Connecting immigrants with NYC services through CycleNews by Madeleine Bair

Latina bike messengers provide a two-way info service in Queens

Originally published on Medium.

Each weekend this summer, a group of women donning neon vests and helmets has mounted bicycles and dispersed throughout Corona, Queens, to hand-deliver information to the neighborhood’s Latino immigrants. The women are members of the grassroots organization, Mujeres en Movimiento(“women in movement”), which partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) and the Department of Cultural Affairs to launch CycleNews.

The pilot kicked off in late May, and two months later in a backyard in Corona, I had a chance to sit down with some of the women behind it to learn what motivated CycleNews, and why choose bikes, clipboards, and info cards to reach Latino immigrants with news and information.

The idea, they explained, builds on Immigrant Movement International, an art project and community center developed by artist Tania Bruguera in 2011 in collaboration with the Queens Museum and Creative Time. The artist encouraged community members to imagine a better Queens, and empowered them to manifest that vision, drawing from tactics of art and community organizing. As the current Public Artist in Residence with MOIA, she has continued to collaborate with immigrants to pursue those questions and design ways to create their own solutions.

One of the gaps identified through this process was free group exercise, hence the creation of Mujeres en Movimiento, which began as a dance therapy group and has grown into a grassroots organization that advocates for bike safety and the empowerment of immigrant women.

Another gap that surfaced was better information. “It’s our right to inform,” said Veronica Ramirez, one of the founders of Mujeres en Movimiento, “and to be informed ourselves.”

Women from Mujeres en Movimiento delivering information as part of CycleNews.  Source

Women from Mujeres en Movimiento delivering information as part of CycleNews. Source

In a city with one of the country’s most vibrant ethnic media ecosystems, what’s wrong with the news provided by local Spanish-language newspapers, television, and radio?

Plenty. “Many people say that the news outlets misinform. That what they do is frighten the community,” said Valeria Reyes, echoing a complaint I’ve heard from immigrants in Oakland about their local Spanish-language media. “They are motivated by ratings,” Valeria added, so they prioritize shock value over providing useful information.

That’s what they are trying to do through CycleNews. When the women disperse on bikes throughout the community on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings, they take two things with them. One is a stack of cards with information about municipal services available to immigrants and how to access them. There is an illustration on one side, and Spanish text on the other. They use these cards to talk to people on the street and engage them in conversation about what city services they might need.

The second thing they carry is a clipboard, which they use to pose to strangers on the street the same question that inspired them to start Mujeres en Movimiento: “What do you want to see in your community?” Each week they share that information back to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, creating an information loop that both helps immigrants access services, and assists the city in understanding the needs of the community. “It is to give,” Veronica says, “and also to receive.”

Now that the pilot has come to an end, Mujeres en Movimiento and their partners will evaluate the success of CycleNews and determine if and how to continue to spread information to the city’s immigrants on two wheels and from one person to another.

This is the second in an occasional series exploring offline approaches to distributing news. How does your community share news and information in person? How would you like to see a version of CycleNews implemented where you live? How might news delivered on bike engage audiences that wouldn’t be reached on a website, Twitter, or mobile notification?

For the first blog in the series, about plans to reach rural communities in Zimbabwe from the founder of 263Chat, click here.

Taking the Internet Off the Internet to Reach Offline Audiences by Madeleine Bair

How a Zimbabwean news entrepreneur plans to reach across the digital divide

Originally published on Medium.

If news innovation is understood through the lens of digital technology, who is left behind? What opportunities are missed, what audiences are neglected, and whose voices and stories are left out?

That question has plagued Nigel Mugamu. Nigel is the founder of 263Chat, a media outlet that uses Twitter conversations, WhatsApp groups, and videos to engage Zimbabweans in conversations about national affairs. The outlet, founded in 2012, has more than 200 thousand Twitter followers, and Nigel has won several awards for entrepreneurship and innovation. But while the news company has grown, Nigel is conscious of the fact that a large fraction of the country will never check out his website or take part in Twitter chats. That’s because a majority of Zimbabweans live in the countryside, and most of them have limited to no internet access.

I met Nigel at the Stockholm Internet Forum earlier this year, which brought together human rights activists, journalists, and internet freedom activists around the theme of Access & Power. During the closing plenary, Nigel posed this challenge to the group: Considering how many people are offline, how might we “find a way to bring the internet off the internet for those who have no access.”

