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July 25, 2013, 10 a.m.

Ethnic media is more than a niche: It’s worth your attention

The head of the Urban Reporting Program at CUNY says that to ignore ethnic newspapers is to ignore a set of viable models that could inform the rest of the media business.

Karl Rove gets it. So do major advertisers, broadcast networks, and their digital offspring. To be a viable political or commercial force in America’s future, you must be able to understand and connect with an audience that is heavily made up of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans.

No surprise there, right?

Then why is there a paucity of research, education and funding aimed at producing excellent journalists and sustainable news outlets to serve that important and expanding audience? Why is ethnic media still relatively invisible to media analysts, foundations and journalism schools, and what are the costs to us if this trend continues?

New York City is, admittedly, an extreme example of media diversity: Three million residents — 37 percent of the population — are foreign-born, and less than a quarter of those residents report speaking only English at home. Not surprisingly, there’s a vibrant ecosystem of ethnic media to serve a population that speaks more than 170 languages. But a version of New York’s mishmash exists in suburbs and small towns across America. Multicultural media are everywhere.

So it’s puzzling that we still hear (including from my esteemed colleague Jeff Jarvis) about the declining fortunes of New York’s “three daily newspapers” when there are 18 dailies serving the city, nine of which are published in languages other than English. Some are simply reprinting news about their home countries and offer little local coverage. But many, like the Chinese-language World Journal or El Diario-La Prensa, offer page after page of local news and have reporting staffs that would be the envy of many metro dailies. The combined circulation of these 18 dailies exceeds 500,000. (By contrast, the New York Daily News delivers about 270,000 papers to the city’s five boroughs.)

To get our arms around this sub-set of the local media sector, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s Center for Community and Ethnic Media recently conducted a survey. The resulting directory, Many Voices, One City, includes information about 270 community and ethnic outlets that produce news in 36 languages, whether for print, radio, TV, or the web. We know there are many more such news outlets and we intend to keep adding to our soon-to-be-released online version of the directory.

Buried in our findings were some interesting nuggets: Of the 270 outlets, 31 cater to Latino audiences; the Pakistani community can choose from nine news outlets. And though the most recent U.S. Census identified just 7,000 Nepali residents in the city, the local Nepali community is served by three newspapers, one of which distributes 7,000 copies every fortnight. Overall, the sector remains active: In the last two years, for instance, there were 21 new entrants.

Unfortunately, there is little research about the business models of these ethnic and community publications. Anecdotally, however, they look and feel very different from the ones that are often the subject of media analysis. Sixty percent of those we surveyed have no circulation revenue; they rely almost exclusively on local advertising. Nearly half publish weekly newspapers, earning praise from advertisers who like the fact that the papers lie on kitchen tables for days at a time, available to multiple readers of households that are often multigenerational.

Although most of the city’s daily and weekly ethnic and community newspapers have nascent websites, many publishers tell us they see little point in devoting additional resources to them. They cite the lousy economics: the high cost of investment and editorial commitment in relation to a tiny revenue stream.

Are these publishers ignoring industry trends at their peril, or does one size not fit all? We know from other research that nearly half of the owners of the city’s small businesses — potential local advertisers — are foreign-born. And we also know that a high percentage of those small businesses — over 85 percent, according to one survey — have no presence of their own online. But without more detailed research and analysis, it’s hard to know what this all means for ethnic and community media outlets and their business strategies. Therein lies opportunity.

To begin serving the needs of this market segment, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism decided several years ago to launch an ethnic and community media initiative. We were encouraged to do so by Garry Pierre-Pierre, the founding publisher and editor of the Haitian Times. He understood the sector and its limitations, and believed the J-School could be an important force in strengthening it. Thanks to his foresight — and grants from the Ford Foundation and several other funders — we launched our Center for Community and Ethnic Media last fall. Pierre-Pierre is now its executive director.

Under the Center’s umbrella, we’ve begun to raise the visibility of this media sector with our website, Voices of NY, which curates (translating from 12 languages) the best stories published daily by 90-plus publications that we regularly review. The city’s commissioner of immigrant affairs, Fatima Shama, has called Voices an invaluable resource. To showcase the best work being produced by this sector, the J-School hosts an annual journalism awards competition called the Ippies. We were fortunate to inherit both Voices and the Ippies from the New York Community Media Alliance, a nonprofit that offered to transfer them to the J-School when it began running out of steam in early 2011.

