Journalistic Mission: The Challenges and Opportunities for Ethnic Media

Journalistic Mission: Map of Ethnic Media

The Challenges and Opportunities for Ethnic Media

As many mainstream news outlets disappear, some areas of the United States have seen an explosion in new media offerings aimed at various ethnic groups, reflecting the nation’s changing demographics. By 2045, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that non-Hispanic whites will be outnumbered by the current minority population, composed primarily of African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos. This suggests a broader journalistic mission for ethnic media in the coming decades. UNC identified 950 ethnic news outlets in the country in 2020. Researchers Bill Arthur and Jeremiah Murphy examine the state of ethnic media in America.

As the makeup of the country’s population changes, ethnic news outlets are playing a key role in providing essential news to groups of people who often get scant attention in the mainstream press. “News deserts are not only geographic,” says Madeleine Bair, founder of El Tímpano, who spent nine months researching the information needs of the Spanish-speaking residents of Oakland, California, before launching her publication. “Local news outlets certainly cover a local community, but they don’t necessarily cover or serve all communities within that geography.”

Ethnic media publications cover a wide range of nationalities, cultures, languages and generations. Some publications, like the 145-year-old African American Savannah Tribune or the Native American Navajo Times, reach out to more established communities, while newer Latino news outlets, such as North Carolina’s La Noticia, target newly arrived Hispanic residents in that state. “With ethnic media, you have the niche of the niche,” says Sandy Close, founder and director of the San Francisco-based Ethnic Media Services, which works to foster and sustain ethnic news outlets. “You can’t get more local.”

These news outlets cover issues of daily importance like schools and local politics, as well as the specific health issues affecting their communities.155 “In the best case, we are undercovered. In the worst case, we are ignored,” says Hilda Gurdian, La Noticia’s publisher. “People watch our news in order to survive in this country,” said Univision anchor Jorge Ramos in a recent American Press Institute article. “We are providing essential information. … How does one receive a scholarship, how does one get medical insurance, how to vote on the day of elections.”156

More than information, ethnic news outlets offer a counter-narrative to the mainstream. “The Black press was never intended to be objective, because it didn’t see the white press being objective,” Phyllis Garland, the first African American to be a tenured faculty member at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said in a 1999 documentary.157

Like the mainstream media, many ethnic media outlets are struggling to stay profitable, but they also face specific issues that make the larger challenges all that more difficult. Not surprisingly, the biggest growth in ethnic news outlets has occurred in the states with the largest minority populations. Here is the current state of ethnic media, based on analysis of the 951 ethnic news outlets identified by UNC:

  • California has the most ethnic media outlets (142), followed by Texas (96), New York (91) and Florida (76). California and Texas have minority populations that in total outnumber the white, non-Hispanic population. Florida and New York have minority populations of 46 percent.158
  • The overwhelming majority of ethnic media outlets are in urban areas, suggesting that growing communities in rural areas are underserved.159
  • The largest number of ethnic news outlets are aimed at Latin-Hispanic communities, which are growing at a rate that eclipses all other groups, even though immigration from Latino countries is down in recent years. A Pew Research Center study found 224 Latino-Hispanic newspapers, 173 TV stations and 27 radio stations.
  • The African American population is served by 243 newspapers, 28 radio stations and seven TV stations. While the African American population growth hasn’t increased like the Latino community, there has been a sharp increase in immigrants from African countries, according to Pew.160
  • Some 35 news outlets in the UNC database serve the Asian American community, and 10 more are aimed at Native Americans. Other communities, Polish, German, Italian, Russian and others, are served by 67 outlets.
  • Ethnic media outlets are mostly independent businesses, with the exception of a few conglomerates such as Entravision Communications (28 Hispanic/Latino outlets), NBC Universal (26 Hispanic/Latino Outlets) and Univision (20 Hispanic/Latino outlets). Independent news outlets —such as the newspaper the Weekly Bangalee, the “AfroLatino Podcast” Afrosaya and the 100-year-old Japanese newspaper RafuShimpo — face the same business challenges as mainstream outlets: how to make money and stay in business.
  • Ethnic media is most often presented in the language of the target audience – Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese. In general, first-generation immigrants tend to rely on receiving information from newspapers, television and radio in their native language.
  • Like most news outlets, ethnic media publications are increasingly experimenting with delivering news beyond traditional print formats. El Tímpano uses, text alerts to provide timely information, both for news and for emergencies like wildfires. “People want to know, is it safe for children to be outside?” says Bair, the El Tímpano founder.

The Business of Ethnic Media

Print and television are still heavyweights in ethnic media, with digital and mobile platforms growing quickly. Some ethnic news outlets are large, such as African-American News & Issues, a minority, woman-owned weekly that claims a distribution of 113,000 in Texas. Some are corporate owned, such as Gannett’s La Voz in Phoenix, Arizona, which distributes 60,000 free copies of its newspaper to racks in grocery stores, shopping centers and restaurants every Friday. Others are small start-ups whose owners include “a full-time musician, a used-car salesman, an immigration lawyer and an assistant teacher,”161 who use income from their “day jobs” to support their news operations.

