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Despite Internet challenges, immigrant newspapers are doing well

By Peter McDermott
Peter McDermott is a freelance writer.

January 14, 2002

Don't write off newspapers just yet. So say immigrant publishers, editors and reporters.

The digital revolution may be providing a whole set of challenges, but so far the press catering to newcomers isn't overly worried.

"People need to have a hard copy of the paper in their hand," said Lolita Long, editor of the Weekly Gleaner and the Weekly Star, two Jamaican-American papers with offices on Hillside Avenue. Both have a circulation of about 40,000, according to published reports.

But experts warn that immigrant papers face pressures from two sides.

Immigrants can now go to Web sites based in their native countries for home news.

And they can visit U.S.-based sites for other information. The immigrant press' traditional "middle man" role is being undermined, according to Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor of journalism at Columbia University. "Now immigrants can go directly to the source," he said. "On the Internet, they can find out about how to a get a driver's license, for example."

The immigrant sector is one of the few areas that is growing on the Web, Sreenivasan said. The events of Sept. 11, he added, showed the Internet's importance. "Suddenly, all kinds of people were reading foreign-based papers, immigrant publications and other Web sites on the Internet," he said.

But a full-scale Internet challenge has not materialized, said Irish Echo journalist Stephen McKinley.

"The Internet has ended up being merely an additional source of information for immigrants," he said. "In no way is it becoming a direct replacement for newspapers."

McKinley himself worked for Virtual Ireland, one of five ethnic and community Web sites owned by Virtual Communities International. Three of the company's sites have ceased operating, including Virtual Ireland, though the latter plans to relaunch under new ownership.

"Print journalism is still the tried and tested method of getting news. I can't think of any Web site that is independent of a successful print product that impresses me as a source of news," McKinley said. "Web sites have a long way to go to make themselves profitable and indeed relevant."

If the Internet hasn't transformed publishing just yet, it has squeezed papers in a competitive market, according to Barbara Straus Reed, a professor of journalism at Rutgers University. "My impression is that sales have slowed," she said.

"We can't afford to have a sales slump at all," Long said. The Gleaner's management is conducting a study to see what precise effects the Internet is having on reading habits.

In general, though, the enormous variety and range of immigrant papers makes it difficult to monitor the Web's impact. At one end of the spectrum there are the bigger dailies published in Spanish, Korean, Russian and Chinese, continuing in the tradition of early- 20th-century giants such as the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward and the Italian-language Il Progresso.

At the other end, there are the numerous free periodicals.

And the fact that some papers- such as the Korea Times, a Long Island City-based daily, and the Weekly Gleaner-are subsidiaries of home- based companies complicates the picture further. For example, the Weekly Gleaner must vie for attention with the Web site of its parent, the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica's leading newspaper. "That's healthy competition," Long said.

There's also at least one case of an Internet company buying an established immigrant newspaper., the first Indian portal to be listed on the Nasdaq, last year acquired India Abroad, one of the largest South Asian papers in the United States with a reported circulation of more than 56,000.

Nevertheless, the printed press remains the dominant medium for now.

"Obviously, the Web site has had an effect, but it hasn't caught on with the mainstream readers, people in their 30s and 40s, in terms of getting news through," said Jee Jung, a journalist with the Korea Times, which has a circulation of about 40,000 in the tristate area.

And some journalists and readers believe that this will continue to be the case. "There is a well-established basic human experience in opening a newspaper," McKinley said.

Carmen Brown, a columnist with the Weekly Gleaner, agreed. "Reading a paper is a more intimate experience," she said. And Brown is often unimpressed with the quality of information she sees on the Internet. "Books, papers and magazines are still more respected," she said.

McKinley said: "In the same way as people have been predicting the death of books and reading, all the way back since radio and TV, people have been pronouncing doom on newspapers, especially immigrant newspapers."

The newspaper habit is still powerful, according to Muhammed Farooqi, editor of the Hillside Avenue-based Pakistan Post, which has a circulation of 21,000, according to "Many Voices, One City," a guide on the ethnic press. "Many Pakistani immigrants work 18-19 hours. They need a paper," he said. "And they want community-related news. They can't get that on the Internet."

"There's a digital divide," Sreenivasan said. "Sure, the immigrant engineers can go on the Web, but can the immigrant cab drivers and store clerks?"

However, there is also a generation gap. Farooqi, whose Pakistan Post does not have a Web site, added that many of his readers do own computers because they have children.

"There's a whole generation of people coming up who don't read papers," Straus Reed said. "Publications, whether mainstream or immigrant, must reinvent themselves."

Fellow academic Sreenivasan agreed, saying that the Internet has made its gains in just a few years.

"I used to believe that papers had a generation to adapt," Straus Reed said. "Now, I believe they've got five years."

Copyright 2002, Newsday, Inc.