Who is the news made for? In answering that question, the free market tends to sniff out potential readers with a good amount of spending money, because they’re more attractive to advertisers. But that can exclude entire communities—tens of millions of people—with relatively low incomes and levels of wealth.
How might the media start to serve the informational needs of these overlooked swaths of the population? That’s the question that Sarah Alvarez is interested in answering. Alvarez currently works in public radio in Michigan, where she is a senior producer for State of Opportunity, a grant-funded reporting project that focuses on how poverty shapes the lives of local families.
She’s heavily influenced by the work of James Hamilton, a Stanford professor who studies the market dynamics of information. With Hamilton’s work in mind, Alvarez started Infowire, a pilot project that caters to low-income news consumers with stories about education, food, and healthcare, among other topics. (She’ll be thinking about how to expand this project during her upcoming John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford.) I spoke to Alvarez about what it would look like if the media started delivering information that was relevant to people of all financial backgrounds. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.
Joe Pinsker: You recently reported a story about the origins of the phrase "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." Can you say a little bit about where that phrase came from and how it shapes the way people think about breaking cycles of poverty?
Sarah Alvarez: I had just started producing specials in the way that I really wanted to, to take them away from call-in shows, which I hate, and have better production value. So we wanted to return to this question, "Why do people feel so distant from people in poverty?" When we were planning our coverage, we just kept coming back to that "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" phrase.
We tracked down a linguist, and she said that it was originally this term that was used to describe how absurd somebody's ideas were. It was used in this time when inventions were taking off and industrialization was beginning, so people were coming up with a lot of harebrained schemes, and that phrase was used to describe them. And then, I think James Joyce was one of the first people to use it to connote upward mobility, and now it is universally used as shorthand for the American Dream, but we've completely lost sight of how absurd that idea is. I always thought about it as absurd in the assumptions it makes about how people move out of poverty, but I didn't think about it as absurd in its very construction. I think even those of us who are really familiar with the phrase kind of lost sight of where it came from.
Pinsker: Yeah, I thought that story was well done. So, can you talk about the nature of the information gap that affects many low-income communities, and what it is about the media industry that perpetuates it?
Alvarez: Yeah, and of course, all of this goes back to James Hamilton [a professor of communication at Stanford University]. He gets tremendous props for caring about this. His story of how he came to study this is really interesting. I heard him describe it as, he was in a convenience store, and he saw a newspaper that was basically just made up of people's mug shots—super weird. And it was one of the only newspapers in this convenience store, and he's like, "What the hell is this? How is there a market for this and not a market for news? If people are willing to buy this, what are they not being served by traditional media?"
The research that he does is really interesting because he notes that even when low-income news consumers are taking in media at very similar rates to people who have more money, they're not being served by the media because the media is obsessed with their target audience. I know that to be true. I'm sure you know that to be true. In public radio, there's this person we consider, called "Mary." Sometimes, when people are pitching stories, somebody will say, "Well, why would Mary care about that?" And Mary is in her 50s, she's well-educated, she's white, she's affluent. And Mary is not Maria, you know?
It's not that low-income news consumers are not interested in being served by media, but there are these huge information gaps that result from targeting higher-income consumers. So the stories aimed at them, especially issues in low-income communities, those stories are more like, "Look at what's happening on the other side of town." And there's this very behind-the-museum-glass mentality. If you're in a low-income community and you see that story, that might be validating if it's done well. But it's not informative. It's not helpful.
Pinsker: So how do the needs and, more importantly, wants, of low-income news consumers differ from those of people who are more well-off?
Alvarez: I wish I knew more. There's just not enough people working on this, so most of what I know, I'm looking at proxy studies that are close but not exactly right. We know that people want more information about local news. They want better information on how they can make decisions. I also know from my reporting that people need more information on how to navigate certain systems because that information is put out by groups or government offices that are bad at filling information gaps.
Pinsker: When you say "systems," what do you mean?
Alvarez: Healthcare, education, benefits—but it's not only stuff like that. It's just that systems are involved. Low-income people have a lot more interactions with systems, and there is not a lot of reporting on where those systems truly break down. There are a lot of stories like, "Oh! We're cutting off benefits for these people." But there's not a lot of information on how to navigate those systems. The thing that totally got me interested in this was what James Hamilton said about how when information gaps exist, accountability is what suffers. And that's when I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is what I want to do." There's also not a lot of stories about, "Who do you hold accountable?" There are a lot of stories about, "Business is totally messed up," but there are not stories that say, "And this is whose doorstep that lies at."
