As the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted daily life in the U.S. and around the world, many news organizations have turned to texting services to reach their communities with critical news and information. Platforms like Reach, GroundSource and Subtext have helped news outlets learn about audiences’ information needs and address them directly via SMS.

Some news outlets are also meeting audiences where they already are — on WhatsApp. WhatsApp has more than 2 billion users worldwide, and it’s where many stay connected and get news and information (and, sometimes, misinformation).

Mazin Sidahmed, co-founder of Documented

Documented, a nonprofit news outlet dedicated to New York City’s immigrant community, had been using WhatsApp to engage readers for about a year before the pandemic caused the city to go on lockdown. Co-founder Mazin Sidahmed is one of API’s 2019-20 Community Listening Fellows, and as part of his fellowship, is working on ways to engage Spanish speakers with Documented’s reporting.

When COVID-19 began rapidly spreading through New York City, Documented quickly doubled down its work on WhatsApp. Its reporters are now using it to solicit readers’ questions and concerns about the virus, and to deliver them answers directly from experts. We spoke with Mazin about how they’re doing it and what they’ve learned.

Q: You’ve been using WhatsApp to share information with immigrant populations in New York City for some time. Why did you choose this as a platform for getting your reporting out there?

A: Our work with WhatsApp started through a collaboration with a New York University Studio 20 class in 2018. My co-founder Max Siegelbaum and I had been intrigued by the platform, as I knew from family and anecdotal experiences that it was the main form of communication outside of the English-speaking world. However, we never explored it seriously.

We partnered with a class taught by Kim Bode, now a product manager at The Los Angeles Times, to conduct research on the information needs and habits of different immigrant communities in New York. Two students in the class, Nicolas Rios and Aldana Vales, surveyed undocumented Spanish speakers in New York and found that the main way this community got information on immigration was through WhatsApp. These networks ranged from family WhatsApp groups to community organizations like churches. Aldana and Nicolas pitched us on a project: Documented should launch a weekly newsletter in Spanish distributed via WhatsApp in order to better reach Spanish-speakers.

We loved the idea. In early 2019, we launched the project, titled Documented Semanal. Felipe De La Hoz wrote a weekly roundup of immigration news and Nicolas and Aldana edited it.

Q: How did you initially build an audience for Documented on WhatsApp?

A: Building an audience on WhatsApp has been a challenge. We decided the best way to grow our audience was to meet people directly where they are. We started reaching out to organizations that serve immigrants directly to let them know about Documented Semanal. In the summer of 2019, our engagement intern at the time, Isadora Varejão, managed our audience outreach. She focused on this grassroots partnership building, mainly in the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, where 63% of adults speak Spanish at home due to a large Dominican community. Isadora built connections with different community-based organizations and gave presentations at member meetings. These included theater groups, IT classes and health centers. We printed dozens of flyers and dropped them off at different centers. My co-founder and I tabled at block parties and citizenship events to meet people and tell them about Documented Semanal. Users appreciated the outreach and the audience gradually grew.

Earlier this year, with support from SembraMedia, we began using Facebook ads to promote the newsletter. They were very successful. Our list grew dramatically after a minor investment due to a very low cost per conversion. This was by far the most successful strategy and we’ve since decided to invest more in Facebook marketing of the newsletter.

Q: How have you changed your work, including with WhatsApp, in light of COVID-19?

A: In mid-March, when the lockdown in New York City began and its dramatic effects on the lives of all New Yorkers became clear, we decided we needed to act. Nicolas Rios, the former NYU student, had recently graduated. He came to work with us and has since spearheaded a tremendous effort to get information that was sorely lacking in other news outlets out to immigrant New Yorkers.

Documented uses WhatsApp to ask for — and respond to — readers’ questions about coronavirus.

Following our Facebook campaign, WhatsApp newsletter subscribers had become a lot more engaged and were sending in questions before the coronavirus crisis escalated in New York. Those questions took a turn after the crisis as subscribers began wanting to know about their healthcare options, labor fallout and the changing landscape for immigration services. We decided to hold a series of Q&As with experts in different fields to answer these questions. The first week, we solicited readers’ questions on health care, immigration was the second week and labor was the third week. Each week we took their questions to experts and produced articles, like this one on health, based on the most frequently asked questions such as, “In New York, what health services can be used by undocumented immigrants in relation to the coronavirus?” We sent the answers to the individuals who asked and then to all of our subscribers.

