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How nonprofit newsrooms translate stories to better reach audiences

By Vignesh Ramachandran

August 17, 2022


Translating English-language news coverage to other languages continues to be a key strategy for many newsrooms trying to better serve their communities, as well as grow their audiences.

INN researches how nonprofit news organizations serve communities of color and more diverse segments of their readers, listeners and viewers. In INN’s recent Q&A series with nonprofit news leaders, multiple outlets highlighted translating stories or events to a non-English language as a key tactic. While translating journalism, bilingual reporting and non-English language news outlets are not new, many nonprofit newsrooms have renewed or launched new efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic to reach the people most affected by the public health crisis. Those efforts will only continue to gain importance. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey, about a fifth of people speak a language other than English at home. 

In this study, we highlight translation initiatives at four INN member newsrooms: Injustice Watch in Illinois, Honolulu Civil Beat in Hawaii, Voice of San Diego in California and WFYI Indianapolis in Indiana. These newsrooms also shared advice for other news organizations that are considering how to translate stories into non-English languages.

Background information

Injustice Watch was founded in 2015 as a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that covers issues of justice and equity in the court system. The nonprofit employs 11 staffers and is based in Chicago — the nation’s third-largest city, with an infamous history of governmental corruption and racial inequities. More than 35% of Chicago households speak a language other than English, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Honolulu Civil Beat launched in 2010 to cover public affairs topics across Hawaii. Based in Honolulu, the news organization became paywall-free and nonprofit in 2016. Civil Beat says its mission is to “engage and educate the community on important public issues through in-depth reporting, explanatory and investigative journalism, analysis and commentary.” The organization employs 32 people, and technology entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar is the publisher. Hawaii’s population is majority people of color and includes large numbers of Asian, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and multiracial residents. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates about 26% of Hawaii residents speak a language other than English at home.

Voice of San Diego was founded in 2005 as a nonprofit news organization that covers complex local public policy issues and produces accountability journalism. Voice of San Diego employs 15 people. Based in San Diego, the newsroom centers a key region in Southern California that is a hub for cross-border commerce and cultural exchange with Mexico; the city of San Diego is only about a half-hour drive to Tijuana, Mexico. About 37% of San Diego County speaks a language other than English at home, and 34% identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

WFYI Indianapolis is a member station of NPR and PBS. WFYI is home to Side Effects Public Media, which reports on health news across several Midwestern cities (Indianapolis; Carbondale, Illinois; Columbia, Missouri; Des Moines, Iowa; and Louisville, Kentucky). Side Effects focuses on issues that include mental health, addiction, rural health, criminal justice and health inequities. All its work is available for free republishing, including its translated work. There are nine reporters and editors affiliated with Side Effects, as well as a dedicated community engagement specialist, Brittani Howell.

Identifying the need

Injustice Watch: Chicago’s Spanish-speaking population is growing and Injustice Watch’s Spanish translation efforts are in direct response to that growth, according to executive director Juliet Sorensen.

Injustice Watch has also been thinking about bigger picture organizational goals, including how to reach more Black and Brown readers in the Chicagoland area. These conversations emerged at a time when the newsroom was expanding coverage to include the intersection of immigration and the justice system.

Editor-in-chief Adeshina Emmanuel said the first Spanish translation efforts began with Injustice Watch’s judicial election guide, in partnership with Univision. “Our editorial team then began seeking strategic distribution and reporting partnerships with organizations who were interested in translating our work, and building in translations as part of the reporting costs and editorial process for the stories we were working on,” Emmanuel said. (Since this interview, Emmanuel has moved to become the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting at Louisville Public Radio.)

Honolulu Civil Beat: The Hawaii newsroom recognized that its existing audience did not fully reflect the diversity of Hawaii’s communities. Deputy editor Nathan Eagle and reporter Anita Hofschneider said Civil Beat still has a startup culture of trying new things, over a decade after its launch, and had been thinking about translating for a long time. 

As the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, including the Hawaiian Islands, Hofschneider received a grant from the USC Center for Health Journalism to write about COVID-19 health disparities, and the grant’s engagement component was used to fund translations of the newsroom’s first non-English-language stories. Civil Beat published service journalism pieces and resources about the virus in Marshallese, Chuukese, Kosraean, and Tagalog so more communities could get vital information.

Photo provided by Civil Beat

“We didn’t necessarily have a ton of readership, as I would have initially hoped,” Hofschneider said. “But we really did get really great community feedback just about how significant it was to see their languages in Civil Beat.” After the grant wrapped up, Civil Beat launched a series — Ka Ulana Pilina — which translates one news article into the Hawaiian language each week.

