A Thriving Press: Mainstream Media Suffer from Dwindling Circulation, IL Ethnic Publications Growing

Jun 1, 2008

Don Tagala is a news correspondent for Balitang America, a U.S.-based network for ABS-CBN International in the Philippines.
Credit Community Media Workshop
As owner and publisher of a print media enterprise, Zeke Montes reviews daily reports on circulation, ad sales and company growth. They're ominous numbers for most media executives, foretelling industrywide change that includes cutbacks, layoffs and mergers. 

But Montes, a self-starter with no formal journalism training who began publishing the infotainment guide Teleguía de Chicago out of the second story of a Berwyn home 23 years ago, isn't like most media types. 

For starters, his numbers — in circulation and revenue — are up. It's a decades-long escalation that has allowed Montes, who is of Mexican descent, to diversify his business by publishing Cicero's Spanish-language newspaper El Imparcial and the regional Spanish-language phonebook Guí Telefónica. Both Teleguía de Chicago and El Imparcial have risen in circulation to 36,000 and 20,000, respectively, from 15,000. Revenue from his business, Teleguia Inc., has grown from about $500,000 10 years ago to nearly $2 million today. 

Montes' success contradicts the current trends at mainstream publications, where revenue and circulation numbers are down. But Montes is far from alone in his success. 

Throughout Illinois, hundreds of ethnic and ethnic-language print, radio and broadcast outlets are experiencing significant growth. Further, they show no signs of slowing down. 

“Every time a new ethnic community or neighborhood is born across the country, there is a need for a means to information, so you will always have a growth in the small community newspapers that service those neighborhoods — I think this is going to be an endless growth,” says Montes, who is also vice president for marketing for the National Association of Hispanic Publishers. 

Illinois Spanish-language publications alone number 66, which includes 28 magazines, 18 dailies or weeklies and 20 less-than-weeklies, and have a combined circulation of nearly 1.7 million, according to the Latino Print Network, a California-based research firm that studies trends in the Hispanic printing industry. 

Seventeen other ethnic groups, among them African American, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Greek, Polish, Pakistani and Russian, print or broadcast in more than 13 other languages, according to Columbia College Chicago's Community Media Workshop. 

Since November the group has been surveying ethnic and ethnic-language press institutions for inclusion in its annual Chicago-area minority media guide. So far, more than 120 such outlets have been identified in Cook and its collar counties. By year's end, the group expects to identify at least 180 more, says Gordon Mayer, vice president of the Community Media Workshop. 

Kirk Whisler, president of the Latino Print Network, says that his group works with newspapers in 166 markets in the United States — nearly double the number it worked with in 2000. 

“For decades I've been asked when are we going to see a slowing down or stopping of [the growth of the Hispanic press], and I used to think we would see that slow down, but, although it's not quite as fast as the 1900s, it hasn't,” Whisler says. 

That's in sharp contrast to mainstream media trends, according to Dave Bennett, executive director of the Illinois Press Association. 

Bennett says, “The competition for the time and attention of most Americans is very intense, and the whole notion of how the newspaper fits into our society, combined with the reduction in reading and the rise of the Internet, are three factors that have led to a continued erosion of circulation of newspapers.” 

Without a doubt, immigration and the growth of ethnic-language speakers has shaped ethnic media's growth, but such publications have much greater allure than offering a familiar language. 

A 2005 poll commissioned by New California Media found that ethnic media reached more than 51 million adults nationally — a quarter of the U.S population. Twenty-six million of those individuals turned to ethnic news sources before looking to the mainstream press. 

“Conventional, neutral journalism has a tough time appealing to lots of those different audiences, so one of the things we think ethnic journalists have going for them is they have this organized connection to their audience,” Mayer says. 

And while providing news, information and advertisements with a specific ethnic angle is not the gold standard for mainstream press, it might just explain why their circulations are dwindling and those of the ethnic press are not. 

