The State of Ethnic Media

As the recession persists and mainstream newspapers close, ethnic media outlets face a different reality.

By Cindy Von Quednow Jun 02, 2009

As a reporter for the daily Chinese newspaper in San Francisco Ming Pao, Vivian Po covered a variety of issues about the vast Chinese-American and immigrant population. She wrote stories on elder abuse, domestic violence and immigrant education. But last February, the newspaper’s offices in San Francisco and New York closed.

“I didn’t feel it coming that soon. I was completely shocked when I received the call,” said Po about receiving the news just days after returning from a vacation in her native Hong Kong.  

Ming Pao competed with four Chinese newspapers in the Bay Area. That reality coupled with the severe economic recession led to the newspaper’s demise, Po said.

Mainstream newsrooms across the country have been on the edge for several years. They’ve lost readers to free online news outlets and blogs and most recently the economic recession pushed several to either make dramatic changes or shut down. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer transitioned to strictly online content, and the Rocky Mountain News closed its doors earlier this year.

Ethnic media are also not safe from the crisis, as Ming Pao’s experience illustrates. But journalists in this industry said their fate might not be as grave as that of mainstream newspapers.

“At the beginning, the economic recession did not affect [ethnic media] as much, but since the recession became more severe eventually it affected ethnic communities and businesses, and since there is a chain reaction, it affected the bulk of ad revenue of ethnic media,” said Julian Do, the Southern California Director of New America Media, a news service and collective of ethnic news organizations. “However, their model is more resilient with standing up to the crisis. They are more flexible to cut backs… they won’t totally shut down [as mainstream media might]. A number of ethnic media did close, but when compared to mainstream, it pails in comparison.”

According to a study of ethnic media outlets conducted by the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism, 68.4 percent of media outlets considered the most important factor of their jobs to be providing a voice for their community, while success as a business was ranked third. The study also found that despite low to modest pay, 39 percent of participants stayed with their publication for 11 years or more, and 32 percent consider their organization healthy and as a place where there’s potential to grow.

According to NAM, ethnic journalism reaches more than 50 million Americans. Their own site features a directory of more than 2,000 print, radio and online media in 55 different languages.

Because ethnic media have never relied on big corporations for advertisers, their ad sales are not being greatly affected, said Juana Ponce de León, the executive director of the New York Community Media Alliance and editor of Voices That Must be Heard, a collective of ethnic press in New York City.  

“(Ethnic media) are not losing huge accounts and haven’t toppled economically because they are small, wide spread and have more of a flat foot,” she said. “Advertising is more of a mosaic of small businesses, causing no big holes in ad revenue as it would by big corporate advertisers.”

While ethnic newsrooms are expected to survive, journalists worry about what the shrinking newspaper industry might mean for media coverage. As a recent study conducted by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) shows, 5,900 mainstream newsroom jobs were lost last year, 854 of which were held by people of color.

Voices That Must be Heard reflects the wide range of cultural diversity that exists in a metropolitan city. People from all over the world, including Pakistan, Colombia and Germany, are represented in the New York Community Media Alliance, something that Ponce de León says is lost when the journalists of color are fired from mainstream newsrooms.

“Losing reporters that are sensitive to a community and already have access to those communities has an impact,” said Ponce de León. “The burning of bridges and losing that type of connection between mainstream and communities of color is a serious thing.”

According to ASNE, 458 newsrooms have no people of color on full time staff, a figure that has been growing since 2006.

Kevin Olivas, director of the Parity Project at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, said the current economic downturn has affected the association’s efforts to include more Latinos in mainstream outlets and improve the coverage of Latino communities across the country. The most serious example is the closing of the Rocky Mountain News, the daily paper in Denver, Colorado, where 32 percent of the population is Latino.

“It’s a challenge because it seems as though those efforts of diversity are put on the backburner, when we need to increase diversity,” said Olivas. He added that people turn to ethnic media because they cover stories that matter more to them and ethnic media tend to have more multiracial newsrooms.

Even before the recession hit, mainstream newspapers were struggling to continue publishing print editions at a time when more of the readers are getting their news online. Ethnic media doesn’t have that concern necessarily. Do believes that the need for printed ethnic media will remain.

“The audience cannot make the transition to the Internet so quickly,” said Do, who is also the manager of LA Beez, a hyper local news site of various ethnic publications in Los Angeles. “Five years from now online media will play a stronger role [in ethnic communities], but that remains to be seen.”

The journalism industry did not lose Po, who, at 24 years old, landed a job at New America Media. She’s working there now as a newsreporter and Chinese-language media monitor. “I hope ethnic publications stay strong,” she said. “They should be able to stay strong.”

Cindy Von Quednow is an editorial intern with ColorLines.