Sree's Stories

As Mainstream Papers Cut Back, the Ethnic Press Expands

Monday, July 22, 1996
p. D7

By SREENATH SREENIVASAN

Even as dozens of newspapers in the United States have closed in recent
years, dozens more have sprung up. The ethnic press, operating in the
shadow of mainstream newspapers, has quietly been building circulation and
advertising revenue.

So diverse are the papers -- several hundred in at least 40 languages
-- that their overall presence is hard to quantify. No one trade
association compiles data on the ethnic press, few ethnic newspapers are
publicly owned and most are too small to be members of the Audit Bureau of
Circulations. But a look at any big-city newsstand, or a walk through the
Chinatowns of New York, San Francisco, Toronto or Vancouver, makes clear
just how vibrant their presence is.

Consider the Vietnamese market, for example, which offers readers more
than 60 newspapers to choose from.

"We help our readers make sense of what's going on in Vietnam, the U.S.
and the world," said Co Nguyen, editor in chief of Nguoi Viet Daily News
(Vietnamese People Daily News), which is based in Westminster, Calif., and
has a circulation of 12,000. "The phone wars have changed our business. In
the last two years, AT&T, MCI Communications, and Pacific Bell have
dramatically increased their spending in our paper."

Traditionally, the ethnic press survived on classified advertising and
ads from local auto repair stores, grocers and travel agents, though a few
well-established black and Hispanic newspapers have always attracted some
mainstream advertising. But now relatively large billings are going to
publications that serve smaller and diverse communities. Among the largest
advertisers are telecommunications companies, airlines, financial services
companies and health care.

"The consumers of the ethnic market are much more sophisticated than
they were 10 or 15 years ago," said Eileen Ast, director of corporate
advertising and communications for the Mutual Life Insurance Company of
New York. "There is an awareness of the need for insurance and other
services. Ethnic publications are key to tapping that market; they hone
right in."

MONY uses ads not only to inform the ethnic groups about its services
but also to recruit employees.

Ibrahim Malick, president of South Asian Media Wise, an agency in
Manhattan that caters to the Asian and Arab communities, said that not
only do immigrants represent a largely untapped source of revenue but that
census figures show segments of some ethnic groups are better educated and
more affluent than the population in general.

While 62 percent of all Arab-Americans have spent some time in college,
only 45 percent of all Americans have; 36.6 percent of Asians in the
United States have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 20.3
percent of the general population. While the median annual household
income of Arab-Americans was $39,580 based on the 1990 census ($44,696 for
Asian Indians), the median household income of all Americans was $33,105.

For the phone companies, ethnic newspapers are an obvious way to tap
households of recent immigrants that are more likely to make international
calls than other Americans.

"The ethnic market is a hotly contested category," said Jacqueline
Morey, director of multicultural marketing communications for the AT&T
Corporation, which markets to consumers in 16 languages. The company's
newspaper ads play an important role in the "active courting of the ethnic
consumer, if you will," she added.

Yet it is not all rosy. Many ethnic papers have too much competition
from rivals in the same language and from other media. The Sprint
Corporation, for example, while continuing to spend millions of dollars on
advertising in ethnic papers, is taking "a smaller role than before,
because Sprint has found it more cost-effective to reach ethnic consumers
through telemarketing and the Internet," said Wally Meyer, the company's
vice president for marketing.

Other problems facing the ethnic press include lack of influence with
distributors, too little mainstream advertising and difficulty creating
the detailed demographic information about their readers that large
advertisers like to see.

And they face the traditional problem of the immigrant press: upward
mobility can pull part of the core readership from their circulation
areas. "Thirty to 40 years ago, Italian readers were mainly in places like
Little Italy in New York," said Andrea Mantineo, the editor of America
Oggi (America Today), the Italian daily based in Westwood, N.J., and
published by Gruppo Editoriale Oggi Inc. "Now they have moved and spread
out, and that makes it difficult for us to track them down."

