This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from theKnight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Fernando Soto, CEO and publisher ofNuestroEstado.com. Nuestro Estado participated in the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes program in 2020-21.
You can also hear all about it on the It’s All Journalism podcast.
Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?
Answer: NuestroEstado.com serves Spanish-speaking communities in South Carolina, framing our questions and stories through the lens of our undocumented community. NuestroEstado.com was originally Recursos Estatales, which translates to State Resources.
I started the site in late 2018 as a hobby to provide resources and information to Latinos in Charleston, S.C., specifically about hurricanes. In the fall of 2019, I partnered with a local law firm to engage our small audience with its brand. The results were positive, so I partnered a second time. By that time, I was also covering some local news.
The partnership with the firm helped me grow the audience. So I rebranded and launched the site as a side business with the name Nuestro Estado in January 2020.
My full-time job was as a manager in the residential construction field. By March 2020, COVID-19 had hit the U.S., and like millions of people, I lost my job. Nuestro Estado HAD to work.
I began reporting on the pandemic and live-streaming press conferences from local and state officials with Spanish voice-over translation in real time, which I had done during hurricane season. From there, the site’s audience grew significantly, but so did our needs.
Quick growth, however, does not equal reaching sustainability, at least not for a small publication serving an audience that no one else knew how to serve.
Q: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
A: We needed to provide urgent information in a timely manner — and en español. But during an emergency like the COVID-19 health crisis or a tropical storm system, information changes almost as fast as it is shared. So we needed to build some sort of capacity AND be very careful to ensure the information we published was accurate, timely and culturally competent.
(Side note: I use “we,” because my husband, John Gaulden, has supported me through this adventure every step of the way. He’s a talented photographer, so his incredible creative skills are very useful for Nuestro Estado.)
Almost everything that was being published by entities that did not have Spanish speakers on staff was run through some sort of artificial intelligence translation. But that kind of translation typically does not work well — and it is potentially dangerous during a moment of crisis.
Nuestro Estado gained a lot of momentum, not just in Charleston but around all of South Carolina. Much of the momentum was due to our COVID-19 reporting. Then, our state’s department of health reached out. They needed help reaching Spanish speakers and especially agricultural workers in rural areas. The budget was small, but we took a crack at it. We put out information about COVID-19 in Spanish with the guidance of the health department.
This was strategically important because we could access funding to increase our capacity, but we needed to prove that it was effective first.
Partnering with the health department was helpful and incredibly important, but it presented new challenges. We were a team of two and only I spoke Spanish. That is not a problem when we can use Nuestro Estado to reach thousands at once, but that is one-way communication. It’s a challenge when you grow a following of over 10,000 and many of them want to communicate with you one-on-one.
We gave the health department unsolicited advice and pitched them additional efforts to help solve some of the problems. Our contract was renewed, and we hired contractors and trained them on our method of communicating with the community.
The core of our communication strategy is to meet people where they are and talk how they talk.
If we wanted our messaging about COVID-19 to be effective, we had to break it all the way down — not in a condescending way — but if there was a medical term or a phrase used mostly in academia, we would go out of our way to describe it and make it digestible.
When I meet people in person, I often ask what they like about Nuestro Estado, and one of the most rewarding responses I often get is “you explain things really well.”
Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?
A: This initiative is related to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”), Table Stake No. 2 (“Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences”) and Table Stake No. 6 (“Partner to expand your capacity”).
Specifically, our efforts evolved over the course of 2020 and 2021 largely in part to the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes program, which helped put processes in place and fine-tune things that were working. We were able to expand our work serving targeted audiences with target content. We expanded outside of the Facebook page and NuestroEstado.com to include WhatsApp, and we partnered with additional community stakeholders to fund our growing work.
Q: How did you go about securing funding for your start-up?
A: We believe in meeting people where they are — for our Latinx community that is Facebook. We saw that what we were doing was growing fast: In a year, we became the Spanish language news outlet with the largest Facebook following in South Carolina through pages for Nuestro Estado and Fernando Soto, surpassing publications that have been in the area for 10+ years.
We realized that our competitive advantage was that we knew how to gather news and how to make complex information digestible. And we understood the value of respecting our audience.
We could show our “early adopter” advertising partners that our audience was engaging and we could show that they found our content valuable. We found that our advertisers also needed help creating culturally competent messaging. We walked them through why simply translating content was not effective. They listened. They paid us to create content and then paid us to run that content on Nuestro Estado and other Spanish language media.
We set out to try to build advertising revenue from Day One to keep our news free and accessible. In 2021, about 57% of our total revenue came from advertising, followed by media production work (29%).
We walk clients through why representation is important in messaging and offer to create advertising content with a “for us, by us” model that they can also use on their own platforms and with other publications. You can check out some examples here, here and here – and yes, our models were cast from our local community.
By the end of 2020, we had four contractors whom we worked with regularly. Today, we are a team of six, and two of them are employees.
Q: What worked?
A: It’s the value of respect that helped us secure funding.
What do we mean by respect?
It means understanding that our audience does not necessarily have the same resources as other communities. I have been open about being undocumented, on DACA, and now a green-card holder. My success can be attributed to experiences and some privilege, but I could not have a functioning business, one that the community trusts, if I didn’t have the respect of my community. Some of us are lucky to have had the chance to go to college, but for many in our community, education was not an option.
