When Teresa, a housewife in her late 50s, signed up for El Tímpano’s local news and participatory reporting platform last spring, the COVID-19 vaccine rollout was just getting underway, and it was chaotic. The first message she received from El Tímpano informed her of how to make an appointment at a clinic open to East Oakland residents like herself. She texted back minutes later: “Thanks for your information. I was able to get my appointment.🙏”

Since then, she’s written in about once a month. Whether expressing thanks for our reporting or responding with a question or a story, Teresa’s texts to El Tímpano are the kind you’d get from a friend: personal and peppered with emojis. “Bendiciones y buenas noches💤🌙” — “Blessings and good night” — was one of her latest. She’s described her relationship with El Tímpano this way: “I feel like I can count on you. Even though I don’t know you personally, I know that if I have any questions about my community, I can share them with you.”

That sense of confianza — of trust — is not uncommon among the Latino and Mayan immigrants who comprise our SMS (text-messaging) community. It’s a reflection of our process, one that embodies the ethos of moving at the speed of trust.* It’s usually a slow speed. Our audience grows one-by-one, as residents meet our team at their church or local food distribution, and develop an ongoing relationship through our Spanish-language text-messaging platform.

Community members signing up for El Tímpano at a food distribution site.

Moving at the speed of trust allows El Tímpano to listen — deeply, methodically, and continuously — to the communities we serve, and to follow their lead with each step we take.

In the past two years, we’ve listened as Latino and Mayan immigrants have shared with us the devastating impact of the pandemic, and the vital need for trustworthy local news. In that time, audience members, partners, and community leaders have encouraged us to expand our mission, work, and team, and established the urgency of doing so. Now, as we plan for 2022 and beyond, we’re ready to answer their calls.

We’re expanding our mission to follow our audience and serve not just Oakland but the wider Bay Area.

In the past two years, our SMS community has more than quadrupled. Today, 10 percent of Oakland’s Spanish-speaking households subscribe, and half have written in with a question, a story, or simply words of gratitude for keeping them informed.

As our community has grown in size, it has also grown geographically. Subscribers come from not just Oakland but also Hayward, Richmond, Vallejo, San Francisco, Antioch, and beyond. In fact, more than 30 municipalities from 9 Bay Area counties are represented among our audience — incredible considering we have only conducted outreach in Oakland. Word of El Tímpano has spread because we’re addressing a region-wide gap in news and information.

We know that serving Latino and Mayan immigrants across California’s second-most-populous metropolis is no small feat, and involves much more than a change to our mission statement. We plan to expand as we started — slowly, by developing relationships and listening. Having built a large and extremely engaged Oakland audience, we know what it takes to expand to other cities. We also know that it won’t happen overnight.

We’re expanding our approaches to better reach and serve our diverse audiences.

While Spanish-language text-messaging — the platform we launched in 2019 — has proven to be a powerful distribution and engagement strategy, it is not the most effective for all of our audience members, particularly the large number of subscribers who are indigenous Mayan immigrants. Thanks to a grant from American Press Institute, we’ve developed a Mayan engagement team and strategy to better serve Mayan communities, who face even greater barriers to accessing trustworthy information and having their voices heard.

In addition, with the partnership of Libraries Without Borders, we are designing new approaches to meet people with the news they need in their neighborhoods. And thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation, we are developing a new online presence that will serve multiple audiences.

We’re expanding our journalism.

Unlike most news organizations, El Tímpano did not start by building a newsroom and an online publication. We started by investing in relationships, building a community, and designing reporting strategies in collaboration with our community. Today, we hear from dozens if not hundreds of Latino and Mayan immigrants each week who contribute to our journalism by asking questions and sharing stories.

In the past two years, we have partnered with The OaklandsideKQED, and The World to investigate their concerns and amplify their voices. But in-depth reporting takes resources, and over the course of the pandemic, El Tímpano’s SMS community has shared important stories that our organization has lacked the capacity to investigate — stories of labor abuse, health inequities, and the complexities of vaccine hesitancy that often go unreported or misunderstood in COVID-19 coverage that does not center the voices of those most impacted.

This year, we will begin to build a newsroom that is uniquely powered by the thousands of Latino and Mayan immigrants who trust El Tímpano with their stories.

El Tímpano’s growth is fueled by our community. How can you be a part of it?

Without community, there is no community-powered journalism. Alongside the growth of our audience, our revenue has more than doubled for two consecutive years, thanks to a growing number of funders and diversified revenue strategies. We are so grateful to all of the community members, partners, advisory council members, donors, and peers who have shaped our evolution and supported our growth. We count on you to believe in our bold vision and hold us accountable to our values.

A co-designed community advisory board: one of the many ways El Tímpano has listened to and collaborated with our audience.

If you are eager to be a part of El Tímpano’s next stage of growth, we invite you to join our community. Click here to learn how you can provide financial support. If your organization wants to partner with El Tímpano, reach out to hola[at]eltimpano[dot]org. As we expand, we are looking for newsroom and nonprofit leaders and innovators who believe in the power of equitable civic media to join our team. Follow El Tímpano on Twitter or LinkedInsubscribe to our newsletter, or keep an eye on our website for new positions. If you have a vision of the role you could play on our team, fill out this form to introduce yourself. We look forward to creating transformative local journalism together.

* Thanks to adrienne maree brown for the vocabulary and framework of emergent strategy, which captures so much of our approach to building journalism in partnership with community.

Madeleine Bair is an award-winning journalist and media developer, and the founder of El Tímpano. Madeleine has been carrying a microphone in her backpack since she belonged to the Oakland bureau of the Peabody Award-winning youth media organization, Children’s Express. As Senior Program Manager at the international nonprofit, WITNESS, she led a pioneering initiative dedicated to advancing the use of citizen video as a tool for human rights. Madeleine has taught radio production to young adults, worked on a morning show at Chicago Public Radio, and produced multimedia for Human Rights Watch. Her stories have appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Colorlines, and Orion, and broadcast on PRI’s The World and Independent Lens. She lives with her partner and son in Oakland, where she spends her free time making mixtapes, dancing cumbia, and exploring the region on bike.