Oakland news outlet connects with Spanish-language audience using text messages


By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

An investigative reporting stipend is helping a Spanish-language news operation in Oakland report on housing security during the pandemic in collaboration with residents who have been historically underserved and overlooked by local media.

El Tímpano, founded 3 years ago, delivers news to Oakland’s Latinx and Mayan indigenous immigrants in the form of Spanish-language text messages.

“Pretty much everyone has a cell phone, even if they don’t have a computer or the internet,” El Tímpano Founding Director Madeleine Bair said.

The news and information El Tímpano produces has proved especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic and has surfaced countless stories from community members about their experiences navigating the public health and economic crises. To report on these issues, El Tímpano is using a $5,000 investigative reporting stipend from Local Media Association’s Fund for Local Journalism to report on COVID-19’s impact on evictions and displacement in Oakland’s Latinx and Mayan immigrant communities where the pandemic has hit especially hard. The organization is partnering with The Oaklandside, another independent online news operation in Oakland profiled by LMA earlier this year.

Bair

Since March, El Tímpano has collected stories from its audience—nearly 1,000 text-based subscribers—about the toll coronavirus has taken on their health, homes, and livelihood. The participatory process has unveiled a tragic mix of stories: Lost jobs, unpaid rent and fear that renter protections will expire or won’t be honored.

“We’re able to facilitate a two-way conversation with our audience responding with questions and how they’re experiencing these local issues,” Bair said.

As part of the coverage from El Tímpano and The Oaklandside, the news partners will review how COVID-19 might have increased home displacement. These are the questions that El Tímpano and The Oaklandside intend to answer in this series:

  • What happens to residents who are unable to pay rent after renter protections expire?
  • How extensive are evictions and who is impacted most? Where do immigrants go after losing housing due to COVID-19?
  • How effective were renter protections in the first place? Were they enforced and did residents still fall through the cracks?

Bair said initial reporting just started on this collaboration, and she expects in-depth stories to publish starting in spring 2021. The two Oakland-based news outlets also partnered this summer on first-person narratives about the toll of the pandemic on Latinx and Mayan immigrants, and a report on the experience of remote schooling among Latinx immigrant families.

In addition to partnering with news outlets, El Tímpano works alongside other local organizations that serve Oakland’s Spanish-speaking immigrants.

“We’ve been partnering with libraries and with schools as well as grassroots community organizations,” Bair said, to spread the word about El Tímpano’s SMS service, and in turn to spread the word to El Tímpano’s audience about community resources.

That effort has paid off, with El Tímpano doubling subscribers this year.

“This has been a year of expansion,” she said.