A man stands next to an outside wall with a bulletin board; he's reading a newspaper

New unread message: El Tímpano listens to Oakland’s Spanish-speaking community

June 10, 2019
A pilot aimed to engage Oakland’s Spanish-speaking residents with news via text.

(El Tímpano is supported by The Listening Post Collective, which is a project of Internews)


In 2018, a group of researchers at Duke set out to study the factors that contribute to news deserts — communities with little to no local news that addresses critical needs. One of their findings was that communities with large Hispanic/Latino populations have less robust journalism.

13.3 percent of U.S. residents speak Spanish at home, but the circulation of Hispanic daily newspapers is decreasing (though weekly and semiweekly papers have held up better, per Pew). Phil Napoli, the lead author of the Duke study, said that nailing down how well-informed Spanish-speaking communities are is difficult. Some Spanish newspapers aren’t online, which makes the news sources hard to track. Some community members are more invested in foreign or English-language news sites. “And minority populations just tend to be not as well-served because advertisers don’t value them as much,” Napoli said. But the lack of original and local reporting for Spanish-speaking communities is real.

Madeleine Bair, a journalist in Oakland, California, hopes to fill that gap. Her project, El Tímpano (“the eardrum” in Spanish), began with a question: How are Spanish-only speakers in Oakland served by local media?

The main sources of news for Oakland’s Spanish-speaking residents are Univision and Telemundo; Spanish-language radio; and a handful of small bilingual publications. But, according to Bair and local organizer Pete Villaseñor, these newspapers are hard to find in print. They tend to run wire stories from Latin American countries or lifestyle stories, rather than actionable news that locals can use.

“When we asked people where they got their information,” Bair said, “pretty much no one mentioned these newspapers.”

Bair’s background includes journalism and human rights advocacy. She was a fellow with Human Rights Watch’s multimedia team before working for WITNESS, a human rights group. She’s now the campaign manager for News Voices, the local news support initiative from Free Press.

“Every single person I talked to said it was a critical and urgent gap.” That encouraged Bair to embark on a a nine-month listening project modeled after and supported by the local news organization The Listening Post Collective. She collaborated with local community leaders to ask residents: How do you get your news? Between March 2017 and February 2018, Bair and volunteers spoke to more than 300 residents, in focus groups, community gatherings, and surveys, and about two dozen community leaders — like Villaseñor, the branch manager of the César E. Chávez branch of the Oakland Public Library, in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. Some Fruitvale residents use Facebook to find news. But Villaseñor said that older residents often depend on the bulletin board in the library’s lobby.

Bair also partnered with El Tecolote, a bilingual biweekly paper in San Francisco’s Mission District, to publish local stories during the initial listening phase of the project. But she told me that Oakland residents were less likely to be aware of El Tecolote, across the bay. Instead, people relied on community institutions like churches, schools, and libraries, and text messages. Bair summarized her initial findings in a report released last year.

The text messages inspired the next phase of El Tímpano: Pasa La Voz (“spread the word”). Using GroundSource as a platform, Bair sent out news updates about local events via SMS, in an eight-week pilot that began in mid-February. Local media creator Vanessa Nava helped Bair collect information and draft messages to send out to residents; they partnered with local organizations, like the Red Cross, to verify information on topics like healthcare.

Pasa La Voz started with 364 text subscribers. At the end of the pilot, it had 399 — 60 people unsubscribed, but nearly 100 more signed up.

In the pilot’s third week, Bair sent out a text message asking residents what they wanted to see from the newly elected mayor of Oakland. Fourteen subscribers replied, beginning a chain of conversation that ended with 28 answers, which Bair shared with the mayor’s office. Twenty-eight messages isn’t a ton, but they were from audience that the mayor’s office doesn’t often hear from.

“The city knows there’s a missing link when it comes to informing Latino immigrants and informing marginalized communities about local issues,” said Bair. “Hearing from them and what their concerns are in a way that the city can respond to is very beneficial…So many of the [social media touchpoints] that are created to engage local residents completely leave out the local Latino immigrant community.”

Pasa La Voz was funded by a Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF) grant from the Lenfest Institute. Bair herself has been supported by a non-residential fellowship from the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri.

“It’s definitely been a challenge as a media entrepreneur, doing this for the first time,” Bair said. She credited the institutions and friends who’ve contributed their skills in supporting her.

With funding running out and the pilot wrapped up, next steps are uncertain. At the end of the 8-week pilot, Bair hosted a town hall to gauge user interaction and potential future investment. As El Tímpano sent out final messages to users asking for feedback, they received a message from a subscriber who had never written back before. The message translated as: “I believe it’s a project with a lot of potential, and really beneficial to the Latino community.”

(Banner photo:  BY MADELEINE BAIR)