Ethnic Print Media Vulnerable During Bad Economy

New America Media, News Report, Ngoc Nguyen Posted: Oct 02, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO – After 16 years and 700 issues under its current publisher, the San Francisco Bay View printed its last issue in July. The biweekly, a political newspaper covering the African-American community, has weathered many storms, said publisher Mary Ratcliff, but nothing as bad as the foreclosure crisis.

The newspaper received a good chunk of its revenue from ads – mostly from national advertisers and local hospitals groups, nonprofits and city government agencies, rather than from small businesses – but the amount didn’t cover its expenses. The couple refinanced their home loan to get enough cash flow to keep the newspaper afloat. The scheme worked during the real estate bubble, but was disastrous amid the subprime loan crisis.

“We lost [our] property in a foreclosure auction a week ago yesterday,” Ratcliff said. She and her husband lived in a multi-unit building and also rented out three storefronts, which allowed them to make the monthly payments on the loan.

As a last resort, Ratcliff said they may move to Texas. “My husband has property from his parents…it has timber and ranch land…he doesn’t want to go [to Texas]. He wants to stay in San Francisco and so do I,” she said.

For now, she’s publishing stories on the San Francisco Bay View’s Web site.

In Southern California, the KoreAm Journal, a monthly magazine covering the Korean-American experience for 18 years, recently published an open letter to readers pleading for new subscribers and donations to keep the magazine afloat. They’ve lost about a third of their advertising.

“That’s huge,” said managing editor Michelle Woo. “Ads account for 70 percent of revenue. What really jumped us into action was seeing some other ethnic publications fold suddenly.”

Ethnic media are still the most robust segment of journalism, but now they're being squeezed too as the mortgage meltdown hits Main Street. Ethnic media have long been dependent on advertising from small businesses – especially from real estate – so as these businesses feel the pinch, so does the ethnic press.

California has an abundance of ethnic print publications – although ethnic media now flourish in virtually every state – and it’s ground zero for the real estate meltdown.

“It’s very hard at this time. The real estate section is totally gone from other newspapers,” said Vivian Truong Gia, publisher of San Jose-based weekly Viet Tribune. “I still have eight pages for that section. Before, I had 20 pages.”

Filipinas Magazine took a big hit from a drop in real estate ads, which fell from 25 to 12 percent, said ad manager Ferlie Andong. She said the magazine is “still afloat,” but has had to “trim the fat.” It laid off several consultants based in the Philippines, cut paper use, and moved to a smaller office.

A reliance on local business ads insulated ethnic media from shrinking national advertising that has led to severe cost cutting in mainstream newsrooms. But ethnic media are finally feeling the impact as business owners and consumers tighten their belts.

As government agencies cut their advertising budgets, ethnic media may also feel the pinch. But the government has been slow to invest in ads in the ethnic media. Of the estimated $3 billion California government agencies spent on advertising in the state in the last year, less than 1 percent went to ethnic publications, according to the California State Assembly Select Committee on Procurement.

Viet Tribune’s Truong Gia said she’s seen a drop in advertising from bank and loan officers, restaurants and entertainment venues. Families aren’t eating out, and they’re taking in less entertainment. She said when she goes to musical variety shows featuring singers from Vietnam, she notices that the theater is half full.

Truong Gia said she’s lost 20 percent of revenue from a drop in real estate and restaurant ads, and has had to cut back on staff hours and pare down the paper. In the three years since she started the weekly, she said, “this is the worst time for the paper.”

BN Magazine is one of two Vietnamese-American lifestyle magazines that suspended printing and moved to online editions this year. After losing several major national advertisers, the 5-year-old magazine printed its last issue in March.

The loss of publications serving second-generation Vietnamese Americans is a loss to the larger community, according to Mytoan Nguyen, former managing editor of BN Magazine. “There’s a sense that an imagined community is lost,” she said.

Kirk Whisler, executive director of the Latino Print Network, said ethnic publications often chase national ads because they are “glamorous,” but it’s the local ones that are the bread and butter of the sector.

“[Local ads] are what’s always driven newspapers as an industry, and people lost sight of it in the last decade as more national ad dollars came in,” Whisler said.

