News Leadership 3.0

July 09, 2009

Ethnic news editors embrace online media

In a guest post, Craig Matsuda says ethnic news organization leaders avoid the EitherOr mentality that holds back many mainstream newsrooms

Craig Matsuda, a longtime editor at The Los Angeles Times and now a consultant, coordinated Knight Digital Media Center’s recent conference, “Transforming Ethnic News Organizations for the Digital Now,” in partnership with New America Media and the McCormick Foundation, in Atlanta last month. In the process, Craig learned a lot about media usage by different ethnic and age groups (see earlier post). Craig also worked closely with editors from about a dozen ethnic media outlets as they worked to improve their online offerings. I have asked Craig to share what he learned in a series of guest posts. This is the second of three parts.

By Craig Matsuda

When leaders of almost a dozen ethnic media organizations met recently in Atlanta to figure ways to improve their digital future, there was a notable absence in the room: Eeyore didn’t appear.

The no-show wasn’t the pessimistic, gloomy and resistant AA Milne donkey. It was his newsroom equivalent: “EitherOr.”

Supervisors know EitherOr. Arms crossed, quiet or even sullen, lips pursed, he insists in the face of change that life’s about making singular, exclusionary selections and not seeing options and opportunities. We do this one thing and nothing else - there’s nothing more, says he.

But the ethnic media leaders banished EitherOr and his myths in ways that others may find instructive:

Myth No. 1. EITHER We Serve Our Craft OR We Serve Our Community

Do audiences care as much as traditional newsrooms do about the craft that goes into journalism?  Does it matter more or even as much as the content itself?

Publisher Tom Arviso and writer-editor Jason Begay came to Atlanta to learn more about the online world, in general, but especially about web-based multimedia options like audio and video.

That’s because their Navajo Times recently posted a video of an elderly woman, telling a traditional story in Navajo, that surprised the staff with its powerful response from their audience, scattered across the nation and the world but accessing their web site, Arviso said. Speaking at first in the language of his ancestors, Arviso told the KDMC group - whom he called his brothers and sisters - that his people love the Navajo language and believe its preservation is a key to maintaining their culture in the 21st Century.

He knows his staff does excellent, hard journalistic work now - lots of it. But they all were floored by the outpouring from their audience, including far-flung troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, not at their written or posted words but by the chance to see and hear Navajo seniors speak their words.

Times staffers will need to learn new skills and they’ll add to their duties but they’re eager to do so if they soon can not only craft others’ stories but also serve their community by using online technologies to help Navajo thrive as a living tongue, Arviso and Begay said.

Myth No. 2. EITHER We’re Print OR Online

Can’t we be both - and more? Judith Martinez and Farid Sadri started their journalistic enterprise as a Web site, then added a weekly paper because of audience and advertiser demand.

But with costs rising and revenue softening in print, Martinez had an “Aha!” moment in the KDMC program: We’re not just a paper. We’re a multimedia organization dedicated to serving the Latino community in Atlanta and Georgia, she declared. She said she had too easily forgotten that, with a Web site, a broadcast partnership that includes an increasingly popular television show and Atlanta Latino in print, her organization had positioned itself for new success. They just need to think, constantly, not about each part but the whole. That way they can serve their audience and market better—in many and different ways.

Myth No. 3. EITHER We Make Money OR We Serve Our Community

You really can do both, can’t you? Publisher Tom Gitaa and Editor Julia Opoti of the Minnesota news organization Mshale have watched their print and online audience of African immigrants shift with an influx of Somalis.

They see the social and economic challenges the newcomers encounter, and for journalistic reasons, they’d love to reach deeper into this developing community to help it with key information and by telling its compelling stories. But how to do this when money is tight and traditional technologies aren’t working?

So that’s why Gitaa focused his attention in Atlanta on new ways to reach audiences with web-based content delivered on mobile devices, especially cell phones. Immigrants buy such devices early, even as dial-up or high-speed net connections are too costly for them. And, by the way, advertisers are intrigued about reaching consumers and cutting their costs, say, by providing shoppers with coupons via cell phones. Gitaa and Opoti heard enough to persuade them that for The Arrow (what Mshale means in Swahili), mobile could be a revenue and a journalistic bull’s eye. 

Myth No. 4. EITHER We Get More Help OR We Just Can’t Do Anything Else

Really? Are we talking about resources or something else, such as management and choices? Nguoi Viet‘s web site has been around for awhile now and for those who read and speak Vietnamese, it’s an online resource. But publisher Dat Phan and his net chief Quang Phan said they recognize that if their organization wants to keep its audience and market spot, it needs to jump start its use of social media to appeal to younger Vietnamese, especially English speakers.

But how, especially since a tight economy won’t permit any hiring binge? “Bandwidth,” was Quang Phan’s answer. He said he had considered the interests and workload of a young, tech-savvy colleague and he plans to rearrange his duties so he’ll be freer to build Nguoi Viet’s presence with new audiences, especially by tapping into those through Twitter and Facebook.

Part 1: Among ethnic groups, the digital divide narrows
Part 3: Small, independent ethnic media organizations face formidable challenges

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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