by Jenna Spinelle
At a time when news consumption seems more fragmented than ever, El Tímpano found a way to connect with more than 10% of Oakland, California’s Spanish-speaking households — providing both critical news and responding to questions and requests for information. The organization works in collaboration with its audience to engage in two-way reporting via text message. This model replaces things like Facebook groups, which can fuel the spread of misinformation and amplify political polarization within communities. El Tímpano provides its audiences with access to the information they need from a source that’s earned their trust.
Organization Background: El Tímpano—Spanish for “eardrum”—informs, engages, and amplifies the voices of Latino and Mayan immigrants of Oakland and the wider Bay Area. Through innovative approaches to local journalism and civic engagement, El Tímpano surfaces community members’ stories and questions on local and national issues, provides news and information relevant to their needs, and investigates concerns its audience members raise.
El Tímpano focuses on informing, engaging, and amplifying the voices of the Latino and Mayan immigrants it serves. It is grounded in the Listening Post Collective’s model of participatory community journalism.
El Tímpano’s methods of civic engagement include robust in-person engagement strategies to meet people where they’re at, such as a community microphone that gathers residents’ stories on pressing issues, as well as an SMS-based reporting platform to provide timely information and facilitate conversation. Through these and other innovative, community-driven approaches that leverage the tools, experiences, and assets of the region’s Latino and Mayan immigrants, El Tímpano seeks to foster civic engagement and political empowerment while building more inclusive local media.
“Every time someone sends a text message, they’ll get a response,” said El Tímpano Founding Director Madeleine Bair. “Questions are often requests for local resources like what to do when a water main breaks or where to get vaccinated.”
El Tímpano is fiscally sponsored by Independent Arts& & Media, an organization that supports more than 60 affiliates dedicated to non-commercial work in media and the arts, including publishing, theater, dance, music, visual art, film and video, journalism, history, and public-events production. The organization has collaborated with local libraries, churches, and civic agencies, along with other local and national media outlets, including The Oaklandside, KQED, and The World.
Tools & Technology
El Tímpano uses Zingle as its SMS platform. It previously tested GroundSource in 2019. Bair said it’s important to note that there are many tools out there but success in SMS or any other medium comes down to having a solid strategy behind whatever technology you decide to use. In El Tímpano’s case, that meant understanding how its audience used existing messaging platforms like WhatsApp and how they could use technology to integrate community news and information into the habits its audience already had.
El Tímpano’s impact came into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic — when its audience had to make critical decisions about health and safety with little credible information accessible to them. The organization’s text messaging service provided both crucial information and a platform for subscribers to ask questions, share concerns, and feel heard.
Subscribers credited El Tímpano with helping them decide to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and reported taking screenshots of text messages with credible public health information to share with friends and family. Nearly half of the organization’s subscribers engaged at least once between March 2020 and March 2021. The most common response to El Tímpano’s text messages? “Gracias” or the prayer hands emoji to say “thank you.”
How it Happened
El Tímpano’s founder met with hundreds of Oakland immigrant residents and dozens of community leaders in 2017 and 2018 to learn what they wanted to see in Spanish-language media. She heard that many people did not have home computers and that texting, not websites or social media, was the best way to reach them. Participants identified that housing, health, and education were the topics they wanted to hear about most, and that they wanted information they could trust and act upon.
Participants reported feeling disempowered — and even afraid — after watching Spanish-language news on commercial outlets. Immigrants were depicted as victims, and stories did not contain information that could help viewers take action to address the problems they saw in news reports.
“It’s like the media silences people instead of giving them a voice,” said Emma Paulino, a community organizer with Oakland Community Organizations, explaining that the news broadcasts one negative story after another without equipping viewers with information they can use to take action. She added, “It’s really demoralizing to see that the access people have to information is commercial TV.”
In addition to group workshops, El Tímpano collected nearly 300 survey responses from Oakland’s Latin and Mayan immigrants at events and community centers. The survey asked:
- What issues are most important to you?
- Where do you get news and information on issues important to you?
- If you could change one thing about local news media, what would you change?
Survey respondents also had the opportunity to share their phone numbers if they wanted to be part of El Tímpano’s design as the project evolved.
Ultimately, El Tímpano’s approach was shaped by the feedback from its audience. As a result, it forged a new delivery model for news via text messaging and a new model for inclusive journalism based on the principles of civic and community engagement.
1. Increasing subscribers
El Tímpano’s SMS subscribers increased 250% during the first year of COVID-19, going from 400 to 1400.
2. Amplify voices
The organization also amplified the voices of Latino and Mayan immigrants by collaborating with The Oaklandside and others on stories about the pandemic’s impact on Latino and Mayan immigrant communities. One reporter in the area tweeted that she didn’t even know Oakland had a Mayan community until she read the story. The reach extended even further when public media outlet KQED invited reporters from El Tímpano and The Oaklandside on its podcast The Bay to talk about their reporting on Oakland’s digital divide.
What Could Have Worked Better
1. Deepening understandings through workshops
After receiving feedback from a local library manager, El Tímpano shortened its original five-page community survey to a quick, easy-to-complete form that asked only the most important information about local news consumption. Questions cut from the survey were addressed through workshops conducted as part of the needs assessment, as well as ongoing community engagement.
“Because we have a very engaged SMS community, we have a unique pulse on the evolving concerns and information needs of our audience,” Bair said. “While the in-depth information needs assessment we conducted five years ago formed the foundation of El Tímpano’s approach, it’s not like we ever stopped listening to the communities we serve to deepen our understanding of their information needs and provide insight into how we can address the evolving concerns of our diverse audience.”
2. Building community takes time
Another key lesson is simply the time it takes to build relationships, which form the backbone of El Tímpano’s work. Having one-on-one meetings with community organizations without a deadline or a desire to get a quote is not something journalists tend to have a lot of time for. But taking that time has been key to developing strong relationships within the communities El Tímpano covers and serves.
Here’s What Else You Should Know
El Tímpano recently announced its plans to expand beyond Oakland to the wider Bay Area, and to expand its newsroom to produce more community-powered journalism.
Founder Madeleine Bair participated in a Local That Works webinar on serving Spanish speakers and engaging Latinx communities, along with KQED’s Ernesto Aguilar and Michelle Billman of KUNR in Reno, Nevada. Watch the webinar recording here.
For more information on El Tímpano’s history and the work that drove its founding, read the report “Más Información: An Information Needs Assessment of Latino Immigrants in Oakland, California. To contact the El Tímpano team, email email@example.com.