What she did
Attorney and former NPR Michigan reporter Sarah Alvarez has created a text-to-consumer reporting service related to housing and utilities for low-income residents of Detroit. The data that Outlier Media delivers to individuals and investigates on behalf of the community bridges information gaps that mainstream media does not cover.
Accountability is a word Sarah Alvarez, founder of Outlier Media, uses repeatedly in describing her mission. Holding government, corporations, and local institutions accountable by empowering people with actionable data that is otherwise inaccessible is crucial to her mission to serve low-income communities in Detroit.
Outlier is a community-based news service that troubleshoots undervalued communities’ needs for housing and utility information. The service takes a two-track approach: It provides public data directly to consumers, connecting them with the information they need to address particular issues. It also digs deeper when the situation calls for greater accountability by the city or county, because available data alone cannot always resolve problems at the individual level. Using a unique text messaging delivery system, Outlier reaches more than 400 Detroiters on a weekly basis with actionable information about housing and utilities.
Their investigative reporting has resulted in local policy and practice changes specifically related to rental inspections and tax foreclosure auctions. A new line of investigations have uncovered systematic overcharging to prisoners and their families for phone calls that may never have been made.
After a recent merger that doubled the size of Outlier’s operations, Alvarez has taken on an expanded role as executive editor of MuckRock, a nonprofit, collaborative news organization dedicated to opening public access to otherwise hard-to-find government information.
The merger with MuckRock will allow Alvarez to broaden her focus beyond Detroit to fill information gaps in local communities around the nation.
These services are designed to give residents the tools and resources they need to hold landlords, municipal governments, and elected officials accountable for longstanding problems in local housing and utilities markets.
In Pursuit of a Solution
Sarah Alvarez began her career as a civil rights lawyer. She aimed to pursue justice for minority groups and women, people living in what she calls “undervalued”, mostly low-income communities.
Ultimately, Alvarez did not find practicing civil rights law amenable to finding solutions to underrepresented communities’ persistent problems. “You try to find cases that are going to move up through the courts and change the law. You have to weed out a lot of cases where the fact pattern is not as clear, where the law isn’t strong enough. So you end up not being able to use the law as a tool in a lot of circumstances,” she explained.
She turned to journalism as, perhaps, a better way to serve, seeing it as “a way to address a lot of things that didn’t have a clear solution”, by filling “accountability gaps” and focusing on providing information that would directly help the community. As a reporter for NPR Michigan, a statewide NPR affiliate, she felt she could serve that community in ways that could lead to change.
As she continued reporting for NPR, she grew frustrated that she “wasn’t reporting about low-income families for low-income families.” She came to see that public radio is geared towards audiences of means and influence. Station management, in her view, held biased assumptions about who could get things done, who had agency and power to address the issues, and who could address challenges facing the community. And the low-income communities that she wanted to serve were not listening to public radio.
In fact, in a paper for the Knight Foundation, Melody Kramer of the Wikimedia Foundation corroborated this view, giving public media a failing grade when it came to reporting news that would serve low-income communities. She noted that NPR funding relies on serving audiences who can afford to donate financially to support the medium.
Alvarez says today, “I was reporting about [low income communities] for people who had money, and that was not the best way in my thinking to address the issues.”
Along the way, Alvarez had become familiar with the work of Jay Hamilton, director of the Computational Journalism Lab at Stanford University, and was inspired to take a different approach. “His work was about the economics of news and how it creates an information gap because of this kind of target customer, and what an info gap is—that’s nothing I had ever really seen articulated. So that was the lifeline for me because it was the kind of framework I had been looking for.”
It all boiled down to this: how to empower people to take the message directly to those who are accountable, and get results.
Local Problems, Local Solutions
Having identified a gap in news coverage to low-income communities, Alvarez was determined to design a data-to-consumer model to fill it. She gained the support of her radio station to create a pilot program. But ultimately, administrators were resistant to changing the focus of their reporting, even if doing so would attract a greater share of the audiences that would most benefit from it.
Alvarez based her new service, now named Outlier Media, in Detroit, where she had identified a clear need for her brand of service journalism by evaluating United Way data that targeted community resource gaps. “Resource gaps are a really good proxy for information gaps as well. There’s usually more to that story than people don’t have enough money.”
