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Ethnic Media: Changing Times

October 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, a growing media story, about one segment in the United States that is expanding while others are standing still. Media correspondent Terence Smith has our report.

TERENCE SMITH: These are the faces of a changing California, the so-called new California, where minorities are now the majority. In the last census, 53 percent of Californians identified themselves as non-white. That’s some 18 million people, 40 percent of whom speak a language other than English at home.

MAN: So help me God.

GROUP: So help me God.

MAN: Congratulations, and welcome as American citizens.

TERENCE SMITH: And what is happening in California is happening elsewhere around the nation, which is in the midst of the greatest wave of immigration in nearly a century.

TERENCE SMITH: Not surprisingly, these are boom times as well for ethnic and foreign language media. In an era when many mainstream English-language news organizations are actually losing readers and viewers, the ethnic sector is growing rapidly.

And it has impact. A recent survey found that ethnic media reach 84 percent of the three largest minority groups in California. In fact, the Spanish language Univision Station in Los Angeles has a larger audience than any of the English-speaking stations.

KSCI-Television is another thriving ethnic station. From studios in Los Angeles, it broadcasts in 14 different languages during the course of a typical day. Its audience has quadrupled in the last five years.

SPOKESMAN: It’s primarily Chinese, Korean, Tagalog for the Filipino community, Vietnamese, and Japanese.

TERENCE SMITH: Jon Yasuda, a third- generation Japanese American, runs the 25-year-old KSCI. He says up to 1.5 million people may be watching at any given time.

JON YASUDA, President & CEO, KSCI-TV: What we try to provide is a mixture of local news and news from their home country. So it gives them a feel for what’s happening here in the Los Angeles and southern California area, but also gives them a feel for what’s happening back home.

TERENCE SMITH: On a recent day, KSCI highlighted a story important to its viewers: The first Taiwanese baseball player to make the major leagues was called up by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

JON YASUDA: That’s big news within the Chinese community, so we gave it a little more coverage than what you would see on general markets.

TERENCE SMITH: Indeed they did. KSCI blanketed the story, while the local network-owned stations ignored it, offering instead the usual highlights from the Dodgers’ game.

KSCI also covers general news in the studio and on the streets. KSCI reporter Harry Chang says the station provides a bridge between the old world and the new. In San Gabriel, east of Los Angeles, he samples opinion on the story of the day, Iraq. KSCI emphasizes success stories within the community, but tries to avoid boosterism and outright advocacy.

JON YASUDA: We see ourselves more as serving the community and providing them with information and news in assisting them in the assimilation and acculturation process, as opposed to advocating on behalf of them here in this region.

TERENCE SMITH: Assisting and assimilation is an important role for ethnic media, in the view of Sandra Ball-Rokeach, who heads an ethnic media program at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH, University of Southern California: It’s something we have been talking about for four years now, trying to get people to recognize the importance of these media in the daily lives of large, large populations. Not only for understanding their home country, but also leading their everyday lives, like where to go to purchase goods, where to go to have recreation. Where is it safe? What’s going on in the community that you should know about?

TERENCE SMITH: Representatives of some 400 ethnic media organizations came to this Los Angeles hotel for an award ceremony that is known as the “Ethnic Pulitzers.”

The awards recognized outstanding work by journalists who write and broadcast in 21 languages serving a vast and diverse community that politicians, advertisers, and mainstream media largely ignore.

SPOKESPERSON: Congratulations.

TERENCE SMITH: Phil Bronstein, executive editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, was honored for his paper’s coverage of immigrant communities. He says the mainstream media have a lot to learn from their mostly smaller ethnic counterparts.

PHIL BRONSTEIN, San Francisco Chronicle: The mainstream media ignores the communities, and then, of course, by extension ignores the ethnic press. In San Francisco, to me that would be suicide, because the ethnic communities are not only such a large part of the community, but such a big and significant cultural part. So for us it’s a no-brainer.

TERENCE SMITH: Bronstein credits Sandy Close, the founder of New California Media, a consortium of ethnic news organizations, with raising the visibility of ethnic media. The Chronicle runs a series of news briefs from ethnic outlets each week, and has joined with some ethnic organizations to report sensitive stories that can be hard for an Anglo reporter to cover.

