How a news service for low-income immigrants earns revenue through civic partnerships

A Q&A with Madeleine Bair about El Tímpano’s fastest-growing revenue stream.

October 14, 2021 by Ben DeJarnette

Madeleine Bair photo

What does it look like to fund journalism sustainably in communities where many people can’t afford to pay? 

El Tímpano is a news nonprofit serving Latino and Mayan immigrants in Oakland — many of whom are low-income — and its growing revenue stream around civic partnerships could be a model for newsrooms that aim to serve low-wealth communities. 

“The value we provide to our [government and nonprofit agency] partners is our ability to reach and engage community members that they struggle to reach, usually due to language barriers, the digital divide, [or] lack of trust,” Madeleine says. “The revenue itself may come in the form of a grant or a fee for service.”

El Tímpano earned $12,000 from these civic partnerships in 2020 and is on pace to earn nearly $100,000 from them in 2021. And Madeleine expects that number to grow even more as the organization scales up its team to capitalize on new opportunities. 

Listen to our recent News Guest episode to hear Madeleine discuss El Tímpano’s civic partnerships strategy, or read the following Q&A to learn more about the tactics behind this emerging success story. 

How do you identify these kinds of opportunities? What is appealing to these entities about what you do?

Madeleine Bair: I’d like to start by clarifying what El Tímpano’s civic partnerships strategy is: In short, it is partnerships with government agencies and nonprofits who seek to reach the immigrant communities that El Tímpano reaches with vital information and/or community engagement. 

The process of identifying and pitching partners is similar to that of identifying advertisers or sponsors, in that we want to find entities that value our audience and our relationship to them. However, as this strategy is mission-aligned, we seek partners that have a public service mission, and one that is relevant to our audience. 

What this means is that through our partnerships, we are not only providing a service for our partners, but we are providing a service for our audience and larger community, and advancing our mission. For example, we would not partner with a political candidate to broadcast sponsored messages about them, or with an opinion research firm working on behalf of a corporation or political party, because those messages primarily serve the client’s needs and not our audience’s needs or interests. 

What are the most common “deliverables” for these partnerships? What exactly are the partners asking from you?

We’ve built out a menu of services that we can build on and customize depending on the partner and as our capacity grows. What we’ve done or proposed with/for partners includes:

  • Delivering sponsored messages
  • Delivering sponsored messages and answering relevant follow-up questions and/or directing people to reliable information and resources on a particular issue
  • Conducting in-person outreach
  • Conducting surveys and community engagement to surface community members’ questions, ideas, or experiences on particular issues

Have you had to turn down a prospective partner yet because they weren’t mission-aligned? And what questions do you ask to decide if they’re a good fit? 

We have been approached by political candidates seeking to advertise during the campaign, but again, because El Tímpano does not do traditional advertisements and that would not fit into the standards of our civic partnerships, we have turned those opportunities down.

More of a gray area would be that we’ve been approached by academics interested in partnering for a civic engagement/research initiative involving the communities we reach. For something like that, we want to really understand the purpose of the project and who will benefit, to ensure that it’s aligned with our mission.

Let’s talk about editorial independence. How are you able to maintain an investigative voice and watchdog function toward local government while partnering with them? 

The key, as it is for any newsroom taking funds from philanthropists, businesses, individuals, or foundations, is transparency with all parties. We are clear to partners that such partnerships will in no way influence the independence of our reporting, and that if our reporting does relate to paid partners, we disclose to readers such a relationship.

In fact, in the first month of a contract we had with the county’s health care services department, we found ourselves reporting on the department. In the article that we reported and published in partnership with The Oaklandside, we disclosed our relationship with the county, and I’m thankful to The Oaklandside managing editor Jacob Simas for working with me to determine how we would handle this… In my opinion, it doesn’t take away from our integrity covering the issue. 

As for our SMS audience, when we send a text message that is part of a partnership, we disclose that in the first line of the message, stating that this is El Tímpano with a message from the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency (or whoever the partner may be).

So far, this has not presented much of a challenge for us in terms of push-back from partners, but as our editorial staff and investigations increase, it is something we will constantly monitor, and I am prepared for tough conversations and decisions to ensure that our reporting is not compromised by El Tímpano’s relationship with civic entities. 

That said, I’ve found that the partners we have established thus far are less likely to push back or pull out of a partnership due to our reporting ruffling feathers, as compared to more traditional funding sources like advertisers or major donors. That’s because they themselves, due to being a public agency or non-profit, are accountable to the community (and often are responsible for transparency with the public or their board) and cannot as easily make unilateral decisions.

Is there a limit to how many of these partnerships you can do without overwhelming your audience, especially for SMS messages? If so, how have you set that limit?

Great question. Yes, we are careful to not have too many sponsored messages, just as a newspaper or online site doesn’t want to be majority advertisement content. We don’t currently have a standard, but generally we aim for no more than 50 percent sponsored messages throughout any one-month span of time. (Usually, it’s closer to 20 percent.) 

The neat thing is that our audience generally responds to these messages just as much as our non-sponsored messages (if not more so), which is a great indication of the content’s mission-alignment. Our audience appreciates us connecting them with other local service providers or community agencies in this way.

Tactically speaking, how did you go about building relationships with the people/organizations that eventually became partners on these projects? How did you make sure they knew about your work?

For El Tímpano, our organization began by building relationships, so we’ve been out there building relationships with community and civic leaders for years. 

When we published our Information Needs Assessment report, because of relationships we built along the way with leaders who were really interested in this participatory research, I was invited to give presentations about our Information Needs Assessment at City Hall and to various local community organizations. 

Since the pandemic, because the communities El Tímpano reaches have been the most severely impacted by COVID-19, we really ramped up developing relationships and framing El Tímpano as a partner to support COVID-19 relief and recovery. This has involved being a part of community and coalition meetings with community-based organizations, public health officials, and others, and building awareness of our work in that way, as well as creating a feedback loop so that community leaders and public health officials could hear, in real time, the concerns that our community/audience brings to our attention.

Finally, what are your growth plans for this revenue stream? And what does your outreach to new prospective partners look like?

Due to revenue we’ve earned this year from paid partnerships, we are planning to hire a civic partnerships manager this fall/winter to expand this area of work. 

We currently have more potential partners reaching out to us than we have the capacity to handle. Once we have that person on board, we will start by mapping out how we want to grow in a way that makes the most sense for the long-term goals of our organization, audience, and revenue.

Read the full conversation with Madeleine in the News Entrepreneur Community Slack group (you can request an invite here), or listen to the News Guest interview on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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