We’ve also begun an aggressive training program. So far, we’ve held more than 100 sessions for community and ethnic journalists in everything from reporting and writing, to making videos and audio podcasts, to shooting better photographs and using databases. We’ve partnered with the New York Press Association to hold seminars on strategies for increasing advertising and circulation revenue. We’ve hosted a weekend boot camp on mobile news in tandem with the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California.

Most recently, we’ve begun an effort to improve political coverage of the city’s upcoming mayoral election. Thanks to a grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation, we’ve trained 15 political fellows and hosted Q&As with eight leading mayoral candidates. Given the importance that race and ethnicity are likely to play in this pivotal election, in which African-American, Asian, and Hispanic candidates are among those running, this kind of exchange proved to be mutually beneficial. We hope that it will also foster greater civic engagement.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of the J-School’s work with community and ethnic media as altruistic. Our students and faculty benefit daily from the stronger ties we now enjoy with this diverse group of journalists and their audiences. As the only public graduate school of journalism in the northeast, with about 40 percent of our students hailing from minority or immigrant families, our interest in this sector matches our mission. Voices of NY is a platform for our students’ work. Some students work as summer interns at these local publications, with a few even getting full-time jobs after graduation. Reporters and editors from the ethnic press have been guests in our classes and sources for student projects. Alums have even won Ippies awards.

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this relationship, but where we go from here is uncertain. As the recent Pew Research Center report on nonprofit news outlets demonstrated, publications like Voices of NY are highly dependent on grants from foundations, whose interests can ebb and flow. Many of the major foundations that support journalism frequently focus on innovations in technology and hyperlocal experiments. Web-only case studies like Baristanet, the New Haven Independent, The Batavian, and Voice of San Diego have garnered most of the attention of the profession’s thought-leaders. The subtitle of Dan Kennedy’s new book, The Wired City, says it all: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age.

There is no denying that a successful transition to a digital world is critical to the industry’s future. But with many news websites struggling to survive on digital dimes — and the prospect of a future filled with even less lucrative mobile pennies — perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. One of New York’s most promising web-only community news sites, The Lo-Down, last year made the counter-intuitive decision to publish a print magazine and credits that decision with its current economic viability.

There are some signs that the print vs. digital dichotomy is being reconsidered. Pew’s 2013 State of the News Media report, for instance, noted that “the very slow progress in digital advertising makes print editions, where the ads run alongside news and the physical product brings a package of inserts into the homes, seem worth taking another look at. For now, the consensus on the future of print seems to be shifting and even elongating somewhat, with more of an industry acknowledgement that it will be around for years, maybe decades, contributing a smaller but still significant share of revenues and profits.”

Based on our experience at the Center, what’s needed? A focus on innovation by grant-making institutions that encompasses both web-based and print/web hybrid models. Research into new topics: What are the characteristics of successful ethnic media outlets, many of which are hybrids? Are they different — and if so, how — from successful community news outlets? Given the embrace by Latino and Asian youth of mobile platforms, is there a business argument for print weeklies to leapfrog the web-based and page-based media world? When there is a critical mass of community and ethnic publications, what opportunities exist for joint ad sales, digital marketing services, or technological support?

Journalism schools can and should play a vital role in developing these new areas of research and experimentation. We have the facilities, the faculty and staff expertise, and an army of students already in place to undertake these new initiatives. And the cross-fertilization that results can help root journalism schools more deeply into local, often under-served, communities.

The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism has been in contact with several other journalism programs that are doing work with ethnic media and we would welcome hearing from others who are going down this path. We are planning a conference in early 2014 to critique our work, share best practices and identify ways we can partner with other journalism educators to amplify our efforts.

Given the demographic trends, there is little more important than helping to ensure high journalistic standards and sound business practices in this often overlooked but important media sector. Journalism schools should help lead the way.

Sarah Bartlett is the Director of the Urban Reporting Program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and a board member of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media.

Photo of ethnic newspapers in Australia by PJ R used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 25, 2013, 10 a.m.
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