Q&A: Bilingual reporting is a necessity

The Oaklandside didn’t plan to launch during a pandemic or an era of nation-wide protest. Yet, here we are. 

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The non-profit newsroom, a self-described “small but mighty team of local journalists working for Oakland,” aims to bridge the gap between journalism and community: actually asking community members in Oakland what they want to see covered. 

Founded by the people behind Berkleyside and Tasneem Raja, the former Editor-in-Chief of the Tyler Loop, the outlet started pre-pandemic with several community listening sessions. The question that drove their work: “How do we build an outlet for local journalism that is rooted in, representative of, and responsive to communities in a city as diverse, complex, and powerful as Oakland?”

Azucena Rasilla first came to The Oaklandside as a curious potential reader: she wanted to see what the community listening sessions were all about. Rasilla, a long-time arts and culture journalist based in Oakland, first covered Oakland’s undocumented community for The Oaklandside. Now, as a staff writer, she’s back on her beat full-time for the outlet. 

I talked to Rasilla about what it means to work at The Oaklandside, the coverage gaps being filled by the non-profit outlet, and how critically important it is to reach the community where they are (in Spanish and English): on their website, on Instagram, or on paper.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

What, to you, is The Oaklandside? 

Early on, they started with community events where they were meeting in-person with community members in different neighborhoods to get a sense of what the reporting needs were (obviously in a pre-pandemic world, which was a decade ago, it feels like).I was part of those discussions. I was going into those community events because I wanted to get a sense of what the newsroom was going to be like. This was even before they announced that they were hiring. They had mentioned that they were going to build a newsroom, but they didn’t have positions open yet.  

I was really impressed by the way that Tasneem [Raja] was handling the conversations and how invested they were and to really figuring out what each sort of neighborhood needed. Right? Because like in Oakland, you know, the needs of someone in like Montclair, the richer area of Oakland – it’s totally different from somewhere like East Oakland, right? Or like Fruitvale, which is mostly like Latinx. 

I was really impressed just by how she was starting to develop what she wanted the newsroom to look like. I knew that it was going to be the type of newsroom that was really going to cater to all of Oakland, regardless of the neighborhood you live in, and she was really making a conscious effort to make sure that the reporting reflected those values. And then obviously, when they finally announced the positions that were up for grabs like arts and culture: that’s been my beat for a number of years. So I jumped at the opportunity to apply. 

Are you reporting differently than you used the report? What is it about The Oaklandside that is different or new in the way that you’re doing your work? If anything at all? Or is it a home to do more of the same reporting that you were doing before, like at KQED?

They didn’t hire the full staff like they were planning to because of the pandemic. They sort of pushed the opening of the actual newsroom. And when the pandemic hit, I had the opportunity to chat with Tasneem about joining as a freelancer when they started covering the pandemic. Because, you know, at that time, I feel like between March and May, we all turned into public health reporters. So at that point, I knew there was a great need to report on what the undocumented community was going through in Oakland. 

I said, “Hey, I know that you guys are not hiring right now, but obviously I’m a freelancer and I would love the opportunity to freelance and cover the undocumented community. And I would love to do some bilingual reporting.” And she was on board right away. From March to May, I just covered the undocumented community and how they were being affected by COVID. 

So obviously I’m not a health reporter, right? I had to kind of learn how to navigate that. Part of my reporting even covered the undocumented community from the arts and culture perspective. So that wasn’t different. It was just what I was writing about. And then when they were able to go back into the hiring process, I was invited back to continue with the interviewing process. 

Arts and community and the way that you write about that topic, now it’s completely different, right? Because arts and culture is kind of at a kind of weird moment right now when so many cultural places and entertainment stuff are closed. So the angle is figuring out how to cover what creatives are doing. It’s really just covering how people like creative and cultural institutions and smaller cultural places are working as the pandemic drags on to like longer. Obviously a lot of the people that I had reported on in the past, they were really excited that I was joining this new venture and my reporting is already known in the community. I was happy that, you know, even my passive work kinda reflected onto this new newsroom, and people were confident that I was going to do right by Oakland’s story.

Do you think that there were enough outlets or there was enough news coverage before The Oaklandside? The number of papers in the Bay has been shrinking, right? Were there still opportunities to really cover these communities and write for them before this? 

Yes and no. Obviously the San Francisco Chronicle has East Bay, specifically Oakland, reporters. So they were covering some stories. The East Bay Times, obviously with a really shrinking newsroom, also are still covering the story. KQED, I was writing for them the most. I remember other, you know, other outlets, like The Bold Italic, which is a Medium publication and they’re based in San Francisco — they gave me a chance to cover Oakland a little bit more from the arts and culture perspective. The East Bay Express… I mean, you know because we talked about this before. I mean, none of the freelancers that I know were writing for East Bay Express, so their coverage about Oakland was very minimal. 

I think in the way that Oaklandside is focusing their reporting? That was lacking. That was not there. And what I mean by that is to really focus on listening again — really base it off of listening to the community — and find out exactly what they wanted. I think we’re filling a void obviously in much-needed coverage. I mean, we have an education reporter, which other papers don’t even have. 