America Oggi has a circulation of 30,000 for its daily editions and
60,000 on Sundays. (By contrast, the Italian daily Il Progresso, now
defunct, had a daily circulation of 500,000 at its peak in the 1930's.)

Papers such as America Oggi are constantly wrestling with ideas on how
to attract members of the second and third generations, who may not speak
the language of their parents or grandparents and whose ties to the old
country are tenuous. An increasing amount of gimmicks -- games, contests,
giveaways -- are being used to attract younger readers. Others are
introducing sections in English or going bilingual.

Many of the older publications aimed at Western European immigrants are
losing readers, while Latino, Chinese, Vietnamese and Russian papers are
making circulation gains.

Since the days of the first ethnic newspaper in the American colonies,
Philadelphische Zeitung (The Philadelphian Newspaper), a German-language
paper published in Germantown, Pa., that appeared in 1732 -- published by
Benjamin Franklin -- and disappeared soon thereafter, ethnic papers have
played an important role in helping immigrants adjust to the United
States.

"Some issues of real concern to immigrants are not reported at all or
are given scant attention in the mainstream press," said Barbara Straus
Reed, professor of journalism at Rutgers University and author of a book
on the history of the ethnic press. "With the help of ethnic newspapers,
immigrants can find local institutions within their communities that will
make the transition easier."

Planning the content is often a challenge, particularly when the
natural audience of one language -- Chinese, say, or Vietnamese -- may be
fragmented, with dramatically divergent political views. Finding the right
mix between mainstream stories like the Presidential elections, the Unabom
case or the Oklahoma City bombing and special community news not available
from mainstream papers is also hard.

"Ethnic newspapers want to be everything to everyone," said Jin Kim,
director of strategic planning at Lee Liu & Tong International, an
Asian-oriented ad agency in Manhattan that works with several Fortune 500
companies as well as some Government agencies. "And in trying to be
everything, they end up looking like everybody else."

That can make it hard for advertisers and marketers to decide where to
turn to crack the ethnic market, though such companies as Ms. Kim's are,
of course, happy to offer their services.

"We help companies position their products in the best light for each
ethnicity," Ms. Kim said.

Sally Mak of the ethnic markets division of the New York Life Insurance
Company, which places two or three ads a week in the Chinese media, said,
"To be able to differentiate among the various groups within communities
like the Chinese, to know if you are reaching the Taiwanese or mainland
Chinese" is essential.

Other problems facing the ethnic press are no different from those
facing its mainstream counterparts, like competition from broadcasters and
emerging media. In Orange County, Calif., for example, 12 radio programs
and several TV programs in Vietnamese are available each week. Mr.
Nguyen's paper has responded with in-depth stories from Vietnam and more
pictures.

Several papers have established a presence in cyberspace, and more come
on line every week. Mr. Nguyen's paper has been on the World Wide Web for
almost a year now (http://kicon.com/NguoiViet/), and started a daily
on-line version on July 4.

"Everyone, it seems, wants to be a publisher," said Tony Orlacchio,
president of Media Masters Distributors in Queens and one of the largest
distributors of
ethnic newspapers in the United States. "When we started in this business
in 1977, we carried one Puerto Rican newspaper and made 15 stops in New
York to distribute it. Now we carry over 200 titles, and have 8,000 stops
in eight states."

He added: "There is tremendous prestige in the community if you run a
newspaper. Look at the Russian market, it is exploding. There are over 20
titles right now chasing the same advertising dollars. It will take them
some time to shake out, but shake out they will."

GRAPHIC: Photos: Co Nguyen, editor in chief of Nguoi Viet Daily News
(Vietnamese People Daily News), says the paper helps readers make sense of
events in Vietnam and the United States. (Davis Barber for The New York
Times); Andrea Mantineo, the editor of America Oggi (America Today), said
Italian-American readers have spread out geographically, making them
harder to track down. (Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times)