How data gathering and community partnerships helped our outlet reach overlooked audiences

Published on
June 8, 2021

When journalists think of data, images of spreadsheets and public records requests likely come to mind.

But what about stories for which there is no publicly available dataset? What if no one has asked people about the problem you want to investigate?

This was my situation when I began looking into poor rental housing throughout San Luis Obispo County for my 2019 Data Fellowship project. 

It’s an open secret that many tenants in our expensive housing market on California’s Central Coast deal with substandard conditions in their units, especially low wage workers and residents who primarily speak a language other than English. 

But no one had ever asked these tenants about their housing situations. We didn’t know what types of living conditions they’ve faced, how they’ve coped with poor rentals, or what challenges they face when looking for new units.

To fill this gap, my senior fellow Paul Overberg, data journalist for The Wall Street Journal, and Center for Health Journalism engagement editor Danielle Fox and I decided to build our own dataset. We created a survey to ask renters about their experiences with help from the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), a nonprofit that has done similar work in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

My colleague Cassandra Garibay and I distributed these surveys by canvassing door-to-door, handing them out during focus groups and posting versions online. 

But we didn’t undertake this effort alone. It was essential for us to partner with community and news organizations that already have residents’ trust, especially because we really wanted to reach Latino renters who primarily speak Spanish or indigenous languages. 

Our primary collaborator was the Promotores Collaborative of San Luis Obispo County, a group of volunteers that provides resources to the area’s Latino community. The Promotores live in the neighborhoods where they work and understand the experiences of local residents. They were our partners from day one, and they really helped us shape our project goals and strategy to ensure that our journalism would be a service to the community. 

This connection was vital because we were asking tenants personal questions about their living situations, and we needed a partner who could conduct the surveys in Spanish and help residents feel safe and supported.

We used my grant funding to pay the Promotores to canvass with us and hold focus groups in two different communities on the northern and southern ends of the county. The funding also allowed us to pay members of the Promotores’ leadership team to help us coordinate our surveying and outreach efforts.

We were ultimately able to survey nearly 200 renters in more than five communities throughout the county. Many residents reported struggling with poor housing conditions, which few tenants said they’d reported to city or county authorities. The dataset these surveys created formed the backbone of my project and represented information no one else in my county had ever gathered. 

But the partnership with Promotores extended beyond our pre-coronavirus outreach efforts and continues to this day. 

During the pandemic, the Promotores asked if we could produce a guide with specific information about state and local COVID-19 rules regarding evictions and renters’ rights. We were so pleased they trusted us enough to request this guide, which Promotores handed out at local food distribution sites and posted online.

Through our canvassing efforts, we also learned there’s a large population of renters who speak Mixteco, a language indigenous to regions of Mexico. We produced renters’ rights guides in English and Spanish, but many Mixteco speakers prefer audio resources rather than written ones. To reach this community, we paid a Promotora who speaks Mixteco to translate the guide and read it in a video that we uploaded to YouTube.

The San Luis Obispo Tribune has not historically done a good job of serving communities of color, especially those who primarily speak a language other than English. 

To better reach a Spanish-speaking audience, we also teamed up with KTAS-Telemundo, which broadcasts news to viewers throughout San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. 

News Director Jose Guzman worked with us to produce several news segments highlighting our stories and resources. One segment featured a panel with legal aid attorneys and a Promotora, in which they shared information about tenants’ rights and community struggles in Spanish. 

Our work with Jose was a collaborative process, not a transactional one. We had multiple meetings to discuss what kind of content would work best for the KTAS audience and how best to cross-promote content from both our outlets. 

The relationship between The Tribune and KTAS also extended to a separate project from Cassandra on young voters in San Luis Obispo County. Cassandra and Jose were able to create segments to share Tribune surveys and information with KTAS’s Spanish-speaking audience.

Throughout my project, our community and media partnerships allowed us to reach renters who are vulnerable and gather crucial data that showed the pervasiveness of substandard rental housing throughout county. 

But they also continue to help us directly provide residents with needed resources. For example, we gathered contact information during our canvassing work, which we then used to create a database of renters we can email and text stories and renters’ rights information.

Our work with the Promotores and KTAS also enabled us to learn about Latino residents’ experiences and get a better sense of how our journalism can reflect the entirety of our coverage area, not just the audience we’ve typically pursued.

This project really showed me that data journalism should go beyond numbers and include engagement work and relationship-building that allows reporters to connect with the communities they’re covering.