Voice of San Diego: The need for Spanish-language stories and resources is clear in San Diego County, according to the organization’s chief operating officer Julianne Markow, because the Spanish-speaking and Hispanic populations are continuing to grow. Almost a quarter of adults in the county speak Spanish at home. Markow described the neighboring cities of San Diego and Tijuana as one metropolitan region with a daily flow of people who move back and forth across the border for work and education. Voice of San Diego’s translation efforts “came from a desire to reach a broader audience and from a desire to serve people who maybe were shut out of having the kind of [in-depth] news that we provide,” Markow said. “There’s plenty of Spanish-language media in San Diego, but not necessarily investigative journalism, government accountability journalism that we do.”

Voice of San Diego translates its work into Spanish in three ways: 

  1. Its annual parent guide to public schools — which includes a print publication — pulls test, attendance, and other data related to public schools in the county. In 2018, the newsroom started translating the guide: Out of 50,000 copies distributed that year, a little under half were in Spanish, Markow estimated. The guide was distributed in places like child care centers, Head Start programs and community service organizations. The newsroom also partnered with Univision to help distribute the guide.
  2. Voice of San Diego offered simultaneous interpretation for live events, including its annual public affairs summit, Politifest, which each year focuses on an upcoming election or other civic issues. In 2019, Voice of San Diego hired two professional interpreters to do simultaneous interpretation for some sessions. Of the 30 sessions on a Saturday, for example, five or six were interpreted. A community partner lent headphone equipment so attendees could listen to speakers in Spanish. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as Politifest moved online, the organization provided interpretation over Zoom.
  3. The newsroom also published select stories in Spanish, as well as worked in partnership with a Tijuana newsroom, the Tijuana Press, to co-report and co-produce a project.

WFYI Indianapolis: Largely because of refugee migration trends, Indianapolis reportedly has the largest Burmese community in the U.S. So as the COVID-19 pandemic struck the region, Side Effects decided to work with Indiana University students to translate crucial pandemic resources into Hakha Lai, the language spoken by many Burmese Americans. “Because we know we have a really big immigrant population here in Indianapolis, we wanted to make sure we weren’t neglecting them and neglecting issues that particularly affect them,” Howell said.

One of the core ideas behind community engagement is to ensure the reporting being done in a community actually gets to them, Howell explained. “But a lot of people in that community [might not] necessarily speak English, or they’re more comfortable accessing the information in their native language.”

That’s why Side Effects decided to also translate important pandemic coverage and resources into Spanish. “While we were all in the same storm, so to speak, we were not all in the same boat,” Howell said. “People were bearing the burden of the pandemic differently, based on a lot of different cultural and socioeconomic factors that we wanted to be cognizant of.”

Creating a newsroom workflow

Injustice Watch: The organization chooses what to translate based on whether it is newsworthy and whether it might be of “significant interest to Spanish-speaking audiences,” Sorensen said. In addition to the judicial election guide, that content included accountability reporting about judges, police officers and other public officials, as well as reporting on immigration issues and Spanish-speaking communities. In 2022, Injustice Watch partnered with the Chicago Tribune to cover Illinois’ growing population of aging undocumented people — a series that was translated in Spanish.

Injustice Watch works with a primary translator “because they have subject-matter expertise, which makes their work very quick and efficient,” said Amanda Miley, director of development and operations. The newsroom occasionally works with other translators or partner news organizations that might be able to do the translation in-house. INN previously partnered with Injustice Watch to fund translations for several stories and projects.

Final copy is usually sent to the translator and then reviewed by bilingual reporters at Injustice Watch for accuracy. Translation rates have ranged from 12 to 20 cents per word. “We try to publish our stories concurrently in English and Spanish,” Miley added.

Honolulu Civil Beat: Eagle said both the Ka Ulana Pilina project team and the wider newsroom contribute to a list of stories they all want to see translated. “Some are obvious because they’re for the Native Hawaiian population, but others are a broad general interest.” Civil Beat worked with the University of Hawaii to identify translators and built up a group of two to three go-to people. Eagle assigns a few stories at a time to a translator, who returns them in a Google Doc. Another staffer at Civil Beat who is fluent in Hawaiian is able to backread the translations and Eagle moves the text into the CMS, including translations for headlines and cutlines. Once you get into a groove, Eagle said, “you can do it pretty quickly.” The translators are paid at a per-word rate, so the cost varies based on story length. Eagle estimates the cost per story averages around $200.