This resonated with me. While the digital divide is not nearly as stark in the U.S. as it is in Zimbabwe, internet use is very different across socio-economic, generational, and ethnic divides. I know plenty of people in their 60s and 70s who have internet access but prefer to read their paper in print because it’s been a part of their routine for decades. Some working-class news consumers have limited cellphone data and are less likely to stream videos or download news apps on their phones. And in rural and immigrant communities, many people rely primarily on offline social networks for news and information. What sorts of innovative distribution strategies will more effectively reach those audiences?

DVD & WhatsApp distribution to engage with rural Zimbabwe

I caught up later with Nigel to ask him how he’s working to “take the internet off the internet.” Speaking via WhatsApp from his home in Harare, he explained to me that even for the minority of Zimbabweans who have internet access, that access can be severely limited. “For some people, Facebook is the internet. For some people, WhatsApp is the internet.”

For many Zimbabweans, especially the 60 percent of the population that lives in the countryside, the Twitter chats and online articles produced by 263Chat, not to mention their YouTube videos, will never reach them. “A lot of times,” he said, “marginalized communities are missing out on conversations that influence and affect them.” He realized he needed to go to where those communities are.

263Chat radio show about the 2018 election.  Source

263Chat radio show about the 2018 election. Source

This year, he’s experimenting with ways to do just that. “One of the things we identified: we’re a radio nation. And so what we did was partner with one of the national radio stations here.” The station needs good content, and 263Chat needs to reach their audiences. “So we’re in the process of making more audio content to be played on the radio.”

Another technology popular in Zimbabwe is DVDs. Street vendors hawk copies of the latest movies and television shows, which buyers can watch, trade with friends, and recirculate. 263Chat produces plenty of videos for their website and social media, but now the team is thinking, “why don’t we put these on a DVD and hand them out in the city?” For now, it’s just an idea, but Nigel has a vision of DVDs containing a series of short videos on news, culture, and public affairs, sponsored by advertisements, distributed on the streets, and delivered on motorbikes to rural villages.

Finally, Nigel is thinking through how mobile content can circulate through a community that lacks internet access. By sharing information on WhatsApp via an image or an entire article, rather than a link to an online report, that information can then be spread via SMS or simply shared in person. “For people who don’t have access, someone in the community has a smartphone, and sometime during the week, that person congregates and shares it with others.” Think of it as the 21st century version of leaving a newspaper on the bus.

In the next few weeks I’ll be sharing other examples of low-tech innovation designed to reach marginalized communities, and I’d love to hear from you. How has digital-first innovation left offline audiences behind? What other ways do news publishers and consumers “take the internet off the internet” and distribute it to offline communities? Chime in with a comment to share your thoughts.

The News Deserts in Immigrant Communities by Madeleine Bair

If newsrooms want to rebuild trust with underserved audiences, they can start with immigrant communities

Originally published on Medium

For the past four years, my life in New York City consisted of a regular trip from my home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to spend an evening with my in-laws in Ridgewood, Queens. There, my husband’s mom introduced me to Andean dishes like llapingachos — a pillowy, cheese-filled, potato pancake — and taught me how to create perfect folds in the preparation of empanadas.

The food, of course, wasn’t the only cultural difference between my husband’s family and my own. When it came to news, I was effectively traveling from the most media-saturated landscape in the country — one designed for a college-educated, iPhone-equipped, white professional like myself — to a very different ecosystem for Spanish-speaking immigrants.

My husband’s parents, Ecuadorean immigrants who construct condominiums and clean homes, do not receive email newsletters or mobile news alerts. They have never been invited to a town hall to mingle with newsmakers and offer up story ideas. Google Cardboard has not arrived in the mail. Their media diet consists of Univision news and El Diario La Prensa — the country’s oldest Spanish-language daily. But those outlets are often insufficient when it comes to local news that addresses their immediate concerns. Univision’s strength is its national reporting, and El Diario La Prensa has thinned out in recent years after several rounds of staff cuts. And so they get their news just as often from church acquaintances, friends, and lawyers.

Their options for news and information may be limited, unreliable, and, at times, expensive, but they are better off than many immigrants elsewhere in the country, who have no local news catered to their concerns and delivered in their language. And in communities with few or no local media outlets, fake news and misinformation spread quickly.

A false report that the Trump administration would lift visa requirements.  Source

A false report that the Trump administration would lift visa requirements. Source

In February, a relative sent us an article about Trump’s plans to ease visa restrictions for Ecuadorean visitors. “Is this true?” she wrote on WhatsApp. The same fake news story had spread throughout diaspora communities from around the world. At the same time, unchecked and often false rumors of ICE raids among immigrant communities have fueled fear and mistrust.

