A community-driven reporting flow that goes beyond “information needs”
How El Tímpano’s feedback loop is designed to address community questions and amplify community voices
In mid-summer, El Tímpano received a gut-punch of a message from an audience member. In a text in Spanish, she told us, essentially, “you always write the same — call such and such number. But they don’t pick up… Pure lies.”
In her typed words was the exasperation El Tímpano has heard all year from so many community members — that the information we’re providing just isn’t cutting it. No one is picking up the phone when they call to schedule a COVID test. The legal aid clinic’s voicemail is full. The state’s unemployment office denied a claim with no explanation. And California’s cash assistance program for undocumented immigrants? Residents told us they called up to 20 times a day and never once got through before the fund ran dry.
The safety net that’s been cobbled together to help community members through the crises of 2020 are inadequate, overwhelmed, and as this woman expressed, are often leading to even greater despair.
In recent years, there’s been a long overdue prioritization of “information needs” in local news. That is, rather than reporters and editors deciding what stories merit attention, instead they are invited to ask “What information does our community need?”
This, in fact, was one of the guiding questions we asked when designing El Tímpano. Three years ago, I met with dozens of community leaders & hundreds of Latinx and Mayan immigrant residents to ask what they wanted to see in local, Spanish-language news. One of the most common responses was a desire for more information. Useful information. Things like how and when to register their kids for summer programs. How to prepare for an emergency. How to advocate for cleaner streets in their neighborhoods. These were their information needs. The news they could use.
So that’s the news El Tímpano set out to produce, and in collaboration with community members, we designed new approaches to meet those needs, ones that leveraged local assets such as social gathering spaces, trusted institutions, and East Oakland residents invested in their communities.
This year, by providing actionable news and a platform for audience members to ask questions and tell their stories via SMS, El Tímpano has become a coronavirus rapid response service for some of the communities most affected locally by the health and economic crises wrought by COVID-19. We’ve provided clear, accessible information on everything from testing sites to renter protections, paid sick leave policies, and remote learning. We’ve also covered the census, racial justice uprisings, and the hazardous air quality. The vast majority of audience members who write in express gratitude for keeping them informed.
But the woman who shared her frustrations about everything that’s NOT working with the social services we’ve directed her to underscores the fact that addressing “information needs” cannot be a one-way process. Invariably, audience members have specific questions we never would have thought to answer en masse. Other times, their questions themselves tell a whole story.
“Excuse me,” a resident typed in recently, “where do they give away food? I have a problem.”
While El Tímpano often has at our fingertips the information our audience needs to know, other times it is our audience that wields the questions our journalists need to ask, or the insights, expertise, and stories that the wider community needs to hear. The woman who wrote to us in frustration was sharing exactly the sort of observation that is the genesis of good accountability journalism: The system is not working.
When we designed El Tímpano’s logo, it was this idea we had in mind. Rather than a one way flow of information from a news outlet to a community, we wanted to create a feedback loop between our journalists and our audience, so that the news we provided was in response to the questions and concerns our audience expressed (first graphic above). And in addition to this information loop with our Spanish-speaking audience, we would amplify our audience’s voices, so that their questions, stories, and insights are a part of larger civic conversations—and local English-language media coverage—on issues that impact Latinx and Mayan immigrants (second graphic). After all, as one community member shared during our participatory design process,
“WE know what our issues are; we want OTHER people to know too.”
El Tímpano’s latest collaboration with The Oaklandside is one example of this circular (spirally?) journalism at work. El Tímpano’s audience first informed us of their challenges with remote schooling back in the spring, when a mother texted us saying she was afraid her son was missing out on classes because she didn’t have a home computer. We pointed her, and in the months that followed, many other parents, to a local organization that provides technology to low-income families. We also communicated with that organization to make sure they provided services in Spanish and relay the resource needs that we were hearing relevant to their work.
In July, when the school district released its plans for ongoing remote schooling in the fall, El Tímpano shared those plans with our audience, and invited them to respond with their thoughts and concerns. It wound up being one of our most popular call-outs of the year. While our audience overwhelmingly approved of plans to keep schools physically closed, they still had plenty of questions and concerns. Once classes began, the concerns remained, and were even more urgent.
Responding to the questions of our audience took an individualized approach. We communicated with district leaders and local non-profits to identify the best way to address their questions or respond to the challenges they faced. We found that some local service providers lacked Spanish-language outreach materials, or required parents to have an email address to sign up — things we knew could be a barrier for many of El Tímpano’s audience members. So we also reached out to those organizations to share what we were hearing from parents. As a result, one of those organizations has set up a phone number as an alternate way for parents to sign their kids up for tutoring services.
But in a situation of overwhelming gaps in services, there was also a clear need to amplify the voices and stories of El Tímpano’s audience to the larger community, to provide a greater understanding of the experience of remote schooling for Oakland families. Addressing the challenges families are facing requires a clear understanding of the problem, and that requires that the voices of diverse community members, particularly those most impacted, are amplified and heard.
It hasn’t yet been a week since we published the article, but it’s already been picked up by other outlets, and we’ve heard from local non-profits, researchers, advocates, and volunteers who have reached out to share their work or ask what they can do to help. Continuing the feedback loop, El Tímpano has shared some of those resources with parents, and we plan to partner with other local outlets to continue the conversation, bridging language divides and communication channels to connect immigrant parents, district leaders, local service providers, and other community members with each other. Each of them carries information, questions, and the potential to work together toward solutions.
The fact that we are a news outlet does not mean we are endowed with the information our community seeks. Sometimes there is no immediate answer to their questions. Often, the problems they raise have yet to find a solution. But by providing a platform for them to raise their voices and by amplifying their questions, insights, and stories, we can facilitate a process for the community to find its own answers and continue asking important questions.
Madeleine Bair is the founding director of El Tímpano. Shoutout to Sophie Lan Hou whose 2017 whiteboard sketch (below) was the first clear visualization of El Tímpano’s spiral-y reporting process (at the time, more of an idea than a practice). Thanks to Mazin Sidahmed for reviewing an early draft of this. Mazin’s newsroom, Documented, is also thinking about loops and arrows in its reporting process, and practicing its own form of community-powered journalism. Graphics by Paul Caicedo, who also designed El Tímpano’s logo.