Since its inception, Documented has been slowly growing to reach new audiences. We started with professionals that work in immigration, mainly served in English by our flagship newsletter Early Arrival. We then expanded to Spanish-speaking communities, via our WhatsApp channel Semanal.
A year ago, we decided to expand our reach to Caribbean and Chinese immigrant communities of New York. At Documented, we practice an award-winning approach that brings the audiences we serve into the news creation process. Immigrant readers trust Documented journalists with the stories of their lives, and in turn we create investigations and guides that help them navigate the complex system an immigrant faces in the United States.
We wanted to adapt this approach to serve new communities, in their own languages, where they are. However, we decided to take a long route, with audience research as a first step to then build the products that will serve them. We believe this approach will ensure we are delivering the right content to the right people.
Here are the reasons why we are expanding and why we are taking the long route to do so:
1. Chinese and Caribbeans are among the largest immigrant communities in NYC
When we won the Online News Association Award for Engaged Journalism for our Use of WhatsApp During Covid-19, we saw that this product was slowly taking over most of the content creation process at Documented. While that content was impactful, most of what we published was related to one immigrant community of New York: Spanish-speaking Latinos.
We learned from public data that the second and third largest communities in New York are Chinese immigrants and, combined, people from the countries of the Caribbean region that are not primarily Spanish speaking. But, no one had yet done a news assessment survey of these groups. So, we spent a year researching with these groups to underpin our expansion to Caribbean and Chinese immigrants in New York.
2. Understanding the needs of the audiences must come first
If you think about it, what we’re doing now with audience research is, at a larger scale, exactly the way that Semanal was made on WhatsApp.
That product, and the fact that we launched something on WhatsApp, happened as an answer to audience research that Documented did in 2018 on Latino immigrants.
That initial research was brief with no more than 30 people interviewed about their pain points in their everyday lives as immigrants in New York and their consumption of news in Spanish. However short, we saw clear tendencies on the main issues that our projected audiences had:
- News consumption happened mainly on WhatsApp
- People needed actionable information that could help them improve their lives
- Abundance of negativity in news related to their community
- They had a high distrust of legacy media
That original research gave us the pain points and habits of our audience. Documented Semanal, a WhatsApp community of more than 4,300 local immigrants, was created as a solution to those needs.
This is the same process we are trying to execute with Caribbean and Chinese immigrants.
3. There was no other research like the one we needed
We partnered with the Listening Post Collective to execute our preliminary research. This was a sweep of all available information that we found on the audience we projected we could serve. We gathered freely available reports, theses and investigations from academia, government and private companies.
We also conducted a survey to try to solve the questions that were unanswered. This step was key, as our preliminary research prevented us from asking questions that were answered by already available data.
In the end, we did find valuable information about our audiences — like evidence of high use of WeChat among Chinese immigrants in New York and the main countries of origin of immigrants that come from the Caribbean.
However, this sweep also helped us understand that there was no research out there that would give us the information we needed to start the product development process to launch news products for Chinese and Caribbean audiences. Nor was there any model of audience research on immigrant communities in our coverage area of New York.
For these reasons, we came to the understanding that we needed to research, via surveys and interviews, the audience we wanted to serve in the future.
4. You will be surprised at how cool it is to research on needs before thinking of products
We didn’t know that public safety was a concern for 87% of all surveyed Chinese immigrants. We didn’t know that 57% of Caribbeans say that the news is too negative.
There was no way we could have found out about these needs of immigrant New Yorkers if we didn’t talk to many of them first. These findings, among many others that you can find in our research are now the engines that will shape our future experiments that aim to serve these audiences.
This is not new for us.
Most of the products that we already have — the stories and content that we produce for emails, our website documentedny.com and for Spanish readers on WhatsApp — originate from being with immigrants or immigration professionals while trying to understand their needs.
We don’t just follow these communities to get a source or a quote. We are an immigration-centric newsroom because our products come from our talks with our audiences. Semanal was made because we spoke with immigrants before even thinking of a product on WhatsApp. The Early Arrival newsletter was reshaped with the same strategy with immigration professionals as our target audience.
Readers of Semanal have a journalist in their pocket as they have a direct line of communication with a journalist dedicated to that community. Readers’ feedback informs most of the content we make for Latino Spanish-speaking audiences.
We wanted to follow this same model for the Chinese and Caribbean expansions. We call these expansions “verticals”, as under each umbrella there will be several different products and experiments. All of them will made based on the needs that we find in this audience research.
5. Researching your audience first saves you money
We have spent over a year preparing to launch our expansion to coverage of Chinese and Caribbean immigrant communities of New York. Admittedly, a linear approach to launch a new product is faster. But we believe that taking the time to build a product alongside an audience is more sustainable.
Had we not made research prior to launching Semanal, our product for Spanish-speaking Latinos, we would have most likely ended up with an email newsletter, not a product on WhatsApp. Our audience research disproved our bias.
Instead, we developed Semanal around needs we knew existed on a platform we knew was already being used to share critical information. Based on conversations with our intended Chinese and Caribbean audiences, we will explore delivering news on other social media apps, including WeChat and NextDoor.
Most of the journalists who work at Documented are connected to the Audience & Community Development team. We are a small newsroom, but we believe that that the only way to create news for underserved audiences is through authentic community engagement.
If you know who you want to reach, how they consume content and what they struggle with in their everyday lives, then it’s easier to make a solution for it. Thus, it’s more likely you will have an audience for your product.
Although it may seem you are taking more time to launch by listening to your audience first, remember that the long route, in the end, brings greater returns.