What happens to that reader revenue strategy when your readers can’t spare it?

How El Tímpano is turning its relationship with low-income audiences into a fast-growing revenue stream.

August 18, 2021 by Ben DeJarnette

Image of Madeleine Bair, founder of El Tímpano

At first glance, Alameda County, California, is not a “news desert” — not with its deep bench of daily and weekly newspapers and promising digital startups

But like other market failures, news deserts rarely fall neatly along county lines, despite the best efforts to map them that way

In Alameda County, for example, the news ecosystem for middle- and upper-class tech workers who can afford $14/month subscriptions exists side by side with a deepening news desert for low-income residents, especially those who don’t speak English. 

That’s why I wanted to learn more about the business model for El Tímpano, a civic media organization that serves the Latino and Mayan immigrant communities in Oakland. 

Founded in 2018, El Tímpano always faced an uphill climb to become financially sustainable, because its primary audience isn’t broad enough to attract major advertisers or affluent enough to support a reader revenue strategy. 

Even many philanthropic funders balked at El Tímpano’s audience profile. 

“Funders have told me that we can’t scale, that we’re too small, and that journalism for low-income immigrants doesn’t make an impact,” El Tímpano founder Madeleine Bair says. “To find solutions, I realized I had to look beyond philanthropy and beyond reader revenue.”

One promising solution is El Tímpano’s fast-growing revenue stream around civic partnerships, which first emerged as an opportunity during the 2020 U.S. Census count. 

With hundreds of Oakland immigrants subscribed and actively engaging with its SMS reporting platform, El Tímpano won a contract to help Census officials reach and engage a segment of the community that they’d historically struggled to count.

The paid partnership helped ensure that “hard-to-reach” immigrant communities in Oakland were informed about the census, why it matters, and how to be counted — and it soon led to more partnership opportunities, including a contract with the local health department to distribute information about COVID-19 safety and vaccine access. 

“It turns out that the public health department has funding that they want to invest to reach the communities that we’re reaching,” Madeleine says. “To not forge a relationship would be to leave money on the table.”

In our latest News Guest episode, Madeleine explains how she’s turned civic partnerships into one of El Tímpano’s biggest and fastest-growing revenue streams — and how she plans to build on this momentum even once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. 

Got questions about El Tímpano’s revenue strategy or the details of their civic partnerships? We’ll be hosting an “Ask Me Anything” chat with Madeleine in the News Entrepreneur Community Slack group on Monday, September 13 at 10am PT, and you can submit questions in advance here

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