“We who live in the community have a much better understanding of the community than someone who doesn't speak Spanish or lives somewhere else,” Montes says. “There's a very unfortunate trend going on in the industry across the country: Mainstream newspapers have discovered that there's a Spanish community, and many of them have opened newspapers not for the sake of providing great information but to survive and make money. … If you have a bunch of employees who are only there for the paycheck, the company is [foreign] owned and what drives it is money and sales, it's not benefiting the community.” 

In Illinois, that type of community-oriented journalism is nearly as old as the press itself. Since ethnic newspapers began flourishing in the mid-1800s, community leaders in Chinese, Filipino, German, Greek, Lithuanian, Polish and several other communities used the press to advance news, ideologies, events and advertisements they felt integral to their brethren. 

Perhaps nowhere is this better seen than in the first papers printed by and for   Chicago's immigrant Czechoslovakian community, which by 1900 was among the largest in the world. According to Dominic Pacyga, professor of history in the Liberal Education Department at Columbia College Chicago, Svornost, advocating a free-thinking, anti-Catholic view, appeared in 1875; the pro-Catholic Narod emerged in 1894; and Denni Hlasatel, which is still printed today, began promoting a more neutral stance, in 1891. 

“A lot of the context in these papers was unfamiliar to Americans, was beyond the bounds of what Americans understood but very important in their various communities,” explains Pacyga, who's written several books on Chicago's Czech and Polish communities. 

While reporting news of the homeland was — and remains — a vital component of the early ethnic press, the more important function of those publications was acting as a conduit to educate immigrants about politics in their adopted lands. 

“For instance, Polish newspapers tried to encourage citizenship and Poles to vote because in Chicago, that's how you got a job right up until the turn of the century,” Pacyga says. “If you wanted more Polish police officers, more water department employees, then you'd better elect more Poles because that's how things work in Chicago.” 

As immigrant populations evolved and English became the language of choice for second and third generations, the ethnic press changed. The Americanization of immigrants causes the disappearance of hyper-niche publications, the appearance of bilingual publishing and alteration of content to meet the needs of their new audience. 

“Today you see the immigrant press putting out lots of magazines in delicatessens and groceries that are aimed at the younger population,” Pacyga says. “They really reflect the current cultural trends, such as rock and roll, of the younger community.” 

The ability to consistently change to meet the needs and express the views of the community has allowed ethnic media   to retain relevance in the face of mainstream domination. 

  “It's imperative in American journalism for there to be a space for an otherwise invisible community to project their voice into the public radar, and this is what ethnic media has always been,” says Sandy Close, executive director of New American Media, a California-based national association of more than 2,000 ethnic media sources. “It's a medium that gives visibility and, therefore, credibility and validation to a community that would otherwise not show up in the society pages of more mainstream newspapers — and if you're not visible in the media culture, you don't exist, you don't belong.”

In Illinois, it is easier than ever for people of different ethnicities to find media that mirrors their cultural, social and political inclinations. 

The ethnic-owned radio and broadcast stations in Illinois number far fewer than print outlets — only two minority-owned television stations, both of which are located out of state, and 10 radio stations, three of which are located out of state, serve Illinoisans. But when those local outlets are combined with national stations, such as Univision and Telemundo, ethnic-owned affiliates and white-owned stations that produce ethnic subject matter, the number of institutions producing ethnic material is nearly incalculable. 

Whether Hispanic infotainment guide, Korean television station or African-American talk radio, ethnic media ascribe to some of the same principles. 

Those begin with understanding that the growing ethnic masses are educated and need quality information, says Scott Bae, vice president for operations at KBC-TV, an analog station that broadcasts 24 hours of primarily Korean-oriented programming throughout Illinois on WOCH-CA Channel 41. About 50,000 viewers tune into Channel 41, which is among six television affiliates and three radio stations the Bae family business, KM Communications, owns in Illinois. 

“It's not the old cliché that we're just in Chinatown — there are large Asian populations all over the city and state — and as we grow and expand, the more we seek access to information,” Bae says. “Ethnic media are a tool to access information that mainstream media may not be able to fully give a dedicated amount of time and effort. We provide local and world news, covering in great detail events and situations that may affect us. Because we're able to do things [mainstream media] are not, we've been able to thrive.” 

