El Tímpano founder Madeleine Bair interviews resident Adrian Ahuatzi, 44, through a community microphone on Bancroft Avenue next to the “Churros Guerrero” stand near Cardenas Markets store on Sunday, April 22, 2018 in Oakland, Calif. Credit: Ekevara Kitpowsong

Late last year, The Oaklandside began hosting a series of community dialogues, deep dives with residents about the role of local journalism and what they hoped to see from our fledgling news organization.

Those conversations would form the basis for our newsroom values, a set of commitments that will continue to guide our work into the future. One of those values is a commitment to listening, a promise to take our cues from the communities we report about, and seek to serve. Another is a commitment to collaborate with other organizations and individuals already working to inform Oakland communities. 

It’s fitting, then, that one of The Oaklandside’s first official newsroom partners is El Tímpano, Spanish for “eardrum,” a grassroots media organization serving Spanish-speaking Latino and Indigenous Mayan immigrants in East Oakland. In the coming months, our newsroom will be meeting weekly with El Tímpano to identify reporting and information needs in Oakland’s Latino immigrant communities and to identify strategies for sharing translated versions of our reports with El Tímpano’s audience.

We’ll also be opening our platform to members of El Timpano’s network who have firsthand experiences and stories to tell, which can deepen our readers’ understanding of issues impacting our immigrant and undocumented neighbors.

Earlier this week, I spoke to El Tímpano founder Madeleine Bair about the genesis of the organization, its innovative approach to fostering two-way dialogues with residents, how she is working to grow the organization, and what she’s learned about journalism along the way. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Spanish-speaking and Indigenous immigrants from Latin America in East Oakland—that’s a very specific audience. Talk to me about the genesis of El Tímpano and how you came to serve that community as a journalist.

Well, I’m from Oakland and I got my start in a youth media organization in Oakland. And from that experience, at a young age, I became aware of how the diversity in the city, which was so integral to my experience as a kid, wasn’t reflected in the local media. That was true back then in the ‘90s and it’s still true today. I moved back here in 2017 and saw that the fastest growing community in Oakland, according to census data, was Spanish-speaking immigrants. That’s something that you wouldn’t know just by consuming local news and following civic conversations because the voices and stories of Latino immigrants aren’t being amplified and reflected in the stories we tell about Oakland.

El Tímpano founder Madeleine Bair

So, El Tímpano arose out of a question of inquiry: Where are the stories of Oakland’s Latino immigrants in local news? And how are Latino immigrants getting news and information about the issues that impact them—things like housing, immigration policy, and education? How are the growing numbers of Latino and Indigenous immigrants in Oakland being involved in those issues?

When I first began pursuing that line of inquiry, I really was thinking about Spanish-speaking immigrants. But I very quickly learned that a large part of that growing community from Latin America is Indigenous Mayan immigrants from Guatemala, many of whom don’t necessarily speak Spanish but speak Mam. That’s a community that El Tímpano also seeks to serve.

Once you realized there was this gap in the local news ecosystem, how did you go about making inroads with the community? 

It began through a process of relationship building and listening. I’m not Latina. I’m from Oakland and married into an immigrant family, but I’m not from that community. It started with me introducing myself to community leaders and stakeholders, to hear from them about this question I was asking—if there were news outlets serving the community or if there really was a gap. And if so, how do we address that gap? I spent many months sitting down with church leaders, community clinic leaders, library managers, educators, and advocates, to hear their thoughts and see how their community’s information needs were being served. And everyone I spoke to said that there is a huge gap.

It began with those initial one-on-ones, and from there I worked with their organizations to broaden the conversation to community members. We created a survey and workshops. And through that process, we spoke to nearly 400 community members about what issues are important to them, where they get information, and what they want to see in local media. So many people were hungry for these conversations and excited about the idea of having a news outlet for them—for Spanish speakers in Oakland.

El Tímpano community outreach coordinator Mario Corea talks to Angelica Rodriguez, 45, by the “Churros Guerrero” stand in East Oakland Credit: Ekevara Kitpowsong

What did they say are the most important issues that they want to see reported?

People told us their top issues were, number one, health. Number two, education. Then, housing and jobs. Then, immigration. We also heard a lot of common critiques of the existing news media, particularly commercial TV news—a feeling that the news was disempowering because it portrayed their communities as victims. Many said they were actually beginning to avoid the news because it made them feel fearful and helpless. It didn’t give them information that empowered them to take action on the things impacting them. A lot of people told us they wanted more information about how they can get involved and what they can do.

