Keep it simple and familiar

Since we launched Documented Semanal, contact tracers in Virginia, city employees in Houston, Texas, and journalists from around the country have all reached out to learn more about our work. We believe these disparate groups were intrigued by the idea, because the platform has a very low barrier to entry: the only hardware you need is a smartphone. For readers, there are no subscriptions required, no websites to visit and no new applications to learn. Everyone who reads Documented Semanal is familiar with WhatsApp and how it works. Therefore, we’re able to strip down our news distribution to the most basic elements. Our audience does not have to jump through any hoops to receive information that has direct consequences on their lives.

Our publication schedule is simple and consistent: every Saturday we have a new edition that covers a different topic related to the New York immigrant experience. But below the surface, Documented Semanal is much more complex. The decisions that drive the editorial are based on a constantly shifting mixture of judgement and feedback from the readers. Underneath this, is the constant conversation our audience editor Nicolas Rios has with our readers. He spends an hour or two each day responding to every question he receives. This creates a nuanced and expansive picture of what is concerning the community with information that’s sometimes prompted and often not. Nicolas’s consistent conversation is what has allowed us to build trust with our readers. Without it, Semanal would not allow us to gain the same level of insight.

Take a recent poll we did, for example. We had been receiving sporadic questions about New York City’s coronavirus vaccination efforts and how long it will take for everyone to be vaccinated. Nicolás Ríos, our audience editor, suggested we create a poll about the vaccine to find out what our readers' concerns were.

We asked them just two questions: 

  1. Will you take the vaccine? 

  2. What would you ask a reporter to investigate about the vaccine? 

Would you take the COVID-19 vaccine?

Only 43.8 percent of the respondents said they would take it immediately. A quarter of the respondents said they won’t take it and about a third said they would maybe take it.

Many advocates and elected officials — including Governor Andrew Cuomo — had spent weeks warning about the potential for the information collected with the vaccinations to be shared with federal authorities for immigration enforcement purposes. Our readers were less concerned with ICE and more worried about side effects of the vaccine and how safe it was. Some expressed conspiracies like the vaccine would include a microchip used to track them. One person was wary of the vaccine being a means to experiment on the community. 

What would you ask a reporter about the COVID-19 vaccines?

“Is the vaccine exactly the same for everyone or will it affect the rich and the government differently? Fear is present and justified when we have had a government so racist that we believe that it could kill us,” wrote one respondent.

Whenever we do callouts, the responses we get are often unexpected, complex and likely closer to the truth. We believe this form of reader-first editorial direction can be applied to other beats and communities. A housing reporter could create an engaged group for public housing residents. A Wall Street reporter could create a group for finance workers. An agriculture reporter could do the same for farmworkers. This format wouldn’t work for all beats and it's likely that WhatsApp would not be the best medium for each of them but we have learned that an emphasis and investment (in money and time) in reader engagement can not only create new insights and ideas editorially, but it can also translate into real results: newsletter subscribers, pageviews and followers. 

Max Siegelbaum  
2020–2021 RJI Fellow


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