Oftentimes, we encounter people who don’t know how to read or write. So, out of respect, we dedicate a lot of time to audio-visual content. We opened a WhatsApp line where we can communicate with folks through voice memos and one-on-one.
We have also added a chat bubble to NuestroEstado.com where people can chat with us.
COVID-19 vaccine information
We decided to have these open channels of communication after COVID-19 vaccines became available. Another of the many challenges due to lack of language access from entities was that people could not effectively register to get vaccinated. The registrations were in English, some were excluding undocumented folks, and some were just all around complicated for our audience.
On WhatsApp, we opened our phone line to answer questions. We went into that thinking we were going to combat misinformation surrounding the vaccine. Meanwhile, English-language media and marketing heads were saying that Latinos were not getting vaccinated due to misinformation. What we encountered was something contrary to that narrative.
As soon as we opened our phone line, people began to call, message and send voice memos. Their main question: Can you help me get an appointment to be vaccinated?
We pivoted our efforts to run an experiment to prove people did want to be vaccinated — there just wasn’t a way for them to do so.
So we communicated to people just in the Charleston area, through all of our methods of communication, that vaccines were happening at X place on X date. We asked them to communicate with us via WhatsApp to register. We would then log that on a spreadsheet and send it to the health department. The health department would then send us that spreadsheet back with each person’s appointment time and we would notify that individual.
Yep, it was a lot. Nope, we didn’t have capacity to do it at a statewide scale like our previous efforts.
So to make it work better, we decided to push the health department and other vaccine providers to partner with us to host vaccine clinics. It took several conversations to get them to understand why this made sense, even though we were not health care providers.
We partnered with the South Carolina NAACP and churches, and next thing you know, we had dates for vaccine clinics, including in other parts of the state. That was scalable. And it also helped us deepen the trust with the community and continue to grow our audience. But we are in the business of news, not health care. So once we hosted a couple of clinics, other organizations took over and we went back to informing folks of where, when and how.
By this time, registration was available in Spanish, and we got additional funding to create an entire campaign about how easy it had become for a Spanish speaker to get vaccinated.
In March 2020, we began using Google Analytics. By the end of that year, we averaged over 15,000 monthly page views on NuestroEstado.com with 2.81 pages per session. Like many publishers, a lot of that traffic came from Facebook (over 90%). We also saw that the bounce rate for the year was 7.13%.
We have recently launched some experiments to try to get our website traffic more diversified. We have started a pilot program that involves sending our audience direct links through SMS and WhatsApp but have not deployed it on a larger scale due to capacity limitations and the fact that they take significant financial investment that we currently don’t have. (But we are working on it!)
Q: What about your content keeps your audience coming back?
A: Our audience keeps coming back because they know we have their best interest in mind. We understand the sensitivity of undocumented folks, and they trust us to get answers and information without jeopardizing their safety.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: Now we have learned a lot from this experience and from the Table Stakes program. We use tools to help guide us such as the power-opinion matrix, which is a way of considering the different stakeholders in a situation. We talk about our assumptions vs. knowledge to get us out of our aspirational moods and into actionable ones. We are agile. The world around us is moving rapidly, and for many folks we are their source to keep themselves informed and families safe.
Now we try to find tools and resources that can help us solve problems and overcome challenges — not that we didn’t know we needed tools before, we simply didn’t even know what to look for or ask for.
Q: What advice would you give to others who are trying to reach a Spanish-speaking audience?
A: While no one else on the our team now has ever been undocumented, and even though I am no longer undocumented, I reiterate over and over that our work, regardless of what it is, needs to be thought through thoroughly from a lens of the most oppressed among us.
You don’t need to have that lived experience to ask: Well, how would this affect an undocumented person? How would it affect someone who doesn’t speak English? How would it affect someone who is maybe trans, undocumented, indigenous and doesn’t speak English?
You don’t need to have the lived experience of every identity, but as journalists, we know how to ask questions and how to get answers to those questions.
It’s important to note that representation and lived experience matter. I also know many of us have limited resources to hire additional team members. But when you do have the chance to add to your team, be intentional and remember that representation and lived experience matter.
Don’t cover something that you think the community might like or need. Ask them what they need and work through your own challenges, biases and assumptions to meet their needs. It is uncomfortable for us to step out of our comfort zone, but overcoming that discomfort has helped us build stronger relationships with our community. Without them, there wouldn’t be Nuestro Estado.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: Through our rural efforts, we also found that there was a population of folks who are categorized as Latinx/Latine/Hispanic but who don’t speak Spanish and instead speak languages native to the Americas.
There was a significant population of indigenous Latinos in one particular area with high COVID-19 infection rates. The health department was wondering why that region had such high percentages. We traveled three hours there and that’s how we found out that even though Spanish material was getting to them, it wasn’t accessible.
We are working to figure out how to serve people who speak Mixteco, one of the more popular indigenous languages in our area. We used part of our Ideas-To-Action grant to create an informational video in Mixteco that we are deploying this hurricane season.
All of these efforts have led to new opportunities. We are also in the early stages with a county board of elections to provide voter information in Spanish. We are in continued talks with the state emergency management division to see how we can expand our hurricane season information efforts before, during and after a storm.