Nicolás Ríos was working towards his Masters degree in digital media innovation when he was partnered with Documented, an independent non-profit, news site devoted to New York’s immigrant communities. His research on the Latino community led him to WhatsApp and the birth of a unique news service model.

Document was founded in 2018 by Mazin Sidahmed and Max Siegelbaum to inform New York’s Spanish-speaking immigrant community on immigration laws, policies and procedures. But they soon realised they were not quite hitting the mark.

“We were talking about immigration, but the information was reaching everyone who worked in the field, but not reaching the immigrants,” recalls Ríos, who now serves as Audience Audience and Community Director for the organisation.

 Ríos is a Chilean journalist with extensive, international broadcast experience, including a role as news anchor for CNN Chile. “Traditional TV frustrated me, because it is very one-dimensional – totally opposite to what we are doing now,” he says.

He and a classmate, Aldana Vales, Audience Researcher at The Atlantic, were assigned to conduct research into the Latino community people – and were soon led directly to WhatsApp. 

“We basically followed a couple of methodologies to research the targeted audiences, and the findings showed us that the people that Documented want to serve – low income or undocumented Latino immigrants – consume mainly Spanish content, and that they don’t generally access news from a media company, but rather from relatives and social groups – on WhatsApp. That is their number one platform for news.”

News You Can Use

More than a connecting communications platform, Ríos’s research also highlighted the community’s distrust of legacy media. “Established media always portrayed low wage or undocumented Latino immigrants as victims or perpetrators; always in a negative light, and always related to negative content,” he notes.

The news cycle, too, was hardly helpful. “They do not follow the news cycle because they do not appreciate the running commentary on what Trump said or did. They needed actionable information: guides on how to file their taxes, or get free food. We set up a number of experiments on WhatsApp, and people started sharing.”

Then came Covid – and with it, myriad questions from a community needing answers. Which led to further insights, enhanced content and unprecedented organic growth. Audience feedback also spurred the creation of more real, relevant articles. Which became newsletters; which led to an archive of evergreen content. And investigative pieces.

“Our audience share their experiences and, with our model methodologies, we can determine repeated issues. When we have evidence that we can show, we investigate further, and release feature articles.”

These, adds Ríos, are most popular. “They speak to the needs and the struggles of real people and what they are going through, instead of journalists saying, ‘Hey, this is News’. And this is what we should be covering about this community.”

These feature stories are translated back into English, and distributed to the professionals that work serving immigrants, adds Ríos. “We are essentially a bridge between an underserved, hard-to-reach audience and the professionals that work with them: the researchers, lawyers, government officials, etc.”

Clearly Defined Strategies

Pre-Covid, Documented had an audience of about 300 immigrants on WhatsApp. Today, that audience totals more than 5 000. 

Using the same methodology they used for Whatsapp by researching on their audiences, they relaunched their flagship newsletter Early Arrival. In a year, their open rate went from 22% to 40%, which is above the industry benchmarks. 

The news site also initially experimented co-publishing with UK legacy title The Guardian, although now collaborations are rare as they are trying to avoid having a larger media cannibalise on their audiences.We made the decision to co-publish in English only when we think it’s needed”,” maintains Ríos.

Instead, Documented’s strategy is to co-publish by connecting stories to their source.

“Last year, for example, we reported a WhatsApp story about mental health in immigrants arriving in New York. Those immigrants were from Colombia, so we found a co-publishing partner that is mainstream media in Colombia. It was then further published in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina,” explains Ríos.

Aldana Vales and Nicolás Ríos

Now, with funding awarded by the Google News Initiative Award, Documented is expanding their WhatsApp news service, to include coverage of Caribbean and Chinese immigrant communities – via their respective, preferred instant messaging apps.

“We have just launched 100-page long audience research into the Caribbean and Chinese communities, and we will use these insights to build the solutions to the problems that we have encountered. So we are now working on our expansion to Chinese immigrants on WeChat, and to Caribbean immigrants on a platform called NextDoor, that is highly used in New York,” reveals Ríos.

 Document is supported by the American Journalism Project. For more on their methodology, read: The Methods We Used to Research 1k+ Immigrants in NYC.

About Nicolás Ríos

Nicolás Ríos is an Emmy-nominated multilingual Chilean journalist who holds a Master in Digital Media Innovation from New York University and a B.S. in Social Communication from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. He worked as a reporter and a documentary fixer for Vice Media; as an international news reporter, senior editor and broadcaster for CNN Chile, and as a freelance reporter for BBC World Service (UK), El Mercurio (Chile) and Daily Trust (Nigeria). After moving to New York City in 2018, he worked with Documented, Axios and Quartz on projects that involved making audiences central to content creation and product development. He has also worked as a consultant for five Chilean newsrooms as they planned to launch membership revenue efforts.

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