Amardeep Gupta of Siliconeer said the South Asian magazine got a major boost this year from national ads, which supplemented his robust advertising base from businesses in the South Asian community.

“We’ve seen business grow. We’ve had the best years since we started,” said founder and managing editor Gupta. The glossy, full-color magazine features full-page ads from real estate brokers, high-tech certification programs, restaurants, jewellers, phone card vendors and grocery stores, selling a wide array of grains, lentils and spices.

Even the strongest sector in the ethnic press, Spanish-language media, is seeing fewer ad dollars. Whisler of Latino Print Network said the sector had a slight drop – about 4 percent – in ad revenue for the first time last year.

“We’re the bright spot in our media group, Los Angeles Media Group, which includes the Press Telegram and Daily News,” said Impacto USA editor Alejandro Maciel. He said there’s been no drop in advertising at his paper, which runs 80 percent national advertisers such as Wal-Mart, Macy’s and Verizon.

In his case, he said, being in Los Angeles, the No. 1 Spanish-language media market, has helped buffer his paper from the advertising slump. “If you are part of those small markets, you’ll be very affected. It will take more time to affect us in this market.”

Ownership by a larger parent company doesn’t always provide a cushion or guarantee longevity.

Fresno-based Vida en el Valle, owned by McClatchy, has had to trim expenses, as a part of the company’s overall cost cutting, which included two rounds of layoffs this year. Vida en el Valle editor Juan Esparza said the newspaper switched formats, going from all bilingual to 80 percent English and 20 percent Spanish to cut down on newsprint.

Las Noticias del Valle, another Central Valley paper that is owned by Pulitzer, which also owns the Hanford Sentinel, recently closed its doors.

Maciel of Impacto USA said the company wants to boost circulation, and is eyeing the local advertising market.

“One of the sources of income can come from local ads. You have to go to see people in the streets,” he said. “They’d like to see more small business advertising and grow the brand. It’s a huge market; we’re not taking full advantage of the local advertising.”

La Opinión executive editor Pedro Rojas said there’s still a lot of opportunity to increase circulation for the print edition, because the Spanish-language market is growing. “Our circulation has been steady even though we doubled the price [of the newspaper] in January from 25 cents to 50,” he said.

ImpreMedia-owned La Opinión sees the Internet as a potential source of new readers. The 116,000 circulation Spanish-language daily already has a coverage area from San Diego to Bakersfield, but “online we have a lot of hits from all over the U.S. and Latin America – that’s why we are also doing this online,” Rojas said

Other smaller, independent newspapers are feeling a bigger impact from the downturn and are hunkering down. They’re keeping overhead low, publishing less frequently, or keeping staff small.

Whisler said ethnic media could weather the storm by focusing on local advertising and auditing their circulation numbers.

Joseph Peralta, bureau chief of Asian Journal (Northern California edition) said he’s already started knocking on doors.

”I made the rounds to Filipino restaurants to encourage them to advertise with us,” he said. In addition to scouting out new advertising markets, Peralta said the company has avoided downsizing the newsroom and maintained its circulation.

Thelma Cruz and Marilyn King launched Philippines Today in June, and said the last few months have been bumpy. Despite losing advertisers, Cruz said, they decided to boost circulation by 2,000 to provide businesses with a better return on their investment.
"In our case, we generated so much business for our clients because we were able to reach more readers, so these clients are very happy,” she said.

Before launching a campaign to sign up 3,000 new subscribers, KoreAm Journal had already tightened its belt. The magazine shrunk from 100 to 84 pages, and cut staff salaries by 20 percent.

“If this publication is something our community values, we want our readers to participate in the process more,” said publisher James Ryu.

Publisher Wallace James Allen of Westside Story in San Bernardino said that when times get tough, he remains relevant in his community by offering more services.

Allen said he chases legal and foreclosure notices as ads in his paper. Advertisers also receive additional exposure on his radio show, and he offers his expertise as a consultant.

“The main thing is the attitude of wanting to be a service,” he said.

Ngoc Nguyen is a writer at New America Media. Additional reporting by NAM producer Odette Keeley.

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