From Bikes and Busses to PDFs and Bulletin Boards

Innovation in Low-Tech News Delivery

When we think of the digital divide, we often think in terms of access. In the U.S., the number of people who lack internet access has shrunk, and is fairly the same for whites, blacks, and Latinos, according to the Pew Research Center. But access is distinct from use, and doesn’t account for nuances in usage patterns. My husband’s parents have access to the internet at home, but they rarely use it outside of checking in on old friendships on Facebook. If they can’t find their daily newspaper at the corner store, they are not going to go online to find the content there; they will simply go without news for the day.

I have been thinking about internet habits and news delivery because news innovation is usually framed around digital innovation. But relying on online platforms can leave out entire segments of a news audience— such as elders and working-class immigrants — who don’t use those platforms on a regular basis. This summer I highlighted two reporting efforts that use innovative ways to engage and inform audiences with limited internet access. But there are so many more, and with many newsrooms searching for ways to build trust with their communities, I think it’s important to shine light on innovation that doesn’t require lots of resources and technical know-how; it just requires a good understanding of your audience.

Whether they were designed to circumvent state-sponsored media or to reach communities that have limited online access, the models below provide creative ideas for ways to engage, include, and inform diverse audiences. What do they have in common? They reach news consumers where they are.

In Venezuela, where the Maduro government has restricted news outlets it deems critical of its agenda, journalists have taken to public buses to provide independent news, reading reports behind a cardboard cutout of a television screen. The idea of BusTV, Claudia Lizardo explained to the BBC, “consists in adopting the classic format of television news to the city buses.” While independent reporting is accessible online, Laura Castillo explained to the Wall Street Journal that there was an unmet audience. “Not everyone has access to the internet or social networks.”

In East Boston, a neighborhood affected by soaring rent and eviction, many immigrant tenants are unaware of their rights as renters, and of resources to find help if they’re served an eviction notice. So journalist Jorge Caraballo, working in collaboration with a grassroots organization, printed that information on a postcard, and slipped it into neighborhood mailboxes.

Why postcards? “Because a postcard is an intimate medium: You feel it’s addressed only to you. In that it differs from a flyer, a brochure or other massive formats.”

The Daily Talk (source)

I first learned of The Daily Talk in the New York Times in 2006, but Alfred Sirleaf’s blackboard version of a newspaper has since attracted the attention of Al Jazeera, Time, NPR, and many others. Its simplicity is what makes it so compelling and successful: a blackboard on a main road. Is there a more straightforward way to reach an audience?

Nigel Mugamu, a Zimbabwean media entrepreneur I wrote about in August, shared with me this update. His media company, 263Chat, is still thinking about ways to reach audiences with limited internet access, and one new approach is WhatsApp subscriptions. Previously, all of their articles were published on their website and shared via social media. But now, subscribers can receive a weekly PDF bundle of all of their content via WhatsApp. It reminds me of the reports I read several years ago of Cuban students who shared downloaded websites on thumb drives. Whether the vehicle is thumb drives, DVDs, or WhatsApp, these common platforms can connect communities with limited internet to a much wider array of content than they could otherwise access.

For more examples of innovative, offline news distribution, check out these resources, and let me know what others you would recommend:

Localore: Finding America — The Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) invested in 15 projects that paired independent producers with public radio stations across the country, and encouraged them to “break form.” The projects incorporated converted food trucks, mailboxes, theater, and community events as ways to reach audiences whose voices were underrepresented on the airwaves. Check out the projects and read the report.

Listening Post Collective — This is a U.S.-based initiative of Internews, the international media development organization. Sign up to their newsletter to learn about ways newsrooms and communities across the country are adapting the Listening Post model of community-oriented, two-way reporting. (Disclaimer: I’m leading a Listening Post project here in Oakland.) While you’re at it, subscribe to Internews’ Medium channel to learn about ways its partners are developing media to address local information needs around the world.

What innovative distribution strategies do you know of? What approaches have you used, or considered? What segments of your audiences are difficult to reach via traditional news delivery methods?

This is the third in a series highlighting offline approaches to distribute the news. Click here to read about Nigel Mugamu’s efforts to reach rural audiences in Zimbabwe, and here to learn about an initiative to address concerns of immigrant New Yorkers with a team of Latina bicyclists.

Journalist & civic media innovator. Oakland native. Cumbiambera.