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India-West: A Longstanding Voice for the Community

NCM Profile, Catherine Black and Sandip Roy Posted: Jan 30, 2004

“Even as a little paper, you can make an impact.’’ says Bina Murarka, editor and co-founder of India West, which earned the distinction in 2001 of being the small newspaper that took on the multinational giant McDonald’s.

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Bina Murarka, editor and co-founder of India West

The San Leandro, California-based weekly exposed the fast-food chain’s use of beef flavoring in its french fries, a revelation that became a national story, provoking riots in India and outrage in the Indian American community.

India West is the oldest Indian newspaper on the West Coast and one of the oldest in the country. It was founded in 1975 when Murarka, her husband Ramesh and some friends in the film industry thought a newspaper could help publicize Indian films and Indian-owned movie houses in Los Angeles. While the entertainment side of their project didn’t last, the publishing one did. “It just snowballed,” says Murarka, “There was a great need for something like this in the community at the time.”

Over the past quarter-century, India West has become one of the most established and well-respected publications serving the West Coast’s growing Indian population. With a weekly circulation of 30,000 and a staff of 19, the newspaper has achieved a balance of journalistic professionalism and close ties to its audience quite rare in today’s media world.

Like other South Asian publications, India West is published in English. “In order to reach everyone, that seemed the best way,’’ Murarka explains. But unlike other Indian media at the time, India West felt it was important to focus on the Indian community in the U.S. rather than back in India.

“ If someone was to look at India West from day one, they’d get a good sense of what the Indian community has gone through over the past 25 years,” says Murarka.

Early on, for instance, the paper covered a lot of immigration and civil rights issues when the Indian population was less established than it is now. A series on how Indian-owned motels were being targeted by a different rating structure than other motels illuminates the vulnerability of Indian-owned businesses at the time. “Since then, they’ve gotten organized and now there’s a huge lobby, but at the time there was no voice that could speak out on their behalf,” remembers Murarka (in 1990, 30 percent of all motels and hotels in the U.S. were Indian-owned). The newspaper also helped to publicize a movement for creating a separate census category for Asian Indians, who were lumped in with Caucasians before the 1980 Census.

India-West continues to take on serious social issues and be a powerful advocacy voice for the Indian community. The McDonald’s beef-flavored-french-fries exposé resulted from an e-mail sent by a reader. The story prompted another reader, an attorney in Seattle, to file a lawsuit against the company for not disclosing the practice. From there it jumped to mainstream media, eventually making headlines in the New York Times.

The newspaper’s coverage of domestic violence in the Indian American community prompted a group of readers to set up a hotline for victims and a support group. It also covered the shock and the fear within South Asian communities triggered by the September 11 attacks. India-West focused not just on the tragedy itself, but also on the racially motivated attacks against Muslims and foreigners in general, including Indians.

The trust that India West has built among its readers influences their understanding of the paper’s priorities—not without some challenges. Murarka describes how the mother of a young man who robbed a bank called the newspaper and angrily demanded what gave India West the right to write an article about her son. “They really feel that this is their paper and that they deserve input on what goes in,” says Murarka, adding that “they wouldn’t call up the San Jose Mercury News and ask the same thing.”

Still, these mixed blessings illuminate the intimacy that ethnic news organizations often share with their audiences.

In September 2003, India West launched Indian Life & Style, a bimonthly magazine aimed at a younger, more American audience than the newspaper. Its full-color, glossy pages contain culture and lifestyle articles, featuring celebrities, entertainment, fashion and advice. The magazine has a circulation of 12,000, which the Murarkas hope to raise to 25,000, and is currently distributed throughout California, as well as New York, New Jersey, Texas and Chicago.

As the most affluent, educated and fastest growing Asian ethnic group in the country (expanding by over 105 percent between 1990 to 2000), the 1.7 million Indians nationwide are a potentially lucrative target for advertisers. India West’s advertisers range from the very local to the international, including names like Mercedes Benz and even companies in India hoping to reach the large non-resident Indian (NRI) population in the U.S.

Murarka feels that many advertisers miss their opportunity to reach Indian audiences more effectively. “We often lose out because they assume that just because the Indian community speaks English, they are the same as mainstream audiences.” Advertising in ethnic media not only reaches a more loyal readership, but it also says “we care about you,” notes Murarka.

A veteran in her field, Murarka is optimistic about the future of India-West. In spite of the numerous other Indian publications that have emerged over the past 29 years, India West has established a professionalism and credibility that its large readership relies on.

“ India is so much more visible now than it used to be, and even the mainstream community is a lot more interested in what we have to say (India West stories are frequently covered by local city newspapers),” says Murarka. “We’re a good resource and a voice for the Indian community.”

For more information, visit www.indiawest.com

 



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