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March 17, 2022, 10 a.m.
Business Models
Reporting & Production

“We ask”: How the bilingual Cicero Independiente taps the community to identify information needs

“We want to serve people like our parents: Immigrants, monolingual Spanish speakers who have specific needs and many stories to tell but who are often left out of mainstream media.”

This Q&A is part of a series from the Institute for Nonprofit News on how nonprofit news outlets serve communities of color. Nieman Lab is republishing it with permission. You can read more about the series here.

Irene Romulo” is development coordinator for Cicero Independiente, which launched in 2019 to serve the majority Latinx towns of Cicero and Berwyn, Illinois. The interview was conducted by Sara Shahriari, INN’s director of leadership and talent development, and Emily Roseman, INN’s research director and editor.

Sara Shahriari and Emily Roseman: Could you tell us about your news outlet? What sort of services does Cicero Independiente provide? What’s your primary mission?

Irene Romulo: Cicero Independiente is an independent, bilingual news organization serving the people of Cicero and Berwyn, Illinois. Both communities are majority Latinx, working-class towns with a history of corruption and what seems to be a hesitancy to adapt to changing demographics. For example, although monolingual Spanish-speakers comprise a large part of the community, public meetings do not provide interpretation or translation services, making it difficult for people to engage in local democracy.

Our reporting meets the needs of our community by connecting residents to crucial information about local resources, amplifying residents doing good things and investigating local government agencies to push for accountability and transparency. We also pay and mentor local youth to report on issues that matter to them, such as this feature by a past youth reporting fellow.

Shahriari and Roseman: When did you start working at Cicero Independiente? What does your role look like?

Romulo: I am one of the three cofounders of Cicero Independiente. When we first launched all three of us wore many hats, but now I focus on our fundraising and community engagement. A lot of what I do is heavily influenced by my experiences as an organizer. Everything we do comes down to building strong relationships with our neighbors and partners so that our journalism is reflective of what our community needs, and making sure our journalism is accessible.

We recently interviewed some of our readers about their information needs as part of our work with the Listening and Sustainability Lab. One of them said she wants local organizations to be both community-needed and community-wanted. We know we’re community-wanted because of the outpouring of messages, news tips and support that we receive from local residents both in person and online. Our hope is to remain that way.

Shahriari and Roseman:Who does your outlet primarily serve, and how do you know this? Is your current audience different from who your outlet intends to serve?

Romulo: Our primary audience is the Latinx, bilingual community of Cicero and Berwyn. We want to serve people like our parents: immigrants, monolingual Spanish speakers who have specific needs and many stories to tell but who are often left out of mainstream media. We also want our work to center and amplify the experiences of bilingual youth of color who are the driving force behind local organizing efforts. All of our coverage features local experts and community members. We also spend a lot of resources conducting off-line outreach to ensure we’re reaching people who have little to no access to our online content.

Although not currently our primary audience, we also realize that we have a big opportunity to amplify and build relationships with the small, but growing, Black population in this town. Cicero is a former sundown town and non-Black Latinx people have benefited from, and sometimes been behind, anti-Black violence. We have a duty to make sure that we don’t erase or ignore the stories of Black residents.

Shahriari and Roseman: You mentioned specific needs. Could you tell us more about Cicero Independiente’s approach to discovering information needs?

Romulo: Before we even launched, one of our cofounders conducted extensive interviews with local residents at a coffee shop to learn about the topics that interested them the most.

Then at our launch event, which was kind of like a big block party with a film screening, we also asked attendees about what we should cover. After we launched, some of our team members used to spend a lot of time talking to people at bus stops and laundromats to learn about their information needs. These efforts were paused when COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were put in place, so we shifted strategies. We’ve conducted online surveys and Zoom interviews with community members but the most important shift we made was joining existing community spaces to learn about information needs.

Shahriari and Roseman: How did you go into the community without being intrusive?

