Earlier this year, journalist Madeleine Bair traveled around Oakland, Calif. with an oversized golden microphone. Bair interviewed dozens of members of the Latino immigrant community about the ongoing housing crisis in the Bay Area.

The interviews were part of the first pilot project of  El Tímpano, a local news project Bair launched to improve journalism for Latino immigrants in Oakland.

“By and large, residents were eager to have a platform to share their stories and their concerns,” she told me.

This week in Solution Set, we’re going to look deeper at El Tímpano, the nine-month research process it went through to learn more about the community’s information needs, and how it’s trying new ways to provide information.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one constructive thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.

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A few important disclosures first: El Tímpano is a recipeint of a grant from The Community Listening and Engagement Fund, a program co-funded and administered by The Lenfest Institute that provides subsidies to newsrooms to use engagement tools. (I didn’t realize this when Bair and I first spoke!). As part of her work, Bair worked with The Listening Post Collective, a nonprofit that aims to improve access to information. The Listening Post is also one of the services now eligible for subsidies from CLEF.  El Tímpano, the Listening Post, and my Lenfest Institute colleagues are all reading this for the first time here like you.

Now that that’s out of the way, here’s the TLDR:


• The Challenge: Journalist Madeleine Bair wanted to find better ways to provide news and information to the Latino immigrant community in Oakland, Calif.

• The Strategy: In 2017, Bair launched El Tímpano, and she worked with The Listening Post Collective to conduct extensive research about the information needs of the community. She began piloting the work this spring.

• The Numbers: El Tímpano interviewed more than 100 residents about housing issues as part of its first project in partnership with a local bilingual newspaper and public radio station.

• The Lessons: Bair was very intentional about understanding how the community accesses information. It’s important to gain insight into how people access information before you build products for them.

• The Future: El Tímpano plans to launch a text messaging service next year

• Want to know More?: Scroll down to learn more from my interview with a startup in Omaha, Nebraska that also used the Listening Post methodology.

The Challenge

In March 2018, Oakland, Calif. Mayor Libby Schaaf publicly warned the city’s immigrant community about a forthcoming raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials looking to detain undocumented immigrants. Schaaf’s move attracted national attention and drew a rebuke from the White House.

“I know that Oakland is a city of law-abiding immigrants and families who deserve to live free from the constant threat of arrest and deportation,” she said in a statement announcing the move. “I believe it is my duty and moral obligation as mayor to give those families fair warning when that threat appears imminent.”

Word of the announcement spread quickly through Oakland’s immigrant communities.

More than one-quarter of Oakland’s population is now Hispanic, and the community represents one of the fastest-growing demographics in the city, which has changed dramatically in recent years. Much of the community is concentrated in East Oakland, and a 2015 report found that 17 percent of the area’s residents were undocumented and that 35 percent of children residing in East Oakland have at least one undocumented parent.

Even before the March 2018 raid, these overarching factors — the changing demographics of the city and the changing nature of how Oakland residents get news and information — stuck out to local journalist Madeleine Bair. She began thinking about how language barriers and limited access to technology can impact how people access news.

“I wanted to think through what are the ways that immigrants get local news and information,” she said. “How are they left out? How can we think of a new model that is designed to serve their needs?”

The Strategy

In 2017, Bair created El Tímpano, which aims to build a platform for improved two-way communication and information sharing with Oakland’s Latino immigrant community.

But before she set out to build a new tool or product, she wanted to better understand what the community wanted and needed.

“I sat down with a number of community leaders to simply explore the question for if there is a need for local news and information in Spanish. Universally, what I heard was yes there is a huge need.”

To get additional insight into how Oakland’s Latino immigrant community could be better served by journalism, Bair worked with the Listening Post Collective to conduct an information needs assessment.

The Listening Post Collective is part of Internews, a global nonprofit that works to ensure equitable access to information. Listening Post works in communities across the United States, working with newsrooms and community groups to help them understand their communities’ needs and providing resources and suggestions for how to serve their audiences.

All of the Listening Post’s work starts with an information needs assessment, founder Jesse Hardman told me.

“It’s making that effort to not start with a solution but to start with a question by listening. The basic assumptions we make about where everyone is getting their information, we don’t start there. We start by asking questions.” And then Listening Post will work with the communities to shape the report as they progress through the process.