Mainstream news coverage of immigrant communities is more or less dominated by stories about immigration policy and enforcement. Were you surprised to hear that those weren’t among the top issues cited by the people you spoke to?

Well, that’s the sort of thing you learn when you develop news through a process of listening. Those working in immigrant communities are not surprised. They know that lack of access to medical care is a huge issue facing this community. So I wasn’t necessarily surprised—I came into all of these conversations with a spirit of curiosity. But it also shows the importance of really understanding your audience and the community you’re serving as a news outlet. That’s not to say immigration isn’t important, it’s just not the most pressing issue for people on a daily basis.

Lots of news organizations say they want to hear from the community. But it’s another thing to actually create those meaningful opportunities for dialogue. How has El Tímpano gone about it?

I believe the news media’s mission is to inform, reflect, and connect community members, and to amplify their voices. To do that takes building a trusting relationship so that we’re not just asking people to tell us their stories without giving them something in return, the information they can use. That’s an aspect of the news media that’s often very exploitative. People rightfully say, “Why should I trust you with my story, with my voice?” We’re building that trust. El Tímpano means “eardrum” in Spanish. So we report on the issues that our community tells us are important to them. To do that we need to have open ears and open communication.

El Tímpano has a website, but the primary mode of communication with your audience is text messaging. Why?

We really developed our approaches and platforms based on what we heard from the community, and we heard a lot of community members don’t use websites. Many have emails but don’t use them regularly. On the other hand, almost everyone has a cell phone. So it was clear to us that texting would be one of our primary platforms for engaging with the audience. Once or twice a week we send out news and information, a resource about how to take action on a particular issue, as well as a question. It could be a question about how they’ve experienced an issue, or what their thoughts are on an issue. So we’re having a back and forth conversation with our audience. 

We also use a “community microphone” because we know that many people really like to connect with their community in physical locations. So we have worked with local artists to create a community microphone, and we take it — when there is not a pandemic happening — to places throughout East Oakland where the community gathers: churro stands, grocery stores, Bart station plazas. It’s a fun way to interact with people in person and for people to get to know us, and for us to build trust.

El Tímpano currently serves about 450 members in East Oakland. Are you hoping the platform will grow?

We’re hoping to grow to at least 1,000 members this year. We’re a little behind in that goal because of the coronavirus. But despite the pandemic, we’re reaching new audiences by working with community partners  at food distribution sites. We know a lot of community members are really suffering financially  right now, and so when so many other physical locations are closed, connecting with residents at  food banks makes sense. And once people are out more and it’s safe to do so, we plan to meet people where they’re at and take our community microphone back out to the streets.

I’m also so excited about working with The Oaklandside. One of our objectives as an organization is to amplify the voices and stories of Oakland’s Latino communities. One community member told me, “We already know our issues. We want others to know what we’re experiencing.” Partnering with a news outlet that is serving all of Oakland is a way for us to achieve that desire and ensure the stories of Latino immigrants are a part of the larger civic conversations we’re having in the city. I’m also excited to see more reporting and investigation about the stories coming from El Tímpano and to share that reporting and civic information that Oaklandside will be producing with El Tímpano’s audience. There are a few more creative collaborations we have in the works that involve collaborating with other fantastic local organizations, artists, and civic agencies to expand our footprint and reimagine what local journalism can be.

Has working on El Tímpano changed the way you view journalism?

I think the way a lot of journalism institutions measure their work is by the impact it makes on influential audiences — those who wield political power and can take action that can be referenced in an awards submission. Through El Tímpano, I want to challenge how we think about “influential audiences.” Because when you’re only thinking about people who have political or social or financial capital, then you start to direct your resources in a way to where you wind up making journalism for those in power and leave behind everyone else. If, however, you recognize the power of everyday people to exercise change, then immigrants and communities that are often reported on but not by or for can be audiences of influence and impact. This is the dynamic we’re striving to change.

Jacob Simas is Managing Editor of The Oaklandside. He joined us from Univision, where he led social-impact initiatives and established the Rise Up: Be Heard journalism training program at Fusion for young people and community organizers in underserved areas of California. He was a senior editor and director of youth and community media at New America Media, where he led a community news network that amplified student and youth reporting in California news deserts. He is an advisory board member for Youth Beat, a graduate of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and a former producer with KPFA's First Voice apprenticeship program.