News Leadership 3.0

July 13, 2009

Small, independent ethnic media organizations face formidable challenges

In a guest post, Craig Matsuda says ethnic organizations often labor with poor digital platforms and little communication with peer organizations

imageCraig 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 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 last of three parts.
Part 1: Among ethnic groups, the digital divide narrows
Part 2: Ethnic news editors embrace online media

Antoine Faisal, the self-deprecating and often hugely funny publisher of Aramica, an Arabic language newspaper, is asking a serious question these days: With the entrepreneurial skill and resources it takes to run an ethnic media organization, why bother? Why not take those assets and put them into some other venture with less risk, greater profit opportunity and lower levels of industry volatility?

Indeed. If the digital transformation has proven daunting for mainstream media, it’s an even more formidable challenge for smaller, disparate, independent and often isolated ethnic organizations.

As I prepared for a recent KDMC program for ethnic media leaders, I heard a lot about their challenges online. These are not insurmountable. And one of the biggest got tackled head on in Atlanta: Call it the knowledge gap.

Because many ethnic media organizations are family run or even mom-and-pop enterprises, they’re lean, harried and frugal - even more so than their mainstream counterparts. They don’t have corporate headquarters or sister papers to share ideas with. With exceptions, they aren’t tied well to industry groups or educational institutions. So how do they learn about the latest stuff and best practices online? Where to send staff members to educate themselves on the how-tos of the web?

This matters, a lot. Many of the organizations, for example, labor with legacy technology that works poorly and can’t be upgraded easily. These old systems can’t take on new kinds of content or applications so they cough up web sites that aren’t visually appealing,  user friendly or loaded with interesting material.

While many of the organizations now post photos, fewer display more complex slide shows, especially with sound. Without Flash or Java, advertising and editorial materials are static. Video and podcasts require hardware and software that can seem difficult to them. Even blogs, while more common, often don’t square up well with the systems in place. And have we talked about what it would take for mobile? 

In Atlanta, KDMC-invited experts urged ethnic leaders not to be cowed by technology. Susan Mernit and Arturo Duran told them to concentrate on content and to educate themselves, swiftly, about newer, better, cheaper and easier technologies. Social media, like Facebook and YouTube, can help them build online from the “edges” inward; blogs can add more and different voices easily, inexpensively and with little technology. Dana Chinn advised them how to plan and track better their online efforts.

Will this new information, ideas and options make even a small difference?

Sure hope so. Though groups like New America Media have polls showing ethnic organizations are increasing audience and penetration, the economy has slammed them hard, the leaders in Atlanta said. This makes their online growth both more difficult for resource reasons—and more vital for their survival.

Much is at stake. Ethnic media serve and define unique, vital communities. They offer vital information to their own and to a larger society. Mainstream media gave short shrift to these communities in the best of times and have withdrawn further now.

Meantime, costs are only rising. And, as I pointed out in another post, the audiences that ethnic media have relied on are changing, rapidly. They’re getting younger, assimilating quickly in language and culture into the mainstream and adapting to technology faster than are the media organizations that hope to reach them.

So will the obstacles be too great for ethnic media leaders? Will we be left only with fond memories of defunct ethnic papers read by grandma and grandpa?

After Antoine Faisal asked his piercing question of survival to his peers in Atlanta, not one talked of quitting. Instead, the idea of losing their roles or failing their communities seemed to push the leaders to redouble their efforts. Each began to figure just how to make this new stuff work.

“What keeps us going?” Cora Oriel, publisher of the Asian Journal, asked in a recent interview. She said she hears tons from her audience that they’re proud, pleased and engaged with the Journal’s news and advertising targeted for them. “We hear that all the time - people want and need us because we’re a part of the Filipino community and there’s nothing like us.”

That loyalty transfers, too, to advertisers, some of whom, Oriel said, “we’re helping to keep afloat in these tough economic times. They say that sticking with us has made a difference because our audience is supporting them as they do us. You just do whatever you have to when you hear how you’re helping people and making a difference.”

That’s also true for Paulette Brown, publisher of the Black Voice News. She said in an e-mail interview that she struggles to maintain her family’s legacy in running a quality organization “dedicated to engaging our diverse communities.”

To her, that means providing timely, accurate news and information; sometimes acting as a community advocate; and always ``educating our community.” She said she has given great thought, and though her parents may disagree, it’s not printing a paper but employing the most effective means available to fulfill a “core mission” of public service. 

As for Faisal, he admits he experiences “great frustrations ... If I spent 40% of the energy that I do on my operations on another business, I’d be a millionaire,” he said recently. “But I still have a passion for what I do and what Aramica accomplishes.”

Like Brown and Oriel, he hears from his community, especially on how these aren’t easy times for Arab-speaking Americans. Who would tell their stories - for them to share as a community and for the larger society to understand them? Who would be a watchdog when they’re discriminated against or worse? With much of the Arab-speaking world living in more repressive conditions than his U.S. audience, doesn’t Aramica also offer something key internationally, he asks?

Sure, Faisal said, he misses his posher days working for an advertising agency with elite clients. But he has, in fact, recommitted himself to Aramica in the midst of this deep recession. He’s on the brink of expanding its print footprint. And he’s pressing for its web site to leap ahead, not soon but “yesterday!”

That kind of enthusiasm can be infections.  And we’ll be telling you more about what progress we see from it.

 

 

Comments

Well, it’s harder and harder to keep a mainstream paper in business these days - as there have been a myriad of large papers that have up and folded.  Rocky Mountain News, 150 years in business, went bankrupt, and a huge number of papers and other journals, such as several high profile magazines, had to go to entirely online editions, such as the Seattle Post Intelligencer for one, and many others.  Vibe Magazine, Blender, all went to online only editions.  Ethnic news publications, since it’s a niche market…can kind of go several ways.  For one, they aren’t likely to have near the kind of overhead that a large metro paper is going to have.  You could run a blog off of Wordpress or a similar free blog hosting service, and charge people for a print edition, be it monthly or quarterly, what have you. 
And the value of social networking sites is absolutely spot on.  If I recollect, MySpace has already started a Latino-centric (not just Spanish language - they clearly defined that) mirror site.  If Facebook doesn’t have one now, it probably will soon.  Facebook is overtaking Myspace in popularity, though, and then you have Twitter, which is exploding in popularity - even NASA has a Tweet stream.  (Oddly enough, Facebook was out first, and then Myspace became the new Facebook and now Facebook has become the new Myspace since it’s gotten so much more popular.)  In the end, it’s all about either reducing overhead to the point where it’s sustainable (operate at a loss long enough and you bite the dust - sad but true) or finding ways to beef up readership.  Since humans have a vast need for a sense of community (for good or ill - it’s the means to identity but can have negative repercussions) finding in roads to other communities is a good move, or at least expanding your network, therefore readership and well, either donation (if non-profit) or subscription (if for profit) opportunities - and the bottom line about what keeps businesses in business is cash.


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