If a large truck illegally barrels through a neighborhood and no reporters are around to see it, does it make the news? It does if local residents with mobile phones can text truck sightings to a local public radio station.

This is the premise behind a new pilot project called Sourcing Through Texting from a team at “The Takeaway” radio program. Sourcing Through Texting provides a way to connect citizens with journalists via mobile phones.

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The Takeaway is a co-production of Public Radio International and public radio station WNYC in collaboration with the BBC World Service, the New York Times, and WGBH Boston. It can be heard live online or on the radio at about 60 stations in “Takeaway cities” across the U.S.

The program is trying to explore how to better connect with communities that are not a typical public radio demographic. John Keefe, executive producer for news and information at WNYC, said that typical listeners tend to be educated, older, and non-Hispanic whites.

“We want to be able to have connections and sources in communities where we’re not heard or where people aren’t going to our website,” Keefe said. “In communities where people are communicating primarily via text.”

Studies show that Hispanics and African Americans use their phones, and text messages in particular, more than non-Hispanic whites.

Sourcing Through Texting allows people to communicate with journalists by sending tips or information via text message in response to story topics or specific questions. The pilot project also won a 2010 Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism in which judges said “the experiment opened the doors for engaging non-listeners in ways they liked.”

Origins of Sourcing through Texting

Sourcing Through Texting is as much a story about process as it is about a product. The basic question was how to use standard mobile phones to connect journalists with people in communities where public radio was not typically popular.

“We didn’t have an answer,” Keefe said. After a summit, a planning group formed that included journalists, mobile technology experts, members of the Public Insight Network (a web-based citizen participation platform at American Public Media), and people from the targeted community in Detroit.

Keefe said the process was a combination of experimentation and design thinking in journalism to come up with — and eventually try out — various ideas. On the first morning of the summit, the group brainstormed.

“And then we said, it’s lunch time. By 2:00 we’re taking a bus to the neighborhood, and we’re going to try it out,” Keefe said. (Read more about design thinking and process experimentation on Keefe’s blog or watch this screencast:

One outcome from the summit, which included some prior planning and visits to the neighborhood, was the idea to work with radio station WDET to help people in Southwest Detroit report large trucks that were illegally driving through the neighborhood in order to take a shortcut.

A team went to the neighborhood to make connections and demonstrate in person how to text “truck” to 69866 to send in the location of any spotted trucks. The team worked with Mobile Commons, a commercial mobile service provider in the United States, on the text messaging platform.

Rob St. Mary, a WDET reporter, said that since this initial launch they have received about 300 text messages from 25 to 30 sources. (There have been two subsequent pushes to encourage people to send texts about the trucks.)

Ultimately, Keefe said the response “wasn’t overwhelming. But it was enough for the local station to develop some stories around it. It gave them enough energy to go about it.” The information that was received led to a week-long investigative series on the trucks at WDET.

Later, the group also invited people in the same community to send via text message their favorite things about the neighborhood in six words or less. Responses included: “proud alive latino growing hardworking home” and “multiculturally divided, but strong when united.”

The responses were not used for any specific aired program. “It was more of an experiment to see what would engage people,” Keefe said. Over the course of the afternoon, WDET received about 20 texts.

For Keefe, the process was as promising as the product.

“Radio stations, software platforms like Mobile Commons, community leaders, Public Insight — the fact that we’re all working on this together to me is exciting,” Keefe said. He stressed the experimental nature of the development process and the importance of bringing together people to brainstorm and talk about issues.

“People are wrestling with this and having conversations together about it,” Keefe said. “This is almost more valuable than anything that we actually did on the ground.”

The Takeaway for The Takeaway?

Sourcing Through Texting is beneficial for both the local radio station and for The Takeaway. Local stations rely on the resources of the national program to help connect with citizen sources. And “the national show benefits in the end, with stronger stations and content that bubbles up,” Keefe said. (The trucks story later became a segment on the national program.)

The citizen text reports also function as a form of journalism assistance, as in the case of the truck sightings. “We can’t have reporters canvassing the neighborhood and waiting for trucks to go by,” Keefe said. “But we can have neighbors doing that. It’s a way to get them involved in our crowdsourcing.”

Future iterations of Sourcing Through Texting may include voice and call-in features to allow for longer messages and more community interaction.

Challenges and Approaches to Sourcing Through Texting

Keefe said there are larger, longer term benefits involved in growing a database of contacts. Those who participate are identified “as somebody who has expressed him or herself as someone who wants to participate in covering their community, that we can turn to as citizen sources.”

The sourcing project ultimately comes down to ensgaging a new audience. “We’re really focused on figuring out ways to develop that soure base from people who aren’t listening to the radio and aren’t going to our website,” Keefe said. He calls this outreach imperative. “I’m trying to use texting to get people into our sphere,” he said.

Sourcing Through Texting is not without challenges. One has to do with the role of activism in journalism. If someone in a neighborhood has a specific bias toward an issue or specific company (the trucking industry, for example), this could be reflected in their citizen reports.

Another challenge is figuring out the best way to promote the service and the right level of interaction via texting. “If you ask someone six questions,” Keefe said, “how often do you get an answer to the sixth one?”

Adjusting to language and culture issues is another challenge. Cost may be a limit to participation, too, especially since mobile users in the U.S. typically have to pay to send and receive text messages, although Keefe said this hasn’t been an issue yet.

One success of the Sourcing Through Texting project was that the topic — illegal trucks in Southwest Detroit — was an issue that people were interested in. In other words, they had something to say about it.

“It was really easy to get people in communities engaged in the issue of tracking trucks because people felt like it was a violation of their neighborhood, and that they were being taken advantage of,” Keefe said.

A more general or blanket request to ask people to help cover any story may not work as well, Keefe said. “It’s harder to try and jazz people when you just ask them to be sources in general.”

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