In addition to its work in Oakland with El Tímpano, the Listening Post has worked in communities in New Orleans, Puerto Rico, Baltimore, and more. (I also spoke with Dawaune Hayes, who is leading NOISE, a project affiliated with the Listening Post in Omaha, Nebraska. You can learn about that effort in Want to Know More?)

You can read the complete Oakland information needs assessment here. I’ll go into more detail about the information needs assessment process in The Numbers, but Bair wanted to use this process to define what El Tímpano’s output would look like.

“One thing I’ve learned is that building a Spanish-language website of local news would not be the best distribution model for this community,” Bair said. “From the people that we spoke with, websites are not a common platform for getting news and information.”

El Tímpano used insights from the information needs assessment to launch a pilot project this spring that focused on the issue of housing prices in Oakland.

Bair partnered with El Tecolote, a bilingual newspaper in San Francisco, to run the test program. She took a community microphone — a decorated oversized microphone designed to spark conversation — to several locations around the city and invited residents to share their stories.

The stories were presented in the the newspaper and at a storytelling event organized by public radio station KALW in East Oakland. El Tímpano is also pursuring some follow-up reporting based on the findings.

“By and large, residents were eager to have a platform to share their stories and their concerns,” she said.

The Numbers

El Tímpano interviewed more than 100 residents as part of its month-long pilot project. It conducted the interviews at more than a dozen locations around Oakland, such as a farmer’s market, libraries, and two churches.

Prior to launching the pilot, El Tímpano worked on the information needs assessment for nine months. The team met with representatives of 19 community groups that serve Oakland’s Latino immigrant community. The project initially focused only on Spanish speakers, but through interviews it expanded to also cover the Mam community, which is a group that’s indigenous to Guatemala.

The researchers spent two months distributing surveys to Spanish and Mam speakers in the community. The survey was originally five-pages long, but El Tímpano ultimately shortened it based on feedback from a local librarian. The surveys were printed on well-designed cards that were distributed throughout the community. The survey featured check boxes that asked about issues that were most important to respondents and where they got their news. It also asked a couple open ended questions about what they’d like to see changed.

In total, 268 people completed the survey.

They also facilitated five workshops, that included a total of 50 residents. The sessions lasted 30 to 70 minutes and covered the same questions in the survey. But the small group format allowed for more intimate and detailed discussion.

Additionally, the researchers spend time attending community meetings to better understand how the Latino immigrant community gets information. (You can read a detailed overview of the full methodology in the report.)

As of now, Bair is leading El Tímpano and is the sole person fully focused on the project, though others have helped throughout the process.

“It’s myself and a small team of collaborators that I’ve brought in to the project through various points,” Bair said, noting that her advisers include community and local media leaders.

The information needs assessment was supported by a seed grant by the Listening Post Collective. The pilot project was funded by a $5,000 grant from California Humanities, a nonprofit supporting education and civic engagement.

Bair is also a nonresidential fellow at Reynolds Journalism Institute. The fellowship comes with a $20,000 stipend. El Tímpano also received support from the Community Listening and Engagement Fund, which offered grants between $2,000 to $6,400 to subsidize the use of community engagement tools. (More on CLEF here.)

Bair is using the funding from RJI and CLEF to build out the next phase of the El Tímpano, which will include a text message based service. (More on that in The Future.)

The Lessons

• Understand your community: If you’re trying to serve a community through journalism, you need to have insight into how people access information.

Bair learned that very quickly in Oakland.

While not every publication will have the time or resources to conduct nine months of research into their community, even a small survey or a handful of interviews can give  insight into how you could build your products and shape your journalism.

And as you work to dig into a community’s needs, it’s critical not to have assumptions or to work to fit their responses to your pre-existing thoughts of what you’d like to do.

“I didn’t go in to this process with any assumptions,” Bair said. ” I’ve really been soaking up what I heard from residents and community leaders. [That’s] driving our next steps.”

•Work with existing community groups: After she began conducting research into the information needs of Oakland’s Latino immigrant community, Baird came to understand that community institutions — “their churches, their children’s schools, their friends and neighbors, community leaders who they trust” — are key sources of information. This is becoming increasingly true as people become more aware of misinformation online and on platforms such as Facebook or the Facebook-owned WhatsApp.

