Early on in our existence we realized we were facing a challenge. Our reporting was about city, state and federal immigration related policies and how they were failing the New York residents they were aiming to serve. However, our metrics told us our stories were not always reaching the people the stories were about. I am a co-founder of Documented, a nonprofit news organization that covers New York City’s immigrants and the policies that affect their lives.
Aldana Vales and Nicolás Ríos, who at the time were New York University students, proposed a solution to our problem: Documented could publish news in Spanish on WhatsApp. In their research, they found that many Spanish-speaking immigrants were primarily getting their news through WhatsApp and social media networks. Since WhatsApp was already popular within the community we were aiming to reach, we knew this would create a lower barrier to entry and would encourage engagement and communication. We decided to call it Documented Semanal.
We use a feature in WhatsApp called a broadcast list. For a user, it looks like a regular WhatsApp conversation, where they see our messages and they can reply. Behind the scenes, we are able to send the same message to hundreds of people at once, but without them being able to see each other. This allows for a more private experience that’s less susceptible to the trolls and bots that spring up in the comments section on most sites.
At first, we sent out a newsletter focused on federal and state immigration policy in relation to undocumented New Yorkers. But we quickly learned that news with practical value was the most in-need for our audience. When the coronavirus pandemic began, we refocused our efforts to provide as much high quality and specific information we could find to help address some of the unique problems our subscribers were facing.
We solicited questions from our readers and turned them into Q&As with an immigration law expert, who explained how COVID-19 was affecting visas and travel; a housing advocate, who explained tenants rights; and the leader of a public health organization, who explained the guidance around coronavirus exposure and when to get tested. We also turned this information into cartoons and illustrations, which were then distributed to our WhatsApp list.
When we began focusing on engaging our WhatsApp audience more, we learned a lot about the gulf between what we gravitated towards covering as journalists and what their actual needs are.
For example, one story we did, which was a collaboration with the local Univision station, was about misinformation and disinformation circulating during the coronavirus pandemic. We asked our WhatsApp community to send us messages and videos they wanted to fact check. Much of the news around that subject was discussing 5G and rumors about the origin of the coronavirus. Our readers overwhelmingly sent us fake Amazon and Walmart gift card scams and faulty coronavirus ‘cures.’ We were able to directly address their needs, rather than assuming we knew what they were.
We also learned how building a dedicated community can fuel our investigative reporting. A couple of months ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office announced that the Open Society Foundation had donated $20 million to the City to distribute to undocumented immigrants. When we announced that news to our readers, they started seeking out the funds. Then our community began asking for updates, they were confused and concerned at the lack of information around the fund. Their experiences inspired us to look into the program to discover why it was so hard to see who qualified and how to apply. We asked a reporter to look into the program for us and interviewed our readers for the story.
As we’ve progressed with this project, we’ve learned that WhatsApp is not an intuitive publishing platform and offers few metrics. Our feedback is largely anecdotal, but we do have plans to conduct surveys with our readers to gain more insightful, specific feedback. And as the group grows, we know that managing it will become more difficult. Right now our manager of the WhatsApp group, Nicolas Rios, is able to respond to every person who messages us. When this group grows substantially, it will be hard to stay on top of it all so we are currently exploring ways to engage a larger group with our current resources.