Ethnic – Summary Essay
In a year that saw the inauguration of the country’s first black president and the arrival on the Supreme Court of the first Hispanic justice, the ethnic news media managed to stay in relatively good health, despite the worst recession since the Great Depression, although some bruises and scars were picked up along the way.
Some segments fared noticeably better than their mainstream counterparts. While ad revenue for television over all fell 8.3% through the first three quarters of 2009, for instance, Spanish-language television ad revenue fell by just 0.7%. And African American television ad revenue rose 31% compared with the same period in 2008.
There were areas of trouble. Several publications closed, consolidated or cut back how often they appeared and an attempt to create a national Hispanic newspaper failed. Black magazines took a severe battering even by the standards of the beleaguered magazine industry. Arab publications struggled to produce advertising revenue and a handful of planned television channels delayed launch dates.
Perhaps more than anything else, 2009 spoke to both the unique appeal and particular fragility of media outlets that appeal to specific ethnic groups.
Historically, the ethnic media in America have served multiple roles for audiences. [See our content study on ethnic newspaper front pages from 2006.] They cover stories about the activities of those ethnic groups in the United States that are largely ignored by the mainstream press, they provide ethnic angles to news that actually is covered more widely, and they report on events and issues taking place back in the home countries from which those populations or their family members emigrated.
These outlets have also traditionally been leaders in their communities. “I think it is a key part of ethnic media’s function and reason for survival,” said Hayg Oshagan, an associate professor of communication at Wayne State University.1
But, despite rapid growth in ethnic populations, the new decade also poses tough challenges and opens the door for new competitors.
One challenge is the evolving population. Most ethnic groups are seeing their U.S. population grow, but much of that growth now comes from second and third generations, people who were born in the United States. These are people are likely to speak and read more in English, which could mean less reliance on native-language news.
Estimated Population Growth
|Design Your Own Chart|
Source: Pew Hispanic Center http://pewhispanic.org/files/reports/85.pdf
Both the ethnic and mainstream media in 2009 were already taking steps to address such a shift. At least two native-language outlets adopted bilingual or English-only formats. Vida en Valle, for example, a California-based newspaper switched from Spanish only to a mostly English format. [Read more, here.] And a bilingual, daily Nichi Bei Times closed in September 2009 to re-emerge a week later as the English-language nonprofit Nichi Bei Weekly.
Some mainstream media also noticed the shift and sensed opportunity. The Tribune Company, for instance, in December introduced Tribune Hispanic, an advertising initiative aimed to reach Hispanic consumers through print, Internet, television, mobile, digital signage, events and more. In October, CNN aired a two-part program, Latino in America, covering issues about and deemed of interest to Hispanic Americans. And, public radio’s StoryCorps introduced StoryCorps Historias, which seeks to capture and archive the stories of Hispanic Americans in an audio format.
Financial stability is another challenge. Many ethnic media outlets come from small operations without the deep pockets that may help larger media operations withstand economic slumps or market turbulence. In response, some ethnic publications in 2009 began more content sharing, both within and among different ethnicities. One Vietnamese newspaper in Seattle, Nguoi Viet Tay Bac, established a content-sharing partnership with a Spanish-language paper and another Vietnamese paper.
Also, a major African American newspaper, the Afro-American, collaborated with impreMedia’s Spanish-language publications on an editorial about the importance of health care legislation to minorities. New America Media, an advocate for ethnic news outlets, set up online collaborations between ethnic media organizations in Los Angeles and New Orleans.2
Still another challenge is the Internet and its growing accessibility among ethnic populations. Asian Americans already use the Internet at a higher rate than the average American. And the rate for African Americans and Hispanics has begun to climb.
The growth has both positive and negative potential. Now, news directly from outlets back home is as close as a laptop or cellphone, bringing new competition for U.S. ethnic news media.
But the Internet has also presented new opportunities, foremost the ability for small-budget operations to reach a broader audience. Native American radio stations, for instance, now stream their programs on the website Native Voice One so listeners can tune in even if they do not receive a radio signal. In addition, developments like mobile technology hold promise. Both African Americans and Hispanics use mobile technology to access the Internet at higher rates than the average American.3 This has already given several ethnic media organizations the push to produce mobile Web content.
Moreover, the sour economy has also presented opportunities for ethnic media by forcing cutbacks at mainstream news organizations. “The economy will continue to constrict mainstream media to focus on stabilizing its core media assets and not expanding to reach its expanding ethnic audiences,” said Neil Foote, a senior lecturer at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas.4
Throughout all these shifts and challenges is a characteristic at the root of most ethnic media: There is a passionate sense of mission in this sector, an attitude that creating an ethnic press and serving these communities is a calling, not just a job or even a business. When a Japanese newspaper, Hokubei Mainichi, for example, moved to an online-only publication and then announced that even the Web site would fold, one employee stepped up. As a one-person volunteer shop, he has, so far, kept the site active.
That sense of mission may help this sector survive hard times. Yet as immigrant populations become a larger part of American culture in the 21st century, this sense of mission will increasingly run up against the colder financial rationality that pervades more establishment media companies. And as ethnic media grow, and become more mainstream, that collision will only become more likely.
1.Hayg Oshagan, interview with PEJ, November 24, 2009.
2. The LA Web site LA Beez aggregates six Los Angeles-based ethnic publications and partners with California State University-Northridge’s journalism department. The New Orleans site NOLA BEEZ is a collaboration of seven New Orleans-based ethnic news organizations.
3.Hispanics are second only to African Americans in mobile broadband usage. (“Internet Access on the Handheld,” Pew Internet & American Life Project.)
4. Neil Foote, interview with PEJ, December 18. 2009.