A local community organisation in Detroit turned readers into investigative journalists to help expose landlords buying up property and ignite a sense of interest in local affairs.
Detour Detroit had been investigating issues from tax auctions in the area, where foreclosed homes are bought by bidders from across the world. In one county alone, 145,000 properties were sold, but many have remained abandoned.
However, the organisation was faced with a mountain of information to process to investigate each individual property at auction and vet the buyers.
In a podcast with Journalism.co.uk, Detour Detroit founder Ashley Woods Branch said they came up with a solution, as well as further engage their readers with the story; recruiting them as citizen journalists.
"If all we wanted to do was pick out some names and run a story, we would have done that months ago, but then we wouldn’t be doing anything differently," she explained.
"It wouldn't have anything to do with building our relationship with local readers and demonstrating why we matter. This is what local journalism should really look like."
Working with Outlier Media, a local journalism non-profit, the organisation created ‘watchdog workshops’. Here, residents were trained to help trawl through the documents and work out who the buyers are.
The workshops were accessible to anyone, regardless of their level of experience, and had a range of roving reporters to support residents in going through documents and talking them through the importance of what they find.
So, how do you turn an ordinary local resident into a first-time investigators?
Although the topic may seem very dense, providing step-by-step instructions, giving residents an overview of the story and answering their questions, alongside Detour Detroit’s previous coverage of the tax auctions, was enough for their volunteers to get started.
From there, less tech-savvy readers were paired up with those that had more understanding, creating connections between different groups from across the community.
For Woods Branch, giving the residents context and explaining how the story affects them and their local area is crucial in sparking the interest of potential citizen journalists.
“People started searching for homes that were in their neighbourhoods and trying to figure out who had bought them and then texting their friends," she explained.
But the personal attachment alone to the story was sufficient motivation for residents to get involved. But when armed with a new investigative skillset, these new-found citizen journalists felt empowered enough to investigate other stories on their own terms.
At a time when many local publications have been forced to close, Branch said that local residents can see the value of local journalism when they are brought into the fold.
“They’ll value it monetarily, they’ll value it emotionally, they’ll value it intellectually,” she explained.
“When your supporters see the fruits of your labour and that they’ve actually done something to make the community better, you can’t replace that feeling.”
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