Milwaukee’s needs, redefines service journalism: A Q&A with Bevin Christie

Hannah Ritvo is a 2023-24 student fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and a recent graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

25% of Milwaukee residents struggle with low literacy, which means they aren’t served by traditional print media. 

The service journalism initiative News414 is working to change that.

News414 aims to fill information gaps and reduce racial disparities in Milwaukee, the most segregated city in the nation. Nonprofit newsrooms Wisconsin Watch and Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service created News414 to amplify local voices and help residents explore solutions to problems. The service journalism initiative was modeled after Detroit’s Outlier Media, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to responding to Detroiters’ needs.

A News414 texting feature connects Milwaukee residents with journalists, where they can ask questions in English and Spanish about food security, housing, employment, civil rights, public health and more. News414 works with partners Wisconsin Watch and Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service to publish online investigative news stories and resource stories, and create informative social media posts on News414’s Facebook and Instagram pages. Weekly infographics distribute information ranging from eviction information to unemployment benefits.   

Members of News414 team visit a coffee shop in the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee. Left to right:  Bevin Christie, Jonmaesha Beltran, Bob Olin (owner of Sherman Perk), Mariela Fonseca Ruiz and Delicia Morris. 

While the journalism industry is facing a crisis of trust, service journalists are using innovative solutions like News414 to develop relationships with underserved community members and deliver valuable information directly to citizens.

The Center for Journalism Ethics spoke with News414 Project Manager Bevin Christie about how the team identifies and addresses the community’s needs, issues and concerns. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

To connect with a News414 reporter text MKE to 73244.

What is service journalism? 

Service journalism is being responsive to the community. It’s not telling the community what you think they need, which I think often ends up being what happens. We are listening to the community; stories and tips are coming directly from the community. We’re always looking for more ways to engage and also deepen our journalists’ understanding of the community and its resources. I have a team of ambassadors; we’re all from the community, and work in the community. I quickly found out this is not how journalists are trained. It goes against everything they were taught. 

How does service journalism put local voices first? 

Our ears are always to the ground. We’re trying to also redefine what service journalism is – it’s not just one thing. I think we traditionally look to print, [but] when we think about that in Milwaukee – 25% of our county is at or below a third-grade reading level. I’m going to make an assumption that demographic needs these services the most. 

We are working to be responsive to the community in different ways. We’re creating reels and TikTok’s right now about voting: how to vote, the importance of local elections, what do our elected officials actually do and how do you run for office by doing it in a way that’s engaging? So that we can capture a bigger audience than just through a newsletter to a website with an article. It’s bigger than just writing stories in response to what the community is saying.

Neighborhood News Service has always been really good at reporting on the community with the community versus just about the community, but it’s always been in print. So how do we do that in other ways? That’s where a partnership comes in handy, because Wisconsin Watch has a lot more resources than Neighborhood News Service does – it’s a good example of how you can collaborate and use the resources of both newsrooms, which I don’t think anybody has done in this way before.

News 414 helps residents identify problems, explore solutions and fill information gaps that stem from racial inequity. Why is it important to fill these information gaps and offer solutions in Milwaukee?  

There are very few nonprofit newsrooms that exist in the state, especially in Milwaukee. There’s just an overall lack of information. We are asking: how can we empower our communities through information? Before we start asking people to vote, people don’t even know what another person does, what a county supervisor does, what the zoning committee is and how this impacts their daily lives. We’re gearing up to inform people: what does your congressperson do, what does your senator do, and so forth. And then gear up for the school board elections, which is in less than two years, and start pushing out information now, especially because we just had a big referendum passed. We pushed out something saying, did you know that in the last election the alder for District One was won by 17 votes – this is where your voice matters. We were able to push that one out before the election, but now we’re looking at how do you vote early [and] how do you request your absentee ballot? We are not just telling people to call a number, we are showing them how to go on Telling them if they run into a problem, here’s a resource you can reach out to if you’re having issues.

How does service journalism differ from extractive reporting? 

