When it comes to diversity in news organizations, Sarah Alvarez is taking action. The Stanford JSK Journalism Fellow runs her own news organization, Outlier Media, which is dedicated to providing data and valuable information to low-income communities. Alvarez previously worked as a senior producer for Michigan Radio, and she also holds a J.D. from Columbia School of Law.
Through her first project with Outlier, Alvarez aims for potential renters and homebuyers to locate, in one place, information about taxes, back water bills, foreclosures and previous lawsuits, if any, against landlords. The project is set to release in early fall 2016. Once the project releases, Alvarez plans to stay in consumer finance journalism, and tackle the subject of mortgages and work with other news organizations in the country in similar projects with Outlier.
We talked to Alvarez about diversity in newsrooms and the diversity of news.
What was your motivation to create a news information service for low-income communities?
It’s a hugely untapped market. The information gaps in low-income communities are really large. Low income new consumers are incredibly undervalued by news organizations. For me personally, it’s a population I have always wanted to work with, and did so before I become a journalist, when I was a lawyer. I think that journalism is supposed to be about advocacy and accountability. If you look at where there is not enough accountability in our society, it’s with our low-income population and low-income communities. It’s our job and we should do it.
Why do you feel there should be more of a focus on low-income communities?
I think so much of the hard news today that gets produced today serves as entertainment for the people who read it. If you want to do your best work, I think that’s who you serve, because this audience is going to demand more.
On your website, you explain the business model that many news organizations use to thrive in today’s economy. Based on that explanation, low-income communities are less likely to pay for news or donate to news organizations. How can news organizations thrive if their targeted consumer audience can’t pay for content?
I don’t think it’s that [low-income communities] can’t and that they won’t [pay for content]. Why would you pay for a product that is no good? News consistently misses that audience. They are delivering news for someone else, so why would anybody pay for that? I wouldn’t. But if someone is delivering information to me that is truly valuable to me, why wouldn’t I pay for that? News organizations tend to consistently discount the value of low-income consumers and the potential in that market from business and human perspective. I think it’s easier for news organizations to say, “This must be true. Low income consumers must not pay,” when really it’s about your content.
Why would you pay for a product that is no good? News consistently misses that audience. They are delivering news for someone else, so why would anybody pay for that?
How can news organizations efficiently include more diversity in their products?
I think that newsrooms are focused on one audience, that one targeted consumer. And that one targeted consumer is a white middle-class well educated person. I think what you see is that these stories may include more people of color, and more talk about people in low income communities but that’s not really diversity. I think that people should figure out how to serve more than one targeted audience.
How do you think your effort to better serve low-income news consumers fits into wider discussions on diversity?
I think that in some ways it challenges us as journalists to really dig deep and think about what it is that we want in an audience, what kind of audiences we value, and how far we are willing to stretch ourselves in order to serve those audiences. The more specific you are about what you are trying to achieve and what specifically you are trying to serve, the better.
The talk about diversity doesn’t necessarily lead to a lot of change. You have to be very specific about what it is you are trying to accomplish and have metrics about it and have something on the line to try to make it work. My experience has been there’s a lot of people who say they want diversity and value it, and change is very slow. You have to put something on the line.
It challenges us as journalists to really dig deep and think about what it is that we want in an audience, what kind of audiences we value, and how far we are willing to stretch ourselves in order to serve those audiences.