Romulo: Instead of creating new spaces to reach people, we asked if we could join local coalitions. This included a COVID-19 working group composed of local agencies, representatives of elected officials and local parents. We knew the meetings were public and open to any Cicero resident but we wanted to make sure that our presence as media would not create discomfort for attendees. Before we showed up, we asked organizers if we could attend and we made sure to explain that we wanted to join in order to learn how we, as a media organization, could help make more information accessible. When we’re in the spaces, we also make sure to let people know that everything they say is off the record. If we want interviews, or to share anything someone says, we’ll ask for permission first. We’re building trust, and transparency about our intentions is crucial.

Shahriari and Roseman: What were the information needs you unearthed, and how has your outlet met these needs, particularly for communities of color?

Romulo: One of the coalitions we joined is the COVID-19 working group. At those meetings, our role is to listen, take cues and meet information needs when we can. We’ve partnered with members of the group to host virtual events, create updated resources and investigate the local government’s response to COVID-19. We’ve also created explainers and social media graphics based on questions that have been brought up by parents at those meetings.

Everything we create informed by our involvement in these coalitions is always published in both Spanish and English. The investigations we publish are accompanied by useful information, such as this handy know your rights article that is also available as a poster.

Shahriari and Roseman: How is your outlet making sure the coverage or product you produce is meeting information needs?

Romulo: We ask. We’re constantly testing out different strategies to reach different members of our community. Although Cicero and Berwyn are majority Latinx communities, we are not a monolith. We need different information and we consume and access things differently. We’ve tried using online surveys, virtual interviews and, to reach younger audiences, quick Instagram polls. We conduct in-person outreach whenever possible.

We also ask other organizations to let us know how we’re doing. Many of them have long-standing relationships and day-to-day interactions with the people we want to reach so their feedback is valuable. We also know that not everyone who lives in Cicero and Berwyn has access to internet-based resources so we also print and distribute paper editions of our work.

Last summer we published an 11-part series documenting the uprisings that took place in Cicero, which recently won two INN inaugural awards. We wondered whether anyone had read them and so we sent out an online survey. One responder said, “I was hearing a lot about [what happened] in the news that didn’t come off the right way but the [series] captured what happened accurately.” This kind of feedback lets us know we’re doing something well.

Shahriari and Roseman: Do you record that feedback? Where and how does your team review and incorporate the feedback you receive?

Romulo: Yes! We use a Google form to track the messages, social media posts and in-person feedback that we receive. We’re not always the best at staying on top of it; we remind each other a lot so that we’re all contributing to keeping track. In the past, we’ve reviewed survey results during our team meetings and we’re constantly sharing insights on Slack. The editorial team, which is very small right now, uses the feedback to decide what stories we pursue with our limited resources. The feedback also informs our projects. Next year, we’re planning to launch participatory reporting projects that have been informed by Zoom interviews with our readers.

Shahriari and Roseman: Anything else you want to mention about how Cicero Independiente serves people of color in your community?

Romulo: In 2020, we launched a paid youth reporting fellowship. Participants receive journalism training and report on issues that matter to them. Running the fellowship is a lot of work but we think it is crucial that we create well-paid opportunities for young people to shape our newsroom.

Two of the fellows that participated last summer are now members of our steering committee and are helping make decisions about the future of our organization. The majority of our reporting contributors and illustrators are also local youth who had never worked with a news organization. Working with them to produce stories they are proud of is a big lift and it often means that our stories take a bit longer to publish but it is worth it. By amplifying the work and the voices of people of color in our community we are helping to create more pathways for them. Some of the people we’ve profiled have received invitations to be speakers at major events after event organizers read about them on our website. Past writers and illustrators are now working with other newsrooms and getting paid to produce work that advances more equitable coverage of communities of color.

Shahriari and Roseman: What’s next for you and Cicero Independiente? What are your plans for 2022?

Romulo: This year we’re prioritizing our internal development. We’re a fiscally sponsored organization but hope to incorporate as a worker-led nonprofit in the future, so we’re working on our bylaws and figuring out what a community advisory board and membership would look like for us.

Cicero Independiente Development Coordinator Irene Romulo (front row in purple) along with reporting fellows and the volunteer steering committee. Photo by Jesus J. Montero.

POSTED     March 17, 2022, 10 a.m.
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