By JUSTINE KOO DRENNAN
New American Media Contributor
The Nichi Bei Times’ board of directors has decided to close Northern California’s oldest Japanese American newspaper on Sept. 30 of this year after 63 years of business. In its place, a group of Nichi Bei Times staff and community members plan to start the Nichi Bei Foundation, a separate nonprofit reincarnation of the paper.
Kenji G. Taguma, the Nichi Bei Times’ vice president and English edition editor, has pioneered plans for the new Foundation because he believes the paper is an essential voice for Japanese Americans.
“Today, I see the paper as the glue that holds the community together,” Taguma said.
Decline in circulation and advertisements were chief reasons for the decision to close the Nichi Bei Times, said Ken Abiko, board chair of the paper, whose circulation base of around 8,000 includes primarily Northern California readers.
As the growth of online news, changing audiences and the economic downturn force media to close or consider new business models, Japanese media have been hit harder than many other ethnic media.
“Japanese American press are not seeing the same pickup that other ethnic presses are seeing, because immigration from Japan is limited, and the advertisers know that,” Abiko said. However, the ethnic media’s financial troubles do not signal a diminished need for their services.
“Media in general is going through a great crisis and reorganization, but within that we need to keep remembering that the ethnic media is the voice of our community,” said journalist, writer and activist Helen Zia. “As members of those communities, we have to support them or we’re going to lose those voices.”
Abiko said the Nichi Bei Times’ financial decline began long before last year’s economic downturn. In 2006, Taguma led a major overhaul of the paper that cut subscription prices in an effort to increase circulation and divided the bilingual daily into a Japanese edition on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and an English weekly on Thursdays. However, revenues continued to decline, and now after three years of the new model, as the business’ lease is about to expire, the board has decided it is time to close.
“I’m glad we did what we did in these last few years. Kenji did a tremendous job,” Abiko said. “Hopefully it’s a model for what it could be.”
The Nichi Bei Times is the first for-profit ethnic news business that will be replaced by a nonprofit organization with the same aims, Taguma said. The new Foundation will attempt to avoid the Nichi Bei Times’ financial problems by drawing on foundation funding and community fundraisers as well as traditional advertising for revenue, said Kerwin Berk, a Foundation board member.
Berk, who used to work for the San Francisco Chronicle, long ago became dissatisfied with the mainstream media’s lack of ethnic coverage. “The joke was I was working for the white ethnic press,” he said. “The way the mainstream media approaches news, there’s an obligation to make money, so they tend to appeal to a demographic that can afford them: white America.” With the Nichi Bei Times closing, Berk said, there will be “a huge gap to fill.”
Helen Zia agreed. “Demographic trends show that we will have more and more different communities and cultural backgrounds, which points to the greater need for media that reflects those communities,” she said. Zia noted the essential role of Spanish-language media in calling for immigration reform during the Bush administration and Chinese-language media in lobbying for a City College campus in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Ethnic media is “capable of tremendous organizing potential,” Zia said.
It was organizing potential that motivated the Nichi Bei Times founders to start the paper in 1946 as a re-embodiment of the Nichi Bei Shimbun, which was founded in 1899 by Kyutaro Abiko, grandfather of Ken Abiko. The Shimbun had to shut down in 1942 when the U.S. government imprisoned Japanese Americans, including Shimbun staff, in concentration camps following Pearl Harbor. After the war, starting the Nichi Bei Times was “a way to get the community reconnected,” Taguma said.
The young newspaper immediately began organizing donations to help rebuild postwar Japan. Since then, the paper has consistently covered hate crimes and other news important to Japanese Americans that the mainstream media has neglected. In 1998, the paper published a story by Taguma that helped win redress for families of railroad workers and miners fired after Pearl Harbor but left off the government’s 1988 redress act.
“The Nichi Bei Times has been a vital communication link in the community for many years,” said Andy Noguchi, contributor to the Nichi Bei Times and civil rights co-chair of the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. “Their role in promoting Japanese rights, Japanese culture and political empowerment has been very important for the community.”
The paper has promoted the rights of not only Japanese Americans, but also other groups who struggle with issues familiar to the Japanese American community. As many American Muslims faced post-Sept. 11 backlash, the Nichi Bei Times staff, remembering the wartime Japanese American incarceration, reported on their struggles.
“Coverage of the same-sex marriage issue has been very strong,” Noguchi said, explaining that the Nichi Bei Times saw parallels with former anti-miscegenation laws that until 1967 forbade interracial couples marry in 16 states.
“One of the most awesome things about the newspaper is that it is a document of history,” Taguma said. “People look back at old newspapers to see what the community was like.”
While the Nichi Bei Foundation hopes to continue the Nichi Bei Times’ activist role, it will be an entirely different entity on a business level. Regulations for 501(c)3 nonprofits prohibit a for-profit business like the Nichi Bei Times from simply converting to a nonprofit without making major changes in its governance and operations.
“Nonprofits aren’t supposed to be operated in furtherance of private interest,” said Gene Takagi, the Nichi Bei Foundation’s nonprofit attorney. “There are limits on compensation, and they can’t move their assets back to for-profit.”
While these restrictions deter many businesses from going nonprofit, Takagi said, they have not stopped Taguma, Berk and the other Foundation board members.
“This group of board members is not really driven by making money,” Takagi said. “They’re interested in keeping this paper alive for the Japanese American community.”
The Nichi Bei Times’ board of directors has not yet announced whether it will agree to transfer assets such as the business’ name, Website and archives to the Foundation.
As they await this decision, Taguma and others involved in the Foundation can give few specifics about the new paper, and the Foundation’s need for start-up funds exacerbates the uncertainty. The new paper will not enter 501(c)3 nonprofit status for a few months, making it until then ineligible for foundation funding.
“It will depend really on support of the public through donations,” Takagi said.
Despite these doubts, Taguma hopes that after the last Nichi Bei Times issue runs on Sept. 10, the Nichi Bei Foundation will not miss a beat in publishing its first issue on Sept. 17.
Given dwindling immigration from Japan, the Foundation’s board is uncertain whether it will continue the Japanese-language side of the paper.
To appeal to the younger generation, Taguma hopes the Foundation will continue the Nichi Bei Times’ modernization efforts, which have included expanded coverage of food, anime, manga and video games, introduction of online content, a mixed-race issue and a green issue, the first of its kind among Asian American publications.
Taguma also wants to continue the paper’s Tofu Dessert Competition, where this year the winner was a strawberry tofu tiramisu.
Berk hopes that as a nonprofit, the Foundation can offer scholarships and increase community involvement. “Community columns and stories will be even more pivotal,” Berk said.
Jon Funabiki, journalism professor at San Francisco State University, said he hoped the Foundation’s nonprofit model “might offer lessons to other ethnic news media serving other Asian, Latino, African American, Middle Eastern and other communities.”
For more information about the Nichi Bei Foundation, visit http://nichibeifoundation.org.