Hope, loyal readers keep niche publications alive
This year, many news headlines were about the struggles of the very people who wrote them. Major metropolitan newspapers from coast to coast have all announced decreased revenues and more cutbacks in staff, pages and circulation. No news corporation seemed immune to the effects of advertisers who are even more money conscious than the readers.
How the APA media, niche newspapers and magazines that help form the often overlooked ethnic press fit in this uneasy industry have become an ever pressing question. If national journalism institutions that once seemed invincible are fighting to stay afloat, how are its much smaller, specialized counterparts supposed to be hopeful?
“I’m hopeful,” said Julie Ha, senior editor at KoreAm Journal. “What else can we do but keep trying to put out the best magazine we can and try to improve our coverage? As long as the community sees a need for an alternative press like ours, we’ll keep fighting to stay alive and do our thing.”
That Ha is hopeful is a good sign. This summer, the glossy English-language monthly put a call out to the public to solicit subscriptions, advertisements and advice to keep from folding. The 18-year-old publication, which relies almost entirely on contributing writers, slashed its freelancing budget by half and cut the salaries of an already small staff by 20 percent.
A moving letter written by Ha about the state of the magazine and the ethnic press, which was published in the August issue, seemed to have worked for the time being. The magazine saw its subscriptions go from an average of 20 per month to 95 in August. Some of its freelance writers have even offered their work without pay.
The plight of KoreAm shows that ethnic publications face a unique challenge at a time when companies are increasingly discriminating in not just who they want to advertise with, but whether they want to advertise at all. Some APA publishers see this as a time to capitalize on what they do have—loyal readers with spending power who feel marginalized by mainstream publications.
“I know very few Asian Americans picking up the local newspapers because they’re not covered,” said Len Novarro, publisher of the San Diego-based culture and commerce publication ASIA. “Why do people want to read a publication that’s about everybody else but them? I see what’s going on in the mainstream media as a great opportunity to step in.”
One strength that an ethnic publication like ASIA has is the ability to manage a budget wisely. Novarro questions the move by local newspapers to send multiple reporters to cover the Beijing Olympics despite an ailing economy.
“Most of us don’t have elaborate editorial staffs,” Novarro said. “We know how to put money where it’s most necessary.”
Sometimes, being money smart means going after the readers and advertisers who have a lot to spend. Take ViViD, an upscale bilingual magazine catering to Chinese American elites. Its readers, with a median income of $200,000, are a small niche that companies like Louis Vuitton and Cartier want to court. It may seem that everyone is holding their wallets a bit tighter but not those who fly private jets and own multiple homes.
“I wouldn’t say it didn’t touch us,” said Ava Yu, publisher of ViViD about the slowdown in the economy. “It’s not impacting us as much as others. There’s only so far you can fall when you’re dealing with the luxury market.”
Many people have asked Yu to venture out into the Korean or Japanese market now that she is entering her third year with the magazine. But Yu said the success of the publication comes from being focused on what she knows best: A business model based on the movers and shakers of the Chinese American community.
With APA publications like the Sacramento-based BN Magazine and A Magazine folding in recent years, ViViD might seem like an anomaly. But ViViD could also be seen as a testament to the diversity of needs in the APA population and the fact that advertisers just might come around with a little coaxing.
“We have a mortgage crisis in the middle class, the price of a home has never been higher, but ViViD has tapped into a market that has buying power,” noted Odette Keeley, chief of staff for New America Media. “It’s when you try to focus on a particular niche market that’s when you succeed.”
AsianWeek’s circulation, for example, has increased 76 percent since 2006.
“If there is a sweet spot in this recessionary economy, it is in the Asian market,” says Publisher Ted Fang. “Asian Americans are still growing in their discretionary income and bought homes strategically that have mostly avoided the housing meltdown.”
“As long as Asian market media can demonstrate verifiable and targeted readership, we can bring results to advertisers and continue to survive and grow,” adds Fang.
In its 2008 state of the news media report, the Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that there is no positive or negative prognosis for ethnic media because, while some segments are shrinking, others are expanding. The report claims that the niche world of ethnic media seems to be growing more niches of its own.
Smart organizations are beefing up their online component, adding blogs and welcoming comments to build a sense of community. Publications also host a number of community events, with Filipinas Magazine’s annual Achievement Awards and AsianWeek’s role in the Asian Heritage Street Celebration as examples of promotional and revenue generating tools.
Since Ha’s letter to save KoreAm Journal was published, many have sent in donations totaling $1,620 in August. Ha said she was hesitant to make that plea, afraid that advertisers would retract further knowing the publication was in dire straits. But fearing that the magazine could fold, Ha felt she had to make the attempt to save it.
“If KoreAm was not around, as a reader, I would definitely miss it,” Ha said. “[Korean Americans] are still not accurately represented in the mainstream media, so we’re always going to long for that humanizing coverage. Until we have that, there will be a need for KoreAm. We don’t know if we’ll make it, but we’ll try.”