Pinsker: I know that some of your thinking requires setting up low-income news consumers as very different from people who are not low-income news consumers. But how do you think they're similar? Is there something lost when you try to draw a dividing line between those demographics?
Alvarez: Definitely. I think they're much more similar than they are different. I think that we've gotten into trouble as media organizations by thinking these populations are so different, because all they want is high-quality news, high-quality information. Coverage of parenting is a really interesting place to look at this because you'll see this examination of parenting ad nauseam in publications that are aimed at me, basically—moms who are in their thirties or forties. There's so much information on parenting, but it's aimed at people with a ton of economic resources. If that would just be written not for rich people, then it would be useful to everybody. It's not that low-income news consumers need a different article. It's just that rich people don't need their own article, necessarily.
Pinsker: So it's clear to me that there's a moral or democratic case for filling the information gap. Do you think there's a good argument for doing that, from a business perspective?
Alvarez: I think there's more of a business case for doing it. Again, I wish I knew more. I feel like somebody has to know this, some for-profit. In public media, we'd be the last to know. [Laughs] I feel like for-profit news organizations must know that they're missing a giant slice. You see commercial endeavors really targeting lower-income individuals—yes, sometimes in ways that are predatory—but a lot of people have changed their business models. But news is so far behind. We haven't figured out how to bring those folks in, and I'm not sure why. I don't think it's because there's not a good business case. I think it's because news organizations are under siege, and they're just freaking out and not thinking clearly.
Pinsker: You talked a little bit before about how reporting on systems and where systems break down can be really useful to a low-income audience. In general, do you think the information gap that you're talking about should be filled more with service journalism and stuff that's intended to deliver actionable information? Or do you have more narrative-based reporting in mind? Or maybe both of those things?
Alvarez: I think the information gap is just so big that it needs to start with more information, with a little narrative tint. And then I hope that other people who are really skilled at narrative will do that. But I think that already exists, storytelling projects that are more focused on narrative.
Pinsker: From what I understand, the biggest single project of yours that's trying to put Hamilton's ideas into practice is Infowire.
Alvarez: Right. And by biggest, that's like incredibly small. [Laughs]
Pinsker: What is its distribution strategy? Do you think about that differently than how most media companies might think about delivering stuff to a middle-class or upper-middle-class audience?
Alvarez: I think what we know about how people access information is it's increasingly more mobile, and it's increasingly online. So I definitely make Infowire to be web-first, and sometimes the stories have radio pieces attached to them. Infowire has a text component where you can get an alert sent to your phone. I think that I have to have a real distribution strategy, but first I really want to know where the information gaps are before I figure out a strategy of how to get information to people. There's more information on how people are consuming news than on what it is they want from that news. Pew has done a ton of work on how people get news, so I think distribution is the least of my problems. That's better understood than anything else.
Pinsker: Have you seen any other publications or media outlets try to cater to low-income news consumers? Are there any models out there for you to pattern any of your work on?
Alvarez: Yeah, there are. I think ethnic press and local—super, super local. Because they're more inclusive, right? Their target consumer is already kind of a small universe. If you look at how the Spanish-language press handles immigration, it's super information-driven. It's helpful. It's written in a way that's accessible for everybody.
The most information-heavy pieces that I see are generally in the local press or ethnic press. After Ferguson, it was the same thing: There was a lot of information-driven coverage that was very, very local. Nobody else was picking that up, but nobody else really needed it. It was made for people in that community.
Pinsker: Now I have a thought experiment for you. Let's say you somehow gain control of a small but significant part of The New York Times's newsroom. You get it for a month. What sorts of stories are you going to send people to report on? How are you going to tell editors to start thinking differently about the stories that they assign?
Alvarez: I have not thought about that. I should. I think The New York Times is doing a good job on some of their desks already. I bet the city desk is doing a good job with that. So I think I would send people on the exact same stories, but I would say, "OK, how much more information do we need to know who's accountable for this?" Or, "How much more information do we need to know not just that this situation sucks, but how somebody is going to make it better?"
If there's a story just about how broken something is, or how something sucks, or how great something is, I would want fewer of those, because they're not informative. I'd want fewer of those, or I'd just want them to be shorter. It's not that this coverage needs to be wildly different—just tweaked in a way that it's accessible to everybody, where it's not just one type of person who's supposed to benefit from this information. That slightly different angle is not going to alienate people in your "target audience." And I think that that's just what I want to do, to make these things more inclusive.
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