Voice of San Diego: For its live events, the organization hired professional interpreters. For story translations, it selects pieces it believes have relevance and resonance with underserved communities and works with outside partners to translate stories into Spanish. The partner group charges per project for the school guide and per word (about 11 cents per word, Markow estimates) for any printed material or audio translations. There are Voice of San Diego staffers who do internal proofreading for the translations.

WFYI Indianapolis:  Indiana Public Broadcasting News (a regional journalism collaborative of Indiana NPR/PBS stations and partner of Side Effects) created and translated an evolving COVID-19 Q&A resource. Side Effects worked alongside them to gather the questions and distribute the translated version when it was complete. As the translation work continued, other stories are also translated, sometimes based on demand from Spanish-language media outlets in Indiana that want to redistribute a piece.

In addition to in-house translators who speak Spanish, Side Effects received grant funding to support working with LUNA Language Services to translate written and audio work stories. And during the pandemic, Howell said, the budget normally allotted to community engagement events was unused, which freed those funds for translation work.

The network effect

Injustice Watch: The organization’s website features an Español tab at the top of its homepage that links to all of the Spanish-language work. Sorensen said Injustice Watch also promotes translated stories across social media, partners with bilingual outlets (such as Borderless Magazine, Cicero Independiente, La Raza and Univision) and produces Spanish-language community programming with its bilingual reporters.

Honolulu Civil Beat: The Ka Ulana Pilina project, which translates stories into Hawaiian, publishes each Thursday. The project gained exposure via publicity from other news outlets and academic sources, as well as among teachers who are using the translated reporting as a tool in the classroom.

Voice of San Diego: Getting content translated is not hard, Markow said. But ensuring that work is seen or heard by the right people? “That’s where we still have work to do.” The newsroom’s biggest distribution success has been bilingual from the beginning — a joint reporting project between journalists in Tijuana and San Diego about river sewage and water scarcity issues that plague both communities. It is reported and distributed by both Voice of San Diego and the Tijuana Press, which Markow described as a trusted news source in the Spanish-speaking community. “That has a lot more effect. Now you’re reaching the Mexican audience in Tijuana, as well as some people in San Diego who read the Tijuana Press.”

WFYI Indianapolis: Side Effects worked with Spanish-language media outlets across Indiana — including La Voz, El Puente and the ​¿Qué Pasa, Midwest? podcast — to redistribute its translated work. Howell framed it as a win-win situation: Working together helps the journalism reach the right audiences and, for partner outlets, it lifts some of the burden off reporting those stories, freeing them up for other stories and projects.

Side Effects also experimented with holding a Facebook Live entirely in Spanish, addressing misconceptions and common issues that Spanish-speaking patients face with COVID-19.

The response

Injustice Watch: Miley said translation efforts have helped Injustice Watch expand its audience and more easily partner with newsrooms that produce Spanish-language content. Emmanuel said staff members have been supportive: “It’s helped us immensely to have bilingual reporters on our team who can review the translations for accuracy and problem solve with translators around concepts that might be challenging to translate into another language.”

Honolulu Civil Beat: For Civil Beat, success with translation is not measured in clicks. Eagle said part of the goal is to help prevent a language from going extinct: “If we can just do a small, small part of that by creating a space to do that on a regular basis, then that’s the least we can do in my opinion.” Hofschneider added, “It felt like such an urgent need to also be providing information in Hawaiian, because this community’s history of language loss is just so significant.”

Civil Beat’s efforts have paid off and become sustainable. What the organization initially thought would be a once-a-month publishing cadence immediately turned into a weekly schedule, thanks to funders who quickly signed on. “We did have a handful of folks who were saying — even existing smaller donors — ‘This is the reason I’m going to give more this year because this project is really cool,’” Eagle said. “It’s heartwarming.”

Down the road, Hofschneider and Eagle hope they can publish both the English-language and Hawaiian-language versions of a story on the same day — a goal that will take more coordination, they said.

Voice of San Diego: Markow said candidly that forays into translation have had “mixed success” so far. Generally, people have appreciated the translations that reach the audiences the outlet is trying to serve. But the organization experienced smaller turnouts at some events, she said, and aims to do better promotion in the future. “That is pretty much true across the board for anything when we do it in translation,” she said. “We have a good intention, but we’re not so good at getting the audience to show up.” Voice of San Diego has been most effective when partnering with community organizations. 