Even if a story has been done by a larger newspaper or a news station, our reporters really try to get more of the person-centered side of it. We are able to show a whole other side. [News organizations] may have reported the facts or things like that, but we’re going to come and really talk to the individual about what happened. An example would be during the pandemic, we had somebody whose father had passed away from COVID-19. There was money available to reimburse for funeral expenses – but all there was was a phone number. It was a significant amount of money that could be reimbursed, and she was kept on hold for 40 minutes, and then the phone would disconnect her. She kept trying, she reached out and asked, was there any other way to contact them? There was no website or anything like that. Our reporters were able to make some calls and find out what was going on and get her connected to the right people. A story did come out of that, and then it was also covered by one of our local news channels. Ideally, if we can do something that is picked up by these larger ones, I feel like that helps kind of even it out a little bit, too. 

Tell me about your texting feature and how it helps community members access needed services. 

We spent the first couple of years at community events, helping people sign up. We tried putting up posters and having QR codes and things like that. Texting is just one way to get to people. It originally was kind of the whole basis for the initiative and now we’ve really moved forward with texting as just one tool, almost like a Swiss army knife. There are multiple things that we can do, one of them is texting, that reaches a certain number of people. But we also do our Facebook groups. We’re getting ready to do more TikTok, we have Instagram, but especially TikTok because we’re looking at engaging with younger generations. We know that the youth are going to TikTok for their information and that has to be quick, engaging information. So it’s texting and being innovative overall and understanding your audiences.

Service journalism emphasizes community engagement that may conflict with traditional journalism values of objectivity and impartiality. Can you talk a bit about this? 

I think that’s kind of comical because we’re all bringing something to the table. We all have to work to be objective and impartial. In some instances, things might hit closer to home than others. I think it really goes back to just your initial training – it doesn’t matter if it’s some big story, and you’re just interviewing a couple people here and there for background information, or if you’re interviewing the person who this is directly impacting – you have to come with that mindset of care and compassion, along with wanting to tell the story. I think sometimes the greater good is often thrown around, but I think that implications have to be considered. And I think that’s a big part of why the community isn’t trusting. It’s because people are putting themselves on the line, and then they often feel exploited just for a story. I just feel like you can do both.

You mentioned assistance with COVID-19 reimbursement funds. Can you share any other examples of a time that News414 made a difference?

We’ve helped plenty of people get connected to resources regarding housing. There was a story that came out – it was during COVID, with rent assistance – we had one agency that was failing miserably at processing applications and getting money out to people who needed it. That came from several texts [to News414] during that time. 

On our Facebook groups, I’m always posting resources and information. There are things that we’re not able to measure because we’re just putting information out there. We will never know if people actually use it or not. It’s always nice when you hear people say, I heard about this, I learned about this through you. We kind of rebranded a little bit last year. And what we discovered was, because we were out in the community so much, and we already had those established relationships, people recognize News414 more so than they recognize the actual publication. They didn’t know what the Neighborhood News Service (NNS) was, they didn’t know what Wisconsin Watch was, but they knew what News414 was. And so we’ve been talking about pushing more towards – we want you to know what these newsrooms are and be connected as well. So we’re seeing our influence on the newsroom. Now Wisconsin Watch is doing more Instagram posts breaking down information. There’s a lot more republishing of NNS stories on Wisconsin Watch and vice versa. We didn’t have a lot of relevant Wisconsin Watch stories to republish, but I’ve seen a big increase in more relevant information for folks. We also translate identified articles in Spanish, and we do texts in English and Spanish as well. Those are just a few off the top of my head, but there are just so many interactions.

The journalism industry is facing a crisis of trust. Do you think that service journalism offers a new way to engage audiences and gain back that trust?

There is definitely some lack of trust, and for good reason. I think service journalism done right definitely bridges some of that. It’s about being present, and that takes a certain type of person. I don’t think everybody can do service journalism. I think it’s also important to know that people choose this, some people have had opportunities to work elsewhere and would prefer to do service journalism. Those are the people that you want, that really care about the community, that want to take the time to get to know the community. When you’re connected and embedded, you don’t have to search for stories. They come to you. Every so often, we’ll have a reporter asking me or my ambassadors to help with a source or something. That’s pretty easy for us to do. But so often, we’re not looking for anything, you know, we’re having general conversations and things are coming up. I think that when you’re able to do work like that, and then stories evolve like that, then it’s not extractive. It’s just organic. That’s the key. Anytime you can do that, you’re going to be more successful.

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