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10 Ethnic newspapers retain stronghold in struggling industry

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As America's major newspapers continue to lose readers and cut reporting staffs, thousands of smaller publications are flourishing.

These news outlets are not catering to Internet users, nor are they trying to reach a generation that has lost interest in the news.

Instead, they depend on loyal immigrant communities that prefer the news in their native tongues.

"Basically all the Chinese people get our paper," said Florence Tso, deputy general manager of the Sing Tao Daily's Bay Area edition.

Tso and other editors of ethnic newspapers large and small say that steady immigration and their intense community focus keep readers loyal and the papers profitable.

"In the dollar amount, we are growing, so they don't have a problem with us," Tso said.

From New York to Chicago to San Jose to Los Angeles, major English language newspapers are losing readers, laying off reporters, cutting back news pages and worrying about advertising revenue.

While making strides on the Internet, mainstream U.S. newspapers found their print circulation was down 2.6 percent in the six months ending in September.

Contra Costa Times circulation has remained steady. But Knight Ridder, the paper's parent company and the nation's second-largest newspaper company, is exploring a sale or dissolution of the chain.

New ethnic publications continue to hit the newsstands without concern for the Internet or larger market forces. A recent study by New American Media found that nearly a quarter of U.S. adults consume some form of ethnic media, including about 8.7 million people who rely on ethnic newspapers as their primary news source.

"La Opinion does not have problems with layoffs or circulation," said assignment editor Jorge Macias of the nation's largest Spanish daily, based in Los Angeles.

To be sure, relying on immigrant readership can be a liability when immigration trends slow.

The Korea Times, a five-section Korean daily printed in Oakland and a dozen other U.S. cities, has had a dip in readers as Korean immigration has fallen, said editor in chief Nam Hong.

Still, the paper has been available in the Bay Area for 36 years and many loyal readers have subscribed for 35, Hong said.

"The reader for the Korea Times -- they are most concerned about the economy, money, immigration and education," Hong said.

Trusted news sources

The ethnic press in the United States is a booming, highly varied wing of the media that serves American communities -- new and old -- in ways that mainstream papers have not.

"The mainstream, Anglo-Saxon, papers don't pay attention to the same topics," explained Macias, speaking in Spanish. La Opinion is now owned by ImpreMedia, a newspaper group that also holds major Spanish papers in Chicago and New York.

Macias said his paper has a captive audience: hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants from Latin America who rely on it for news relevant to their experience here and for news from their homelands.

"The focus of La Opinion is a community service much more so than the mainstream papers," he said.

Community members echo those perceptions.

Chia-Chia Chien, chairperson and CEO of the Culture to Culture Foundation Inc., said it is difficult to get mainstream media to cover Chinese community events, particularly in Contra Costa County where she works. But the two major Chinese newspapers always show up.

"They are so involved in what we are doing," Chien said. "The Chinese community knows about all of our projects."

Several recent studies have confirmed that millions of Americans -- 51 million adults by one count -- use ethnic media and that they generally find the reports more believable and relevant than mainstream American news sources.

And it's not just general coverage of their cultures that irks immigrant readers. It's mainstream reports on their native countries, too.

"There's certainly a widespread mistrust among immigrants about what mainstream media says about things going on in their countries," said Rufus Browning, political science professor emeritus at San Francisco State University and co-author of a 2003 study of ethnic media in the Bay Area. "They want to read stuff that makes sense to them about their native country."

Browning's study, "News Ghettos, Threats to Democracy, and Other Myths About Ethnic Media," found that new Latino and Chinese immigrants to the Bay Area use ethnic media at high rates. Even as they learn English and begin to consume English language news, they continue to rely on their ethnic community media.

Media firms want in

While often sheltered from the circulation and reader loyalty concerns of publicly traded media companies, ethnic media may face a threat of being gobbled up by mainstream media.

"Much of ethnic media is small business media," said Richard Landry, executive director of the Independent Press Association in San Francisco. "Consolidation is a fact of life in American media."

Mainstream newspaper companies have made efforts to capture ethnic readership, particularly Spanish speakers, for at least two decades, but the pace has increased in recent years.

Mainstream media companies owned 91 Latino publications in 2004, or 13 percent of the nation's Latino papers, according to the Latino Print Network.

"There's a real interest in this marketplace," said Pueng Vongs, editor at Pacific News Service, an ethnic media news wire coordinated by New American Media, formerly called New California Media.

In September, the Contra Costa Times introduced a Spanish weekly, Fronteras de la Noticia, across the Bay Area. It is written and designed in Mexico, printed in Walnut Creek and incorporates four pages of translated Times stories every week.

Mainstream media is not always successful with ethnic publications. The San Jose Mercury News, also owned by Knight Ridder, dropped its 9-year-old Spanish language Nuevo Mundo this month, soon after Fronteras appeared. The Mercury News also closed its Vietnamese weekly, Viet Merc. Both had been money losers in the face of significant competition.

When first introduced, both papers were greeted with suspicion by indigenous ethnic media, Vongs said. But Vietnamese readers eventually accepted the Viet Merc as part of their media diet. Nuevo Mundo's closure leaves numerous family-owned Spanish weeklies across the Bay Area.

"Ethnic media really has this tradition of enduring despite financial problems because the owners are so committed to serving their communities," said Sandy Close, founder of New American Media.

Latino journalists are concerned that papers like Fronteras with less community focus will not be good for Latino communities.

"We're just concerned that more and more newspaper companies try and go the cheap route and outsource coverage," said Ivan Roman, executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

"Spanish language papers that cover the Latino community in the United States have a particular mission and have stronger ties to the community -- qualities that an imported paper cannot fill," Roman said upon the closing of Nuevo Mundo.

Times publisher John Armstrong said Fronteras does not aim to be a community-based weekly. He said the interest of mainstream papers is not just in ethnic media, but in "targeted publications" in general.

"It's just an effort to drill down and get closer to the readers and the advertisers," Armstrong said. "There is no publication now that's a clear leader in Spanish in the entire Bay Area."

Future of ethnic media

The Bay Area media study led by Browning predicted that the number of local Latino and Chinese media users would double by 2030.

Along with these two growing ethnic presses are the numerous Korean, Indian, Filipino, Russian, Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, African-American and American Indian publications readily available. An Ethiopian television station just went on the air in the South Bay and a Bay Area Czech/Slovak newsletter is circulating on the Internet.

Another sign of the times is that future reporters at UC Berkeley's journalism school are now interning with ethnic media outlets in the Bay Area.

"We live in an increasingly multi-ethnic society," said Susan Rasky, senior lecturer at Berkeley's journalism school. "The reporters working for these news organizations are covering stories with a completely different set of eyes."

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Copyright ©2004 Contra Costa Times. All Rights Reserved.

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