Detroit once had a high percentage of home ownership, particularly black homeownership. But a 2018 Urban Institute report on housing in Southeastern Michigan notes that since 2008, the city has transitioned to a majority of renters and has had serious issues with providing affordable housing. There is no infrastructure to support tenants’ rights.
Alvarez’s work focuses a laser light on the fallout from that transition. The Outlier team looks beyond generic notions surrounding the market for affordable housing and explores some of the root causes of the problems faced by the city’s minority homeowners and renters, including municipal actions, tax foreclosure auctions, lack of available mortgages, poor conditions caused by speculative real estate markets, and bad actors who were well-known by the city and county, and yet who were allowed to continue to purchase properties.
Outlier’s reporting is specific to the city of Detroit, where Alvarez has identified three key issues related to the current housing problems: it’s almost entirely a cash market, it offers few protections in the landlord-tenant relationship, and the city, which owns one-third of available property, doesn’t sell enough of it to meet demand at the bottom end of the market.
Expanding Outlier’s Data-Driven Information Service to—and for—Milwaukeeans
Thanks to its recent merger with MuckRock, and the increased resources it now has access to, Outlier has begun to focus on intransigent problems in Milwaukee, WI, to address these issues through the use of big data.
Unfortunately, Alvarez explained, the system of delivery that they defined for Detroit may not work elsewhere. “We’re just getting started with an information needs assessment in Milwaukee, looking at a ton of different data services,” she says. “Already, we can see, the issues are different.”
But the design of the service will be similar to the Detroit model: a local Outlier journalist will look for information that is “valuable” and “actionable” according to Alvarez’s criteria and then determine what information can be distributed at an individual level. How the delivery system will change remains to be seen. “I don’t know for sure how we’ll distribute it; is there a different better way than text messaging for Milwaukee? These are basic principles,” Alvarez noted.
Journalism with a Purpose
By opening up the traditional newsroom and addressing needs that the community itself has defined as essential, Outlier Media sees the future of news as democratizing, providing access to the tools of journalism to those who will use them to address individual and community challenges.
Alvarez emphasized the nonprofit’s mission, “Serving people with the biggest information and accountability gaps: that’s always our focus. The [Outlier Media] model really is, when you can give people information that would allow them to watchdog these issues on their own, that should be our number one priority, and we meet individual information needs. And [because of the system we’ve created] we are able to do this at scale.”
Simply by tapping into vast troves of public data and empowering individuals to hold leaders and institutions accountable, Alvarez noted that things are beginning to change. At the same time, she observed, change won’t come easily, or without deeper investigative reporting, which Outlier takes on in partnership with other local media organizations.
And, according to Alvarez, that’s where Outlier’s investigative approach can really make a difference – it fills in gaps in the public data that further help her audience to help themselves.
Carl Hedman, Rolf Pendall, “Rebuilding and Sustaining Homeownership for African Americans”, Southeast Michigan Housing Futures, Brief 3, Urban Institute, https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/98719/rebuilding_and_sustaining_homeownership_for_african_americans.pdf/, accessed Mar 8, 2020
Christine Schmidt, “How to Report on – and Hire for – Journalism’s Poverty Problem”, Nieman Lab, Sep 18, 2018, www.niemanlab.org/2018/09/how-to-report-on-and-hire-for-journalisms-poverty-problem/, accessed Mar 8, 2020
Ashley Norris, “Outlier Media Founder Sarah Alvarez on the Potential of Service Journalism”, Fipp.com, Feb 20, 2019, www.fipp.com/news/features/outlier-media-founder-sarah-alvarez-service-journalism accessed Mar 8, 2020
“Sarah Alvarez”, Bridge Magazine, Jun 9, 2017, www.bridgemi.com/about/sarah-alvarez, accessed Mar 8, 2020
Christine Schmidt, “Text-for-Housing-Data Service Outlier Media and MuckRock Combine to Close More Information Gaps around the Country”, Nieman Lab, Jan 27, 2020, www.niemanlab.org/2020/01/text-for-housing-data-service-outlier-media-and-muckrock-combine-to-close-more-information-gaps-around-the-country/, accessed Mar 8, 2020
Laura Hazard Owen, “‘There Is No Wirecutter for the Poor,’ but If There Were, What Would It Look like?”, Nieman Lab, Jul 19 , 2019, www.niemanlab.org/2019/07/there-is-no-wirecutter-for-the-poor-but-if-there-were-what-would-it-look-like/, accessed Mar 8, 2020