“It’s really important in terms of providing information or reporting on and about this community to have a relationship of trust with them,” Baird said. “Any successful local news strategy will have to collaborate with local partners that already have those sorts of relationships of trust. They’ll also have to really invest the time to build those relationships and not just get to know the community, but let the community get to know them.”

That’s why she’s taken her time to do the research, build relationships, and establish El Tímpano so it can be a trusted source of information and can work with existing organizations and augment their work.

• You can have more than one audience: News organizations need to recognize that there are often different audiences for their journalism.

With El Tímpano, Bair is trying to serve two distinct audiences. She wants to empower Oakland’s Latino immigrants and provide them with actionable information that can improve their lives. However, she also wants to reach the wider English-speaking Bay Area community as well.

“[We want] to amplify the stories and the voices of this community to be incorporated into larger civics conversations,” she said. “The audience of that is really the wider Bay Area audience and beyond that speaks English, that votes, that is interested in what’s going on in various communities.”

By thinking about distinct audiences, news organizations can better refine their coverage and think about how they can really serve different constituencies.

The Future

El Tímpano plans to launch a text messaging pilot early next year. The SMS service will use GroundSource to provide information on resources and services in Oakland.

This is a direct response to the assessment and research, Bair said.

“As we were talking to residents about what empowering local news would like to them, the main response we got was that people want information on basic resources, things that impact them on a daily basis,” she said. “That could be, for instance, how does a new immigration policy proposal impact me and my family? When and where can I sign my children up for summer youth programs? How can I prepare my family for a possible earthquake? This is information that can help people make real decisions for themselves and their families. That’s information that people find really difficult to access.”

Throughout the research process, Bair invited people to share their phone numbers and there already about 400 people signed up for the pilot.

One of the next key steps for El Tímpano is to build out a business model. So far, Bair has been reliant on grant support, but she’s looking for other avenues to generate revenue.

Because she’s serving a mostly working class community, subscriptions, membership, events or other typical revenue generating ideas likely won’t fly. As a result, Bair said she’s thinking about creative solutions to support the project. One option that she’s considering is funding from Oakland’s city government.

“When we’re talking about how to engage and inform an immigrant community, that’s something that’s not only relevant to us as journalists and newsrooms, but also to municipal agencies, politicians, and public health services that have a mandate to do that as well and realize that they need help doing that well,” she said.

Want to know more?

The Listening Post has taken this approach in other markets as well. I also spoke with Dawaune Hayes, director of NOISE, a new initiative serving North Omaha, which is a primarily African American part of the city. NOISE stands for North Omaha Information Support Everyone, and the project’s goal is to provide more representative coverage of the community.

Since launching this spring, NOISE has been present at events throughout the neighborhood, asking people what they’d like covered, letting them know about the new site, and inviting them to collaborate. NOISE publishes stories on its own website as well as social channels such as Instagram.

“The biggest thing is to show up,” Hayes told me. “Be present. You’re not going to say the right things at the right time and you’re not going to have the connections you need at the time, but by showing up and asking questions, relationships begin to form.”

NOISE also partners with a  handful of local media outlets. It’s planning to air news updates on a local radio station and it has already worked with The Omaha Star, the city’s 80 year-old African-American newspaper, to create a print insert aimed at younger readers.

“Creating visual interest is one of the most important ways to interact with newsprint,” Hayes said. “You have young people out here who never interacted with a newspaper. We’re inviting people to interact with our news, and we ought to be creating a new experience for them that is modern and engaging.”

You can learn more about NOISE here, and you can read the North Omaha information needs assessment here.

Here are some other relevant readings:

• My colleague Mariela Morales Suarez — together with Michael X Delli Carpini and Burt Herman — published a report this morning that examined the news needs and habits of Philadelphia residents. You can read more about the “news jungle” they found here.

• This is a story in El Tecolote“>El Tecolote about the initial pilot program Bair ran this spring.

• Here’s a story I wrote in 2016 for Nieman Lab about how The Listening Post was using text messaging in New Orleans.

• Another example, which I’ve cited before, of how journalism can serve a community is Outlier Media in Detroit. The project, started by Sarah Alvarez, texts useful data and information to city residents.

Anything to add?

How’s your news org working to better understand communities you cover? Let me know! I’d love to learn more. Feel free to send me an email at [email protected] or tweet me at @ylichterman.

See you next Thursday!

An earlier version of this report misstated El Tímpano’s relationship with KALW. The stories were shared at a storytelling event produced by the station.

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