For our labor questionnaire, we went one step further and hosted a Facebook Live with labor lawyers from Make the Road where we addressed users’ questions and provided general feedback on what the new labor provisions at the federal and state level mean for immigrants. The Facebook Live itself was our highest-performing link that we sent out via WhatsApp and it had great engagement throughout the event.

The fourth week we focused on misinformation. We partnered with Univision 41 to ask readers if they’ve seen any messages or posts about the coronavirus that they would like us to verify. We got a wide range of rumors from our WhatsApp readers, from people offering fake Amazon and Walmart gift cards to claims that the cure for the coronavirus could be found from a hair in the Bible. On Wednesday, April 15 we published our findings and hosted another Facebook Live in partnership with Univision 41 to provide readers tips on how to spot misinformation.

Q: What are you learning about your audience’s information needs during this time?

A: People need actionable information during these uncertain times. SembraMedia also funded our use of a premium Bitly account which has allowed us to better track user behavior on WhatsApp. Even before the crisis, we quickly learned that users were not interested in the latest policy decisions of the day but wanted information that they could use. That has become more pronounced since we began.

A link on how to get financial support if you don’t qualify for the federal stimulus package, which was buried in the middle of a series of messages sent to our WhatsApp subscribers, far outperformed anything else that we sent that day. That was a clear indication on what our readers’ priorities are during this time, which is understandable.

Q: What aspects of this work do you think will or should remain when the pandemic subsides?

A: I think continued partnerships with experts to answer readers’ questions will remain regardless of the pandemic. It was part of the original vision for the WhatsApp service, providing a platform for readers to ask questions in a private and secure way, but the pandemic has accelerated the work. Previously, we were researching places where readers could find the answers and pointing them there. Being able to provide the answers directly is a more valuable service and is no different from reporting it out for them.

Documented’s reporters asked WhatsApp subscribers to submit coronavirus rumors or potentially false information that they wanted verified.

Over time, Nicolas is building a set of resources that we hope can be used again and again as readers have similar questions regarding health care access, migration procedures, tenants rights or fake news. This will hopefully live on our site and can be used as a reference for readers who find it via search also.

Q: You’re part of our listening fellowship, and in that program every fellow is paired with an adviser. Yours is Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media / MuckRock. What have you learned working with Sarah that has helped you pursue this work?

Sarah has had a really transformative effect on our work with WhatsApp. As part of the fellowship, Sarah visited us late last year to give an all-day workshop to help us with our WhatsApp work. We’d been operating the WhatsApp newsletter for almost a year at that point and we were at a crossroads on how best to proceed. Sarah moderated a conversation between us where we hashed out what we thought was working and what wasn’t. And she guided us to a conclusion: the newsletter needed focus.

Up until that point it had been a collection of links on the latest immigration news of that week. However, we decided it would be more valuable if each edition was dedicated to a specific topic.

Using Outlier’s information needs assessment, we conducted a survey of our readers where we gave participants a $25 Amazon gift card. We learned a lot about what our readers were interested in. The plan was to start an 8-week pilot in April where we sent an additional message on Mondays that provided information about a specific topic. Then transitioning the newsletter to be focused on one area after that. However, the coronavirus pandemic has blown up that plan! The exercise that we conducted with Sarah did prepare us well for what we’re doing currently and made the transition to being this responsive quite seamless.

Q: What would your advice be to other news organizations that want to serve immigrant communities during this time?

There is very little information being provided on what new government measures at the state and national level mean for immigrants. What forms of relief are immigrants eligible for? Can immigrants get coronavirus tests for free? What will happen to immigration cases during the pandemic?

If your news organization does not have a following among immigrants in your local community, it would be best to start by asking community groups that do work with immigrants what the most pressing information needs are. Then work on finding out that information as many news outlets diligently have on issues like unemployment insurance and stimulus checks. Thinking of platforms where you can best reach immigrant communities is wise also. It could be WhatsApp, WeChat or Facebook, but try to meet people where they are.


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