Advertising is the main source of revenue for most of these outlets and is as much a source in crisis for ethnic media as it is for the nation’s mainstream news media. African American news outlets were particularly hard hit in the 2008 recession. “When the car dealers and airlines stopped advertising, we lost huge amounts of revenue,” says Frances Jackson, publisher of The Chicago Defender, one of the most influential African American newspapers through much of the 20th century.162 African American newspapers also suffered when tobacco companies stopped their print advertising — Philip Morris in 2004, followed by R.J. Reynolds in 2008. “Cigarettes as well as alcohol, both of those, hit us pretty hard, because they were big advertisers,” says Gerald Johnson, publisher of the African American newspaper The Charlotte Post.

Several factors make the ad dollar harder to get for many ethnic media outlets. They frequently have smaller audiences than mainstream counterparts and can’t charge as much for ads. Historically, many ethnic outlets have not been audited by independent organizations examining their circulation and ratings,163 which also makes advertisers reluctant to buy space and time in them. Some advertisers have been slow to recognize the buying power of ethnic communities. The result is that many large national advertisers have overlooked ethnic outlets, forcing them to rely more on “mom and pop” advertisers.164

Still, these outlets reach audiences that English language publications do not, so some advertisers seek them out. “We get them the results that they want,” La Noticia’s Gurdian says. She estimates the buying power of the Latino community in North Carolina at $14 billion. “They are consumers, the same as everybody else.”165

Many ethnic news outlets, such as the century-old New York Amsterdam News and the 86-year-old Los Angeles Sentinel, have a significant digital presence, supplementing print revenue with online advertising and subscription plans. The Sentinel is available on its website, as an e-newspaper, as an e-blast and on a Sentinel mobile app as well as in print.166

The Chicago Defender, 115 years old, is now all digital; it ended its print edition in 2019.167But going digital presents its own problems. While digital ad revenue has been increasing across the industry, it hasn’t often benefited many ethnic news outlets. Some observers say that as much as 85 percent of new digital ad revenue goes to Facebook and Google.168 In addition, digital advertising sells for far less than print advertising.

“It’s nowhere at the level of revenue” that outlets gained from print and broadcast ads, says Close of Ethnic Media Services. Consequently, many outlets have turned to pay walls, or digital subscriptions, for revenue. But except for some esoteric publications aimed at small, select audiences, subscriptions rarely produce enough revenue to keep a publication going. And subscriptions can be a problem for ethnic outlets, whose readers are often on the lower end of the income scale. Median individual income in 2018 was $31,000 for African Americans and $28,000 for Hispanics, compared with $44,803 for white, non-Hispanics.169

Then, too, people have been used to getting information for free on Facebook, Twitter or other social media. “Consumers of news, they’re so used to getting everything for free that they don’t want to pay to be subscribers,” Jennifer Parker, editor and publisher of CrossRoadsNews in Decatur, Georgia, said in a 2019 interview with the Medill News Leaders Project. CrossRoadsNews ended its weekly print edition in 2018.

Some ethnic outlets have turned to grants and funding from corporations, charitable foundations or even local governments to run operations. However, ethnic media outlets received only 2.1 percent of the total funding that philanthropic foundations gave all local media outlets from 2010-2015, according to the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.170 Also, reliance on such funding can leave a news organization beholden to its sponsor. The Democracy Fund reports that Native American “tribes own and mostly control 72 percent of all native print and radio operations in the United States.”171 The result is that Native American media outlets are often perceived to be agents of the tribal government rather than unbiased chroniclers holding those governments accountable to the communities they serve, the fund said.172

Other ethnic media outlets receive funding by being a “sister publication” to a mainstream outlet —where both papers share the same owner and some resources. Two examples are El Nuevo Herald with The Miami Herald and Al Día with The Dallas Morning News. The City University of New York writes that this type of relationship often means that Spanish language news isn’t a priority: “Editors are often asked to translate content from the English publication into Spanish to fill the pages of the publications for the Latino readers but rarely get their own, original, content translated into English,” the CUNY report said.173

Also a possibility are mergers and cooperative agreements, such as ImpreMedia’s purchase of the Spanish language daily Hoy New York from Tribune Co. in 2007174 and the Baltimore and Washington Afro-American papers combining their printing operations in 2015.175 However, mergers and acquisitions can also lead to closures. ImpreMedia shut down Hoy New York in 2009, and the Tribune Publishing Co. closed Hoy in Chicago in late 2019.176

By necessity, ethnic media outlets are trying new ways to produce revenue. Sandy Close says one Northern California publication told its staff to work from home and rented out the first floor of its building to pay printing costs. Many outlets have added event planning to their business models. Event planners “want to develop events and develop traditional experiences for the African American community, but they just don’t know how to do it, and they don’t want to be offensive in the kind of things that they create, so they hire us,” Hiram Jackson, chief executive officer of Real Times Media, the parent company of the Chicago Defender, said in an interview with the Medill Local News Initiative.177