But expanding on information typically glossed over by traditional media is just the first tenet ethnic media pursue in building a strong connection to their audience. 

It's a principle Melody Spann-Cooper, president of Chicago's only African-American owned radio station, WVON 1450AM, a subsidiary of Midway Broadcasting Corp., grew up watching alongside her father in the studio. 

Originating in 1963 as a radical sound called “The Voice of the Negro,” the station has evolved into a socially conscious, forward-thinking talk format with the slogan “The Voice of the Nation.” Throughout the station's 45-year history, listeners have known they're tuning into a place that projects the African-American perspective, Spann-Cooper says. 

“When I describe WVON, I say, ‘If you really want to find out what's happening in the African-American community, all you need to do is turn on WVON,'” Spann-Cooper says. “If there's an issue being discussed and you want to get a gauge on what the African-American community is thinking about it, then this is your station — because this is our station, and no one can do it better than we can.” 

Spann-Cooper says that the diversity, vibrancy and prosperity of the state's African-American community allows for the station's success — it reaches about 250,000 listeners each week. 

“I think the station resonates with people because it's more reflective of where we are as an African-American people today,” she says. “It reflects the prosperous business community and intellectual community. We push education and show the bright side of our community because too often you don't see that in the general marketplace.” 

Hand-in-hand with providing an ethnic perspective is ethnic media's role as an advocate. 

When governmental policies or social programs adversely affect the African-American community, the five papers in the Chicago Citizen Newspaper Group, which have a combined circulation of about 125,000, speak out, says publisher and CEO Bill Garth. 

“We're the eyes and ears of the black community — we listen to them and we serve them,” Garth says. “If you mistreat people, you're in trouble with us no matter if you're my advertiser or my friend.” 

Although Garth's newspapers, like most African-American publications in the city, share some of the mainstream media's problems with dwindling circulations and flagging ad revenues, the 40-plus-year newspaper veteran is confident   of his company's future, which he is placing in the hands of his children. 

“I think there's always going to be a need for the black press, just like there's a need for the Jewish press and Chinese press — we're all ethnic groups and no one knows about all of these ethnic groups but the groups themselves,” he says. “And because of the special service I render, I have a better chance of surviving in the long term.” 

That specialized nature gives ethnic media an edge for enduring success, industry experts agree. 

“By and large these are not media driven by profit motive but a commitment to the community, and that may sound like a goody-goody abstract, but it is seen over and over again as children take over the business for their parents,” says Close of New American Media. “There is an esprit de corps that they know very clearly the service they are providing. And because their role is so irreplaceable for their audiences, they're not going through this identity crisis.” 

Further shielding ethnic media outlets is the largely uninterrupted receipt of revenue. 

“Print dailies and weeklies in the ethnic sector continue to have an increase in advertising because advertisers realize this is the only way reach these niche markets — there's no alternative,” Close says. “For instance, major utilities don't advertise in the print press, but when it comes to ethnic media, they don't have a choice because 70 percent of this media has not yet gone online.” 

Indeed, many owners of ethnic media say their advertisers — the majority of whom are local — supply much more than revenue: They provide a pulse on the audience. 

No one knows this better than Montes, whose relationship with advertisers has fueled the growth of his business into a company with top-of-the-line offices in Cicero and several dozen employees.   

“If you live and work in the community and are involved in the day-to-day business of your clients, whether it's a travel agent or grocery store, you are living and bleeding what is going on in the community,” Montes says. “My first mission is to community and then to my advertisers, and we work very hard on a block-by-block basis to make sure we're doing the right things.” 

It's a honed business model — a grass-roots effort to connect with the community combined with advertising appeal based on this niche market — that epitomizes the entire industry. 

Montes says, “The small, family-owned community press plays a big role in having and keeping the freedom of the press that we enjoy today.”

 Many owners of ethnic media say their advertisers ... supply much more than revenue: They provide a pulse on the audience.

Robin Huiras is an Evergreen Park-based free-lance writer. 

Illinois Issues, June 2008