PHIL BRONSTEIN: We’ve had any number of stories like that, where our understanding and appreciation for that community or for any community really was helped, if not initiated by Sandy and New California Media, helped by them significantly.


SANDY CLOSE, Executive Director, New California Media: Ethnic media themselves are coming together. They recognize that if you really want to knit together the horizontal city, it isn’t just about the Chinese media getting visibility for itself, or the Spanish media, or the black media. It’s about each of these media come together to make a big bang, to showcase all of this segment that for so long has been in the shadows, so long been treated as kind of an afterthought or footnote of American journalism.

TERENCE SMITH: La Opinion, the largest and most established Spanish-language newspaper in the country, is anything but a footnote. 130,000 people buy the paper each day. But industry studies show that between 500,000 and 700,000 actually read it, according to editor Gerardo Lopez.

GERARDO LOPEZ, Editor, La Opinion: When people call us ethnic media, they usually have a connotation that we are a second-class journalism publication, or that we are somehow biased, or that we have to package our newspaper just so we can advocate for something. We are a mainstream newspaper in this country.

TERENCE SMITH: But you happen to publish in another language.

GERARDO LOPEZ: We happen… yeah.

TERENCE SMITH: The paper is owned by the Lozano Family and the Tribune Company, which also publishes The Los Angeles Times.

GERARDO LOPEZ: Our journalism is, on one end, the traditional type. We send the news like everybody else, just the way it is. We also do a great deal of public service journalism because of the fact that we… our readers need some explanations of certain things.

TERENCE SMITH: Reporter Maria Luisa Arredondo has been tracking a story about proposed cutbacks at Los Angeles county hospitals, which would disproportionately hurt the poor.

She interviews in English and Spanish, as all La Opinion reporters do. Her story, which made page one, was not covered that day by The Los Angeles Times or the local network affiliates. Attorney Sylvia Argueta of the Legal Aid Foundation says La Opinon plays a critical role in the community she serves.

SYLVIA ARGUETA: We work with low-income people in East Los Angeles, and it’s amazing how many of them walk in with the newspaper in their hand. That’s where they get their information. No matter how low-income they are– and the people we see are very low-income — they always have enough to buy the paper, make an effort to at least share it with people and really keep themselves informed.

TERENCE SMITH: La Opinion’s readers have responded. The paper’s circulation has grown nearly 30 percent in the last three years. The paper also focuses on news beyond the border, much of it lately in Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela.

GERARDO LOPEZ: We define international news as anything that happens outside this country. The rest of the editors, or most of the editors in this country, would define international news as anything outside the United States. Not us.

TERENCE SMITH: La Opinion and KSCI-TV have succeeded where many other ethnic media have failed, by attracting national advertisers.

SPOKESMAN: Among her clients are Northwest Airlines, J.C. Penney…

TERENCE SMITH: How to attract those advertisers, the lifeblood of most media outlets, was among the topics discussed at this convention in Los Angeles, where hundreds of ethnic news organizations and advertisers came together to network and collaborate. Heide Gardner of the American Advertising Federation:

HEIDE GARDNER, American Advertising Federation: There is a gap. There is an information gap. Many national advertisers are still not aware of the opportunities they have by targeting multicultural consumers. Growth is flat in the general market in many product categories, and so there is tremendous opportunity by targeting multicultural consumers.

TERENCE SMITH: Calculating the size of that multicultural audience has been difficult as ethnic media try to sell themselves to advertisers. Nonetheless, says Sandra Ball-Rokeach:

SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: If I were an advertiser of whatever consumer product, I would want to put ads in these media. Those are the media that these people go to in large, large numbers to make decisions about where to go and what to buy.

TERENCE SMITH: And what of the future?

SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: The question I have is, will the thing that used to happen with immigrant media happen again, or will something new happen? In the past, immigrant media survived only through about the third generation, and then they tended to die off. So the question for me now is, will they stay around?

TERENCE SMITH: For now, the answer is yes.