The expanding digital landscape also offers other opportunities for innovation. To enlarge its audience to English speakers, Radio Ambulante, a podcast that tells long-form stories about the Latino experience, created an app, Lupa, that teaches people Spanish while they listen to episodes. The app generates revenue through subscriptions, monetizing the opportunity to bridge Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish-speaking listeners.178

Ethnic Media’s Value: Past, Present and Future

Spanish language media has been with the United States since before the country began. Print news first hit the New World in 1541 — in the form of a single-issue Spanish-language publication detailing the effects of a Guatemalan earthquake. The first published periodical in North America was the Mercurio Volante, published in Mexico in 1693, beating The Boston News-Letter, the first English-language periodical in North America, by 11 years.179 “Journalism in the Americas thus began in Mexico, when it was joined politically to the area from South Carolina to the Florida peninsula and west to the California coast as part of the Spanish Empire,” write historians Nicolás Kanellos and Helvetia Martell.180

The first Spanish-language newspaper in the United States was El Misisipí, published in 1808, followed by El Mensajero Luisianés in 1809. The Spanish-language press would go on to serve many communities: first, long-standing native Hispanic communities and then immigrants recently arrived in the U.S. In addition, the Hispanic community is composed of people from different countries with different customs and Spanish vernacular. “Hispanic communities in the United States have been segmented among ethnic, nationality, class and religious lines almost from the beginning,” Kanellos and Martell write.

The first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, began in 1827 because founders John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish were tired of African American stereotypes in the white press.181 ”Too long have others spoken for us,” they wrote in their first issue. The African American press would go on to be a strong voice in the abolition movement and during Reconstruction, the Great Migration, both world wars and the civil rights movement. “Lynchings and riots were given considerable attention. Race progress was always applauded and Blacks were encouraged to support each other’s endeavors, especially Black businesses,” historian Charlotte O’Kelly writes about the content of the African American press.182

Ethnic media also makes ethnic and minority groups visible to civic leaders. The Tundra Times was written for Alaska’s native population in the 1960s in response to the U.S. government’s plans to disrupt hunting grounds. This English-language newspaper was an effort to serve the Alaskan native population, a population that speaks five languages and is spread over 400 million acres of rocky, frozen terrain. “Politicians seldom considered native or rural issues; they rarely campaigned in bush Alaska,” writes historian Elizabeth James. “After Tundra Times began publishing, however, native voices became unmistakable and impossible to disregard.”183

While ethnic media serves target audiences, they also serve the community at large. A study published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies suggested ethnic media presents points of view and stories readers won’t find in the mainstream press, enriching cross-cultural understanding and creating a “multi-ethnic public sphere.”184 To that end a number of Hispanic newspapers in the U.S. are bilingual: Spanish/English, Spanish/French, Spanish/Italian, and even a trilingual newspaper, Tampa’s La Gaceta, still published today,185 in English, Spanish and Italian.186

“We serve as a bridge of communication between the community at large and the Latino community,” says La Noticia’s Hilda Gurdian. That’s why she publishes editorials in English, while most other news content is in Spanish. Publishing in English may prove to be a way to keep audiences. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of Hispanics said they got at least some of their news in English on a typical day.187

As minority populations grow, so do the chances for a more-sustained success for ethnic media. That potential, however, may lie more within the digital landscape than with traditional newspapers, television or radio. In 2016, 74 percent of Hispanics said they used the internet as a news source on a typical weekday, up from 37 percent in 2006, according to the Pew Research Center. As it is across the industry, this change has been largely influenced by millennials, who make up more than a quarter of U.S. Hispanic adults. These younger people “just don’t read newspapers, but we can get them to read articles on their phone and other digital sources,” says The Charlotte Post’s Gerald Johnson.

One asset for many ethnic media properties is that “we have such a trusted relationship with the audience,” says Hiram Jackson.188 For one thing, Blacks and Hispanics place more importance on the media’s watchdog role than non-Hispanic whites, according to the Pew Research Center. Among Blacks and Hispanics, 72 percent say news organizations’ eye on political leaders helps keep them from doing what they shouldn’t. 189

Though social media and mobile news apps are increasingly the sources of news for younger readers, that trust does not always come with it. Social media can often be a free-for-all of unvetted news or fake news. “People more and more, I think, are going to rely on trusted messengers,” says Sandy Close. While Close sees ethnic media outlets in dire straits as they struggle for profits, she is also impressed by their resilience and dedication.

“The remarkable thing about ethnic media is that they survive despite being left out of most social market advertising,” she says. At the same time, “The dedication of the people who persist to serve their communities is remarkable and inspiring, frankly.”

Jackson is also optimistic about the future for ethnic media. “The demand for information is through the roof, especially in the Black community,” he said in a September 2019 interview with the Medill News Leaders Project. “I really believe the African American community is at the forefront of re-creating who we are as a country.” The problem is, “How do you monetize that? That’s the challenge, and that’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

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