While the news deserts in middle America have been well documented, trends in ethnic media have been less so. But a few figures paint a picture of the yawning gap between the news industry and the country’s immigrant communities: In the past 45 years, the number of foreign-born Americans has climbed, their share of the population nearing the historic levels of 125 years ago, during the height of European immigration. Back then, more than1,000 German language newspapers were published to serve what was at the time the country’s largest non-English-speaking immigrant community. Today, there are a total of four dailies serving Spanish-speaking immigrants, down from 35 in 2002.

New York city council members joined journalists and union workers in calls to “Save El Diario” after a third round of layoffs in less than two years was announced in early 2016.  Source

New York city council members joined journalists and union workers in calls to “Save El Diario” after a third round of layoffs in less than two years was announced in early 2016. Source

Since Trump’s election, many journalists, news executives, and media funders have undertaken a long overdue reflection into the disconnect between the media and much of America — a gap that is often framed as separating the cosmopolitan coasts from the rural and suburban heartland.But we need not hop on a plane to find communities that have been neglected and unnewsed. Media bubbles are not only geographic, they are also linguistic, cultural, and economic. And like middle America, immigrant communities are increasingly neglected by local newsrooms and left behind by the industry’s investment in new business models, distribution strategies, and reporting methods.

According to Michelle’s List, a nationwide database of local digital news outlets, only 3 of more than 300 publications describe themselves as serving immigrant communities. In a similar database compiled by the Columbia Journalism Review from 2010 to 2012, not one of the three-dozen digital outlets out of New York City focused on covering immigrants, who make up nearly 40 percent of the city’s population. (Outlets serving black audiences have similarly been left out of the innovation race, as journalist and publisher Glenn Burkins outlined in the recent Columbia Journalism Review.) With little resources to invest in innovation and training among local ethnic press, the urgent needs for verification of fake news and misinformation have largely gone unmet.

The struggles of the ethnic press, like that of local newspapers across the country, are not new. But since the election of President Trump on a platform of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, the disconnect between the media and immigrant communities has come into sharp focus. At a time of widespread fear, why would an immigrant want to speak to a reporter, especially one from an outlet they don’t know and trust? A recent NPR storyabout how fear of deportation has led to a drop in the number of immigrants receiving food stamps and other social services ended with this unusual footnote: “We tried repeatedly to find immigrants willing to talk to us for the story, even without using their names. But we were unable to do so.”

Think about that for a moment. One of the country’s largest newsrooms was unable to find an immigrant to talk to for a story about immigrants. Notwithstanding some excellent reporting on immigration by journalists around the country, many local and national newsrooms lack the relationships with immigrant communities that are needed to uncover and investigate urgent and important stories.

How can we create a media ecosystem that better serves today’s America — a country where immigrants and their U.S.-born children make up more than one-quarter of the overall population?

From media funders and investors to researchers, editors, and entrepreneurs, there are steps we can all take to bridge the gap between the news media and immigrant communities. Here are a few suggestions, and I invite you to share your own in the comments:

  • Researchers and innovators: Study news consumption among immigrant audiences; they may be different from that of white, college-educated, English-speaking news consumers. Foreign-born Latinos, for example, aremore likely than other groups to access the Internet from a smartphone — just one of many factors that may drive a unique distribution strategy to engage immigrants rather than native-born audiences.
  • Editors and reporters: Collaborate with ethnic media to report on issues in immigrant communities. They may be tapped into important stories and sources, and collaboration can strengthen the reporting of both outlets. Daniela Gerson has outlined steps news organizations can take to get started.
  • Funders: Support media innovation serving immigrant communities by inviting ethnic media publishers and innovators to conferences and prioritizing reporting that serves immigrant audiences for innovation grants. Whether the focus is on fake news, community engagement, or business models, it is likely that ethnic media outlets are facing those challenges just as much as mainstream outlets, and may well be addressing them with novel solutions.
  • Finally, understand the difference between covering and serving a community. Newsrooms can invest in an immigration beat, but if the reporting does not address concerns of immigrant communities, is not reported in their languages or distributed via tools and platforms that they use, then the journalism — while by all means important for one audience — may not make a dent in addressing the information gaps facing immigrant communities.

As we design ways to reinvest in local reporting, it is important that we consider all of the diverse audiences who can benefit from innovative, in-depth, and engaged local journalism.