RJI Fellow explores how to expand WhatsApp publication reaching immigrant population in New York

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute awarded seven fellowships for the 2020–21 academic year for projects that address the increasing challenges in covering climate change, unpublishing, harassment of marginalized journalists and more.

During an RJI Fellowship, Documented co-founding editor and reporter Max Siegelbaum is continuing to experiment and grow the nonprofit’s Spanish-language WhatsApp publication they’ve used to engage their audiences with news and information about immigration issues. They also plan to share their findings and learnings with those in the industry interested in connecting with audiences through mobile devices.

About the publication

The publication, Documented Semanal, which is delivered via WhatsApp, was created in 2019 after the team learned that they were failing to reach their intended audience as they reported about national, state and local immigration related policies. Siegelbaum says they translated some of their articles into Spanish piecemeal, but didn’t have a distribution platform or the ability to build a Spanish-speaking audience at that time.

In research with student teams from New York University, Siegelbaum and his team learned that the Spanish-speaking immigrants they were trying to reach primarily got their news through WhatsApp and social media networks. They also learned that their audience wanted practical news such as how to get a deceased family member’s body back to Mexico during COVID-19 and how the pandemic and travel restrictions impact expiring visas.

They began sending out a tailored newsletter through WhatsApp’s broadcast list, which distributes news to each individual user privately and is less susceptible to trolls and bots, says Siegelbaum. The platform allows Documented to message users individually and vice versa. They’ve used this feature to solicit questions from readers about specific topics and answer readers’ questions. They often turn responses into a published Q&A/explainer or create a separate story on a topic.

The newsletter has grown from 400 users in March to more than 1,200 during COVID-19, says Audience Editor Nicolás Ríos.

More about the fellowship

The fellowship allowed Documented to hire Ríos, who was part of the NYU student teams studying how this demographic of people get their news. Rios now manages Documented Semanal, takes care of subscriptions and responds to people’s questions, which he says takes about two hours a day to do. Rios said the publication typically receives about 20 questions a day, with 50 being the most questions asked on one day. Publishing Q&A’s or explainers has helped cut down on the number of questions they have to respond to, says Rios.

The team says the fellowship funds are also allowing them to experiment with the app and try different tools or advertise the publication. So far one experiment included launching Documented Semanal’s first investigative story, which was based on readers’ experiences and inspired by readers’ messaging with the Documented team, says Siegelbaum.

They are also experimenting with translating the Q&A’s into illustrations for the newsletter. This helps those who have limited reading comprehension skills, says Rios. They are also experimenting with WhatsApp’s voice feature, which allows users to send short-recorded audio messages, in lieu of text, says Siegelbaum. They are currently working on developing a prototype of audio messages that would serve as another vehicle to distribute information to consumers. They plan to continue experimenting with the feature to see what consumers use most, he says. They’ve heard from at least one consumer that she’s on the voice feature constantly as a person regularly on the go.

During the fellowship, Siegelbaum says they’re also looking forward to working with students from the Missouri School of Journalism as they consider conducting various types of market research such as whether or not the service can be monetized and what people are willing to pay. They are also interested in having the students survey their readers to continue to gain an understanding of readers’ needs.

Siegelbaum says they want to share their learnings and findings with the industry, so they plan to continue sharing information about the project and their experimentation during events.

“We want to really examine cell phones and how we receive news on cell phones, in particular WhatsApp or this relationship you have with your phone and how user experience is totally different than a laptop or newspaper,” he says. “And the barrier to entry is much lower than everything else.”

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