Markow said the Politifest sessions with interpretation were “well received because we had done outreach to a specific community where there are a lot of Spanish speakers.” Voice of San Diego partnered with an adult English education program and about 20 people benefited from the interpretation. With COVID-19 moving events online, it’s been difficult to measure the impact over Zoom. Markow believes it could be helpful to have a Spanish version of the organization’s post-event surveys to get additional feedback.

Moving forward, Voice of San Diego plans to continue working on Spanish-language translations and received requests for translations in Tagalog and Somali. Expanding depends on finding trusted translation partners and having the funding to make it happen, Markow said. The organization also plans to conduct listening tours in communities it wants to reach, and will continue to listen to readers, community leaders and advocates.

WFYI Indianapolis: Howell said Side Effects hasn’t gotten a lot of direct audience feedback, but has received positive response from its Spanish-language media partners. “The outlets…have been really appreciative of having stories that they feel like address their communities and their audiences’ concerns.” She said there is more work to do — measuring impact, developing relationships and understanding what is most helpful and meaningful — but current partners have said the stories do well through their outlets.

Side Effects is moving forward with translation, including in story-specific languages. For example, a recent story that involved an indigenous Mayan language could be translated, Howell said. “We’re trying to find someone who can translate it with as much commitment to the fidelity of the journalism as possible.” The story was ultimately published in Chuj, English and Spanish.

Ana De Gante, ESL director at Seymour Community Schools in Indiana, supports what she says is a growing number of international students at the high school. Photo by Carter Barrett for Side Effects Public Media

Side Effects is also embarking on a project in partnership with  IUPUI (Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis)  to publish resources about lead risks in non-English languages commonly spoken across the area. In addition to providing a public service, Howell hopes this project can also yield a story. “​​We’re fulfilling our public media mission of putting information into the hands of people who need it and can use it.”

Advice for other news outlets

  1. There must be commitment throughout the organization. That’s the most important thing, Voice of San Diego’s Markow said. Without organizational support, it’s difficult to commit the resources — time, money and people — to translation initiatives. Markow also recommended having a point person. “If someone doesn’t own it and isn’t held accountable for it, it doesn’t work very well.”
  2. Start translation initiatives with something small and consistent. Instead of feeling like the whole website or every single story needs to be translated, reframe the effort with a tailored approach. Civil Beat’s Hofschneider recommended starting with one or two articles. “Having something small is still valuable, even if it’s not like a big regular feature. Even if you find that maybe it is a little bit more difficult, I feel like once a month is still better than not at all,” she said. “You never know how the community will respond and what you might be able to learn from it.”
  3. Momentum can build from that small starting point. “If you’re working in a community where there’s an indigenous language, or a migrant community who you think wants access, I would just start small and then see who in your community really wants to support the effort, and then scale up from there,” Hofschneider said.
  4. Consider the content. For example, at Injustice Watch, “It’s important to not solely translate stories about immigration, because you don’t want to signal to Spanish-speaking audiences that that’s the only issue you think matters to them,” Emmanuel said. 
  5. Have multiple trusted translators. Civil Beat recommended having at least two or three translators in rotation so there is always a backup. Voice of San Diego suggested asking a trusted source for recommendations, since professional translation providers that work nationwide tend to be expensive. Side Effects also recommended turning to trusted sources: “Most community organizations, government entities and nonprofits have to provide some kind of multilingual resource just to serve their client base. Ask them: ‘When you need to translate something, who do you work with?’ Then approach the resource directly to ask about pricing and reach and other logistics,” Howell said. 
  6. Have a plan for distributing the work. It’s not enough to translate your journalism and hope it will find its audience. Side Effects’ Howell recommended identifying the key information sources in a community and reaching out to them — whether that’s a community newsletter, a newspaper, a podcast or a curated Facebook page. “If you are offering them something that they don’t actually need, then it becomes less of a gift and more of a burden,” Howell said. “So it’s really better to start with the conversation of: We would like to reach this community. What information needs are you observing? How can we help fill them?”
  7. Cultivate trust and partnerships. You can’t just parachute in, said Voice of San Diego’s Markow: “It’s naive to think that you’re going to start translating and, suddenly, people are going to read you because you’re in whatever language you’re translating to.” Be a trusted source or be willing to build that credibility.
  8. Go for it! “Some of the initial barriers that I envisioned are not as high as they actually turned out to be, like the raising funds for paying the translator,” said Civil Beat’s Eagle. “Then on the workflow side, that was not nearly as heavy a lift as I envisioned.” Eagle encouraged newsrooms to try translation because it’s doable. “It’s more possible than you might imagine.”
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