Economy Takes a Bite Out of Ethnic Media

Bay Area Asian papers struggle to stay afloat

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    A man walks by the offices of Asian Week in San Francisco's Chinatown.

    The sinking economy is threatening the ethnic publications that immigrant communities rely upon to stay informed and navigate American life.

    Although the ethnic press once seemed immune to the forces hurting mainstream newspapers across the country, a growing number of publications that serve immigrant and minority communities are laying off staff, closing print editions or shutting down altogether.

    Unlike mainstream newspapers, which have seen circulation decline over the decades, most ethnic publications have been retaining or expanding their print readership base, thanks to the growth of immigrant populations with strong newspaper reading habits.

    But a severe recession has led to a steep drop in advertising from small businesses, including many owned by immigrants, that have come to rely on the ethnic press to reach these communities.

    As a result, ethnic or racial groups in some communities might lose the only media organizations that cover issues important to them, and businesses and government agencies will have more trouble reaching groups that speak little or no English.

    Many immigrant communities depend on such newspapers, which often have circulations in the tens of thousands, to keep informed about regional and national affairs and follow news in their home countries. For example, Chinese-language newspapers provided extensive coverage of last year's devastating earthquake in China's Sichuan province and helped mobilize donations for the victims.

    Ethnic media organizations have also given immigrants a political roadmap. The publications have become influential in immigrant-heavy cities like Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco, where the ethnic newspapers' endorsements are coveted by local politicians.

    "Ethnic newspapers are the lifeline for many immigrant communities," said David Lee, a San Francisco State University professor who heads the nonprofit Chinese for Affirmative Action. "The trend of ethnic papers closing or cutting back editorial content or circulation could have very negative effects on voter or civic participation in those communities."

    While mainstream newspapers and their readers have migrated online, many ethnic publications have been slow to do so because they lack the financial resources and their readers tend to be older, speak little English and have less access to the Internet. However, a few publications are trying Web-only efforts.

    AsianWeek, an English-language weekly that catered to Asian Americans, published its last print edition on Jan. 2. With a circulation of 58,000, it was an influential force in San Francisco culture and politics for nearly 30 years and had subscribers across the country. The publisher laid off the entire editorial staff, but continues to publish online with contributions from freelancers.

    "It has become more and more difficult to run a hard-copy publication and make it profitable," said James Fang, whose father founded the newspaper in 1979. "The printer is very unforgiving."

    The Ming Pao Daily News, one of Hong Kong's leading newspapers, stopped publishing its San Francisco edition on Feb. 14, less than five years after it entered the competitive Bay Area Chinese-language market.

    Hoy New York discontinued its print publication on Dec. 30, about a decade after the Spanish-language daily launched. (Hoy's Chicago and Los Angeles editions, under separate ownership, continue to publish in print, though owner Tribune Co. has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.)

    The San Francisco Bay View, which has served black readers for more than three decades, stopped publishing its weekly print edition last summer after running into financial problems. The Bay View now publishes mostly on the Internet, with a monthly print edition that started in November.

    "We hit the wall in July. We didn't have the money to put out one more paper," said editor Mary Ratcliff, who runs the Bay View with her husband, Willie, out of their home. "We'd love to go back to weekly."

    Other ethnic publications that have shut down over the past year include Tu Ciudad, a Spanish magazine in Los Angeles; and two Vietnamese-American magazines — BN Magazine in Sacramento and Nha Magazine in San Jose, according to New America Media, a San Francisco-based news organization that distributes content for about 2,000 ethnic media outlets.

    Despite these closures and other cutbacks, there are some bright spots and optimism that once the economy rebounds, the newspapers will thrive because immigrant populations are growing and advertisers are eager to reach them.

    And some industry insiders say the closure of some operations could be healthy.

    "There's really a weeding out of Hispanic publications going on, which in reality is probably better for the market," said Kirk Whisler, who heads the Carlsbad, Calif.-based Latino Print Network, which sells ads in Hispanic newspapers. "The market is viable and growing. The growth rates will slow because of our economic crisis. But will there be advertisers wanting to reach this segment? Definitely."

    Additionally, many ethnic publications are run like nonprofit organizations that operate on shoestring budgets with a strong commitment to serving their communities.

    "The ethnic media is more prepared to dig in and survive," said Sandy Close, who heads New America Media. "These family-run businesses have staying power that you don't find in the mainstream media."

    Nonetheless, more ethnic publications are likely to fail before any economic rebound, even as their importance in public life is expanding.

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    Eugene Wong, a Hong Kong native who works as an immigration lawyer in San Francisco, said he will miss Ming Pao, which he has frequently read and advertised in. The closure leaves the West Coast edition of Sing Tao Daily as the only publication catering to the region's Cantonese speakers, and even that newspaper has had to implement a hiring freeze and other cost-cutting measures.

    "I do feel a loss," Wong said. "It's always good to have more than one newspaper in the community. I like to hear different sides of the story."