RJI Fellow will pilot text message distribution and engagement strategy to serve Latino immigrants


Where do you get news and information that's relevant to you?

That's what El Tímpano asked hundreds of Latino immigrants in Oakland, Calif., during an information needs assessment we conducted throughout the past year. We also asked community organizers, educators and church leaders how they share information with the residents, parents and congregants they work with.

Before piloting a reporting outlet to serve Oakland's Spanish-speaking immigrants, we wanted to hear from them first, rather than making any assumptions about what would be the best format to report about, with, and for this community. What we found, outlined in a report released last month, will inform the design of El Tímpano as a new local reporting platform.

For instance, many approaches to news distribution developed for middle- and upper-class, English-speaking audiences will not necessarily be effective in reaching working-class immigrants. Neither email nor Twitter, or even websites are commonly used by the residents we talked to.

So what approaches are effective in reaching this community?

While commercial television stations are the main source of news among residents we surveyed, when it comes to information that is relevant to their daily lives – news about what's going on in their neighborhoods, steps they can take to get involved, and resources they can seek out for various needs – grassroots organizations and old-fashioned social networks play just as big of a role as conduits for valuable information.

As we talked to community organizers about what approaches they find most effective in reaching Latino immigrants, two strategies came up again and again: in-person engagement and mobile messaging. Schools, community groups and local activists use text-messaging platforms to send messages to a large group to notify community members of events. After all, while not all residents use email regularly, nearly everyone has a phone. Unlike television news, a text message can reach recipients anywhere, at any time. As one resident pointed out to us, she often misses the local newscast because she is busy working. If there were a mobile news platform, she said, she wouldn't miss out on the latest updates.

As a 2018-19 fellow at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, I plan to pilot El Tímpano's text-message strategy to provide timely, relevant information to Oakland's Spanish-speaking residents. Former RJI Fellow Andrew Haeg recognized the benefits of mobile messaging when he developed the SMS-based reporting technology, GroundSource, and thanks to the support of the Lenfest Institute and its Community Listening and Engagement Fund, El Tímpano will be using GroundSource as our platform for this pilot.

Over the next year, we will launch and evaluate the use of GroundSource as a way to disseminate news and information, as well as provide an opportunity for community members to share their questions, concerns and stories. It will be one of many approaches El Tímpano explores to develop local, empowering journalism to serve Oakland's Latino immigrant community. I'll be sharing updates throughout the year, and we hope that what we learn may help other newsrooms and communities design innovative approaches to local news that serve diverse communities.

We are extremely appreciative of our publishing partner Austin American-Statesman and especially Steve Dorsey, vice president of innovation and planning, for teaming with us on this initiative. It is the willingness on behalf of busy executives such as Steve to volunteer his time to studies like this that truly help advance our field.

Madeleine Bair is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker, as well as the founder of El Tímpano, a local Spanish-language reporting initiative. She is also a 2018-19 RJI Fellow.

RJI, Spanish-speaking audience
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