Milwaukee faces some of the starkest racial disparities in health, education and economic well-being in the nation. Yet, too often, Black and Latino residents in the city lack easy access to news and information to help navigate such challenges. Traditional news sources too often emphasize the challenges these neighborhoods face without offering solutions or directly engaging those most affected.

Using a model pioneered by Detroit’s Outlier Media, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and Wisconsin Watch launched News414 just as the pandemic took hold in March 2020. It’s our effort to provide residents with the information they say they need — in whichever form they need it. News stories are just a piece of that equation.

Our engagement prioritizes two Black- and Latino-majority Milwaukee ZIP codes and surrounding areas where research and surveys show wide information gaps.

Ahead of our launch — funded in part by the Google News Initiative — we surveyed residents about the issues most important to them. That, coupled with an examination of the most frequent 2-1-1 calls for assistance, determined our reporting beats: food, housing, employment and wealth, mental health, domestic violence, COVID-19 and civic participation.

Over the past 17 months, we’ve invited residents to shape our coverage by gathering input before we publish stories. Text messages, social media and in-person engagement connect residents directly with reporters who answer questions. Those conversations are inspiring more traditional stories that seek solutions to problems ranging from racial disparities in policing to Milwaukee’s housing crisis, food access challenges and high funeral costs. Our English-language texting tool, which you can access by texting MKE to 73224, has delivered information to more than 2,400 people since our launch. We continually calibrate our project based upon surveys and feedback. In 2021, we began offering Spanish-language versions of our text messaging service, social media postings — and occasional translated stories.

We repeatedly invite users to connect directly with a reporter if they need information that is not included in our automated texting service. Residents without transportation didn’t know how to reach food pantries, for instance, so we connected them with options. People lacking internet access didn’t know how to apply for rental aid, so we helped them obtain paper applications — answering those questions in news coverage as well.