Introducing El Tímpano

(This article originally appeared on The Listening Post’s blog.)

The Listening Post Collective has been working with Oakland native Madeleine Bair as she builds a two way reporting platform that will engage and inform local Latino immigrants and provide a channel to anonymously share questions, concerns, and anecdotes about immigration, housing, health, education, and more.

A woman places stickers on a chart on a wall.
El Tímpano’s first community forum. Participants were asked to indicate where they were most and least likely to get local news and information. Photo: Madeleine Bair

We’ve asked Madeleine a few questions about her progress so far, some of the challenges she’s faced, and her goals for El Tímpano.

First, could you tell us a bit about your background as a journalist and media developer?

Sure, I got my start in journalism as a kid reporter with Children’s Express in my hometown of Oakland. In my 20s, I worked in youth radio, public radio, and as a freelance reporter based in the U.S. and abroad. I went to grad school envisioning a career in foreign correspondence, but it became clear that as a sustainable career, those jobs were disappearing. It was also the time of Iran’s Green Movement, and it was becoming clear that the sort of stories I was interested in reporting on were increasingly being done by grassroots organizations, advocacy groups, and citizen journalists. And so I dove into the field of human rights documentation, which I found to be very similar to journalism, except that I began to think about the audience of my work, its impact, and how to collaborate with those at the center of the stories I was telling. At the organization, WITNESS, I developed resources to help journalists and human rights advocates use citizen footage to report on human rights violations.

I suppose “media developer” is a good way to describe my work. I consider myself a journalist, but I’m now much more interested in supporting other people to tell their stories effectively than reporting a story myself. At a time when anyone has the tools to expose their reality & narrate their story, I feel that if journalists don’t support more people to use them, we’re missing out on the greatest opportunity of our generation.

What is “El Tímpano”? What’s its origin story? And what community information needs is it seeking to address?

El Tímpano — Spanish for eardrum — is a community-driven news initiative that will engage Oakland’s Latino immigrants in conversation to surface and amplify their voices, experiences, and concerns on local and national affairs.

I suppose the seed of El Tímpano began in 2012. I had started a production company with a friend, and our mission was to tell the stories of and for NYC’s Latino immigrant communities (while I am not an immigrant, my production partner is). In writing a business plan, I researched who else was focusing on that audience. I came across a database maintained by the Columbia Journalism Review of new reporting initiatives, and so I looked up all the ones based in New York to see who was reporting on this community. Out of the 3 dozen outlets, not a single one was dedicated to covering an immigrant community — not just Latinos but any immigrant community. This is in a city where nearly 40% of the population are immigrants.

While I am sure the database itself had its blindspots, to me, this was a clear indication of the disparities in media innovation, and since I came across it in 2012, it has weighed heavily on my mind.

In the meantime, as someone working in international human rights, I became more attuned to human rights abuses happening in my own city, affecting my immigrant neighbors, friends, and family. Things like dangerous working conditions and exploitative labor practices, substandard housing, lack of access to medical care. I think one reason these issues are often pushed under the rug is because working-class immigrants are by and large neglected by the media. Few people, outside of the hardworking reporters at overstretched ethnic media outlets, are telling their stories. So when I moved back to Oakland earlier this year, that’s what I wanted to do — develop a media outlet that amplifies the voices of immigrants and provides them with news they can use. The name “El Tímpano” was my husband’s idea.

In terms of the information needs El Tímpano seeks to address, we’re in the process of hearing from the community first so we can really answer that question. But as I’ve been talking with community leaders, they’ve universally affirmed that there is a need. One in 5 Oakland residents speaks Spanish at home, yet there’s no source they can go to for reliable, local, relevant information. What does that mean? When city leaders hold a townhall to seek community input on development plans, Latino immigrant residents don’t hear about it. When rumors spread about ICE activity, there’s no place to go to figure out whether it’s true or not. There are so many examples that illustrate how the paucity of media contributes to fear and misinformation, and silences the voice of a community in local civic conversations.

Where is El Tímpano at as a project right now?

We are planning the launch of a community survey from November through December. While I’ve had conversations with a dozen community leaders, we want to invite as many people as possible to contribute to the design of El Tímpano. Through group discussions and traditional surveys, we will be asking people two main questions: 1) What are the issues that are important to you? 2) What are the main ways you access and share information? What we find will determine the editorial priorities and distribution strategy of El Tímpano. I’ve recruited an incredible team of advisors with a wealth of experience working in ethnic media and serving immigrants, who have committed to donate their time and insight.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

The main challenge thus far is simply time. Developing trust with a community that you are new to takes time. Partnering with organizations that are under-resourced takes time. And that leads to the second challenge: money. We have been fortunate to receive a grant from the Listening Post Collective (at Internews) which will support our information needs assessment. I am hoping that by the time that funding runs out, we will have secured funding to support a prototype to launch and evaluate. It will not be easy, but I have faith that El Tímpano will find the support locally and nationally that we will need to address this urgent information gap.

How have you adapted Listening Post strategies to fit your needs and the needs of the community you’re trying to engage?

The concept of the information needs assessment comes from the Listening Post playbook. I have come to appreciate that it is a key part of including community members and developing a news service that addresses their needs. However, we plan to experiment with different ways to survey the community, in addition to traditional surveys. The leader of a community health clinic, for instance, pointed out the high illiteracy rate among many immigrant workers, and so for them, a participatory activity, a group discussion, or a workshop will yield better results. A librarian pointed out that asking people for too much personal information could raise alarm among folks who are very fearful of immigration enforcement under the current administration.

How are you specifically thinking about “engagement” in considering a Spanish speaking audience?

I think there’s a tendency, when newsrooms think about reaching immigrant audiences, to think that if they simply translate their stories, they will achieve that goal. While language is certainly a big barrier to information access, it is not the only one. Engaging with any community requires understanding the way people consume and share information — not just the language they speak, but also their habits, social networks, trusted sources, and the tools and technologies they use. You can translate your story online, but if the audience you target doesn’t tend to get its news from websites, or never goes to your website, the translation doesn’t do much good. In Oakland, I’ve been attending a lot of church meetings, because those are important hubs of information sharing in the local Latino immigrant community.

Another important consideration is the widespread fear of immigration enforcement right now. Many people are avoiding contact with governmental institutions, or are even avoiding events for immigrants, for fear of ICE raids. And so if we plan to ask members of a vulnerable community to share their stories, we’d better first earn their trust, develop a data privacy plan, and have something valuable to offer them in return.

What advice do you have for other folks looking to include a community engagement element in their reporting projects?

Just do it! Your community will appreciate it. (But plan for more time than you think it will take.)

El Tímpano is supported by the Listening Post Collective/Internews. The initial stage of this project is made possible by the News Integrity Initiative.

The Listening Post Collective is a project of Internews. We provide journalists, newsroom leaders, and non-profits tools and advice to create meaningful conversations with their communities. We believe responsible reporting begins with listening. From there, media outlets and community organizations can create news stories that respond to people’s informational needs, reflect their lives, and enable them to make informed decisions.