We also have a Report for America reporter. So he’s covering immigrant businesses and side of small businesses in Oakland. So that was also an area that was lacking before, with other publications. And then kicked-off Oaklandside en Español. So I’m in charge of that vertical and figuring out news and original reporting on my end that could be in Spanish. And then obviously stories written by my other colleagues that could potentially benefit Spanish speaking readers. So we’re working on that as well. I’m really happy. I think we’re doing really good work. It’s a really good support system with three editors. The feedback from readers and from members of the community have been really positive. I’m excited that people are being receptive to the work that we’re doing. 

You talked about an education reporter being able to report and having stories in Spanish. What would it mean to have that void and no reporting? What does that gap look like if you don’t exist? 

Before I joined The Oaklandside as a full-time staffer and I was freelancing, I was seeing the lack of information for Spanish speaking residents. Obviously you have TV stations, right? But the way that they cover the pandemic is very quick TV clips, because they’re not focused on one city. They have to cover like the entire Bay area. It’s not as much information as they would want to report or to make sure that people get the information. 

Even when the pandemic hit, I wasn’t reading stories and I wasn’t seeing information about where people, specifically for the undocumented community, where could they go get free food if they were out of work? Where could they get tested if they needed to get tested? Before the eviction moratorium was set in place, who can they talk to or where can they go or who can they call to get information about rental assistance when they were not being able to pay the rent? So I was not seeing that coverage. Early on, when I was still freelancing, I knew that I wanted for that to be my focus. 

We also have a housing reporter. She did this really comprehensive Oakland-based list on the eviction moratorium. She did a call out for community members to give her questions that they had about the eviction moratorium and rent fees and all of that. So she put together this comprehensive list of what you need to know about the eviction moratorium. And then I ended up translating that into Spanish, because I knew that Spanish speaking readers and residents would need that information. And then I worked on a comprehensive list of COVID testing sites in Oakland. I gave my experience of what it was like for me to get tested. 

Even that story, on social media, I ended up doing an Instagram slides. To this day, that post is like the most-viewed, shared, saved, posts. So even thinking of other ways that people engage with like their news, you know what I mean? Maybe someone is not going to read a thousand or 1,200-word story on testing sites. The question is: How can we as a newsroom make sure that people have the information readily available? So I immediately thought, ‘Hey, Instagram posts are quick ways for people to get their information. Let’s just get the information out there’. And so I just put it together… slides with the name of the testing sites, when they were open. I think that, as a newsroom, we’ve just sort of been thinking of ways besides just people reading on the site for people to get their news and information.

Does that mean like physical flyers as well? Some folks obviously don’t have internet access, so like how have you navigated that if at all? 

There was another story that the housing reporter worked on and it was about a Caltrans lawsuit where they owed money to unhoused people that had their personal items discarded by Caltrans. So with that, she did the story, I translated the story, we did slides on Instagram, and then one of the editors made a flyer. They ended up passing out the flyers and posting the flyers at different campsites throughout the city. Because again, like you were saying, especially people who are unhoused might not have access to the internet, so they might not be able to like read the story on the site. So how could we pass out that information for those who need it?

Is there anything else you want to speak to in terms of your work at The Oaklandside? The Objective is read by a lot of journalists of color, so if there’s anything you think would be useful for them to know, feel free to say it. 

I think honestly I’m really proud that my ideas, coming from the frame of being a journalist of color, have been really well received by my editors. Obviously Tasneem [Raja] is a woman of color, you know. Jacob [Simas] is Latinx. So I’m really happy that when I brought up the idea of like, ‘Hey, you know, we should really do bilingual reporting,’ they were receptive. I think right before bribing the pandemic hit, I remember tweeting something like if you’re a newsroom in an area where there is a majority of residents that are Spanish speakers, you’re doing a disservice to our field by not doing bilingual reporting. 

I was tapped-in to help develop the KQED en Español site, which has now taken off and they’re doing really amazing work. And then there was another local in San Francisco [publication], Mission Local, that started doing bilingual reporting when they were writing about the mission. They started doing bilingual reporting as well out. And then the Chronicle ended up doing another story in Spanish. So I was really happy to see that other local outlets are taking on just how crucial it is to have bilingual reporters. I feel like oftentimes that’s always an afterthought, right? It shouldn’t be. It should be like a crucial component of any newsroom. 

So I’m really proud that from when I was a freelancer, and they had the idea of starting a Spanish section covering the pandemic, that I was tapped in to help translate these stories for KQED. And obviously now under The Oaklandside, I’m just really proud that my editors knew that that wasn’t an afterthought. They knew that yes, we needed to dive in, and really do bilingual reporting. I know our field is sort of always on like shaky ground. 

Newsrooms that have the potential to do bilingual reporting should. It shouldn’t be an afterthought. 

Gabe Schneider is the lead editor at The Objective. Azucena Rasilla is an arts and culture reporter at Oaklandside. Copy editing by Marlee Baldridge.

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The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

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