Milwaukee project News414 has the promise of informing — and engaging — underserved communities


An effort from three nonprofit news organizations — which has received funding through the Google News Innovation Challenge — will aim to provide underserved Milwaukee neighborhoods with interactive public service journalism.

The initiative will be called News414 and Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism will create a texting service that residents in underserved communities would receive at no cost to them. Those who receive the texts will become sources for news tips.

In total, 87 projects were gifted funding in the first GNI Innovation Challenges in Asia-Pacific, North America and Latin America. Google said the funding will enable individuals and companies to develop sustainable business models by diversifying revenue streams and/or increasing audience engagement.

Andy Hall

Andy Hall, executive director for Wisconsin Watch, shared more about the project in an interview with LMA.

First, tell us a little about the overall goals of the project. 

News414 will build connections to residents of 18 low-income Milwaukee neighborhoods to understand residents’ information needs and investigate their most pressing issues. The targeted local news reports — a combination of news-you-can-use and accountability journalism — will be made available to residents via SMS messaging and other methods to maximize audience engagement.

The reporting also will be shared statewide with the public and policymakers to foster an understanding of issues and potential solutions. Three nonprofit news organizations will join forces in this one-year experiment.

News414 will draw upon the expertise of Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a hyperlocal newsroom based at Marquette University with deep roots in the city’s underserved neighborhoods; Detroit-based Outlier Media, which has pioneered SMS messaging and aims to fill information gaps and increase accountability; and Wisconsin Watch, which holds power to account and distributes its content for free to hundreds of news organizations nationwide.

One goal is to explore ways to repurpose information we have already published. Existing NNS and Wisconsin Watch content will be indexed, updated to be responsive to the needs of neighborhood residents, and added to an interactive database accessible by residents.

This will not be a one-way communication, however. Subscribers to the texting service will become crucial sources of news tips and on-the-ground information, helping journalists improve news coverage priorities and report important community issues from a grassroots level.

We hope to produce long-lasting gains in audience engagement, publish unflinching journalism and attract financial support from individuals and institutions to sustain this critical work. And we will share whatever we learn, to promote audience engagement and public service journalism efforts elsewhere.

Why was the project so critical to your organization?

An informed citizenry is essential to our democracy. But too often, investigative news reports that expose broken and failing systems aren’t seen or heard by the people who are most directly affected by the problems. And, as is apparent from research and our own observations, far too many people aren’t engaged with journalists. They don’t trust news organizations to listen to their concerns.

Wisconsin Watch, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and Outlier Media know that we can, and must, do better.

News414 can make our news organizations, and our democracy, stronger.

What’s going to make the project a success in your mind?

As we said in our application for Google News Initiative support, the most obvious measure of success will be the number of audience members who sign up for our service. This subscription base could be used to measure not just the size of the readership but its effectiveness. Did subscribers find the news and information useful or interesting? Do they continue to provide tips to our reporters?

For comparison, in just over a year, Outlier Media has changed community conversations in Detroit around pervasive problems, primarily housing — the top concern unearthed in the information needs survey that residents answered at the launch of the project. Outlier Media currently has about 400 weekly subscribers in Detroit. We hope for at least that much penetration in Milwaukee with News414, but will aim for a higher target of 600 given the existing networks of both Milwaukee NNS and Wisconsin Watch, and their ability to generate high-quality news relevant to the targeted news consumers.

Another measure of the project will be success in achieving desired outcomes for the audience, or having them take action based on information they receive through the service. Does a person get a test for a child he suspects is lead poisoned? Does a pothole get filled after News414 points a resident to the proper authority to file a complaint? Does a resident avoid eviction by learning about her rights through information provided by the texting service?

Another measure of success will be public conversation of issues, mentions and pickups of stories by other media outlets and any policy changes resulting from coverage by the participating news organizations. Wisconsin Watch already tracks such pickups, mentions and official reactions to our stories. These qualitative and quantitative metrics will be applied to gauge the impact of News414.

Another positive outcome would be boosting civic and political engagement among the target audience. This could take on several forms, including voter turnout in local and state elections in specific wards, and surveying subscribers about whether their engagement and voting habits have changed as a result of News414.

The texting part of the initiative is interesting, both the way to deliver information but also that those subscribers become sources. How did you land on that portion of the project?

A few years ago, the Wisconsin Watch staff met Outlier Media’s Sarah Alvarez when she delivered a presentation to public media journalists in Madison. We were impressed. In early 2019, Sarah told Lauren Fuhrmann, our associate director, that Outlier was interested in testing its model beyond Detroit — particularly in Milwaukee. When the announcement for this Google News Initiative funding came out, Ron Smith, the newly named editor of Neighborhood News Service, suggested that we should file a joint application. So, after some brainstorming, we came up with this pitch for News414. We’re fortunate to have this opportunity.

How far along is the project?

It’s in the early stages. In January, we’ll post two key openings — project manager and engagement manager.

We’ll hire those people, and Outlier Media will do the heavy lifting on an information-needs survey that will help identify the most pressing information gaps. The information needs panel is a series of nine questions delivered over SMS.

News414 will strive to create a deep and personal bond with its subscribers, to create a feedback loop to further constant improvement of the product, the service it provides and the news that’s being covered.

Wisconsin Watch is honored to be partnering with NNS, which already has expertise doing on-the-ground reporting in the targeted areas. NNS brings a wealth of local knowledge, local trust, and local reporting skills to the collaboration. Outlier Media provides the model and the method. Wisconsin Watch provides the in-depth investigative expertise.

It’s a powerful collaboration that, we believe, will have real impact.