June 5, 2009

Vibrant Ethnic Media Defy Gloomy Trends

By Marcelo Ballvé
New America Media

New York — With so much of the recession-battered news industry in free-fall, it may have seemed like a foolhardy idea.

In April, as bank regulators conducted “stress tests” of ailing U.S. banks, a group of investors and journalists launched a brand-new daily newspaper.

But maybe it wasn’t so crazy. Unlike most major metropolitan dailies (many of which are in deep financial trouble), the New York start-up, Al Día, isn’t interested in that increasingly elusive prize: the general-market media consumer.

Al Día casts aside that frayed, wide net. It is in Spanish, targeting the estimated 2.5 million Latino readers in the New York metropolitan area. It competes against the fast-growing septuagenarian daily El Diario/La Prensa, as well as Puerto Rican-targeted El Vocero, the Diario de México and Hispanic publications backed by the New York Daily News and New York Post.

Whether Al Día succeeds or not, this vibrant competition speaks to the surprising resilience of ethnic outlets at a time when the old, general-market media retracts. The robust condition of ethnic media is reflected in the second national poll on ethnic media’s reach, commissioned by New America Media.

This year’s poll, to be released at NAM’s National Ethnic Media Expo & Awards in Atlanta on June 5, shows continuing audience gains for ethnic media outlets since the first poll in 2005. Hispanic TV’s reach, for example, is approaching total: It’s now view-ed by 86 percent of Hispanic adults. Asian media are thriving, too. Since 2005, Chinese- and Korean-language newspapers, along with Vietnamese-language TV, increased penetration into their respective communities by 15 percent or more.

Ethnic media’s audience is not just immigrants. African American-oriented TV, radio and newspapers now reach 10 percent more African-Americans than they did in 2005. This underscores the fact that ethnic media’s surge isn’t just immigration-fueled growth, but also about audiences embracing specialized content.

Ethnic media are not immune to the recession, of course. That’s why the annual Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism survey reported a “mixed 2008” for ethnic media. This, despite the election of Pres. Barack Obama, whose mixed heritage helped refocus attention on ethnic and immigrant America, and by extension— its media.

“There were stories of revenue losses, business closings and reorganizations,” the Pew report reads, but “also many examples of the ethnic media continuing to fare much better than the mainstream press.”

Al Día may have defied the 2009 gloom as it joined the New York Hispanic print fray, but hyped glossy magazine Tu Ciudad folded in Los Angeles last year, just after publishing its third anniversary edition.

It was a disappointment to many who thought Los Angeles, the alpha Hispanic media market, could support a hip English-language, Latino-targeted magazine. In an email to staff, publisher Jaime Gamboa said corporate partners pulled the plug amidst “the realities of today’s hardship.”

Also last year, newspaper chain Impremedia, which publishes El Diario/La Prensa and the country’s largest Spanish-language daily, La Opinión in Los Angeles, shuttered the Hoy New York free daily.

In fact, Al Día was conceived by laid-off Hoy staffers. Their regrouping to launch Al Día, which publishes five times a week, is evidence of the resilience of ethnic media and its journalists. Al Día’s launch also points to the keen interest of certain investors, despite the evident risks of a new media venture in a bear market.

Whatever the setbacks related to the overall economy, the ethnic media is well positioned for growth. A June Nielsen market report predicted that by 2025 over half of families with children in the United States will be multi-cultural. By mid-century, that number will be 60 percent.

That’s a promising statistic for business and advertising because new families typically spend a lot on consumer goods. With statistics like these, advertisers will be primed to include ethnic media in their multicultural marketing strategies.

“While some companies have multicultural marketing initiatives in place today, by 2020, multicultural marketing will be a necessity — rather than an option — for doing business,” says Nielsen senior vice president Douglas Anderson.

There are weak spots. Many ethnic media outlets have a feeble Internet presence. This weakness will become more notable as their audiences go online in greater numbers.

Hispanics, who have among the lowest rates of Internet access, are nonetheless steadily clearing the digital divide. NAM’s poll shows 37 percent of Hispanics accessing the Internet, up from 24 percent in 2005.

Many ethnic media still do a poor job of documenting their audiences and explaining it to would-be advertisers, and often struggle to attract outside investment needed to grow. But the more glaring flaws of the past— amateurish distribution, shabby content, inconsistent publication or broadcasts— are becoming uncommon outside of smaller, isolated markets.

The fight of the future will likely be for the attention of immigrants’ sons, daughters and grandchildren. Second and third generations may prefer to surf the Internet or listen to the radio in English and will watch the Colbert Report or Hardball, but they’ll also be potential readers of Giant Robot magazine for Asian pop culture news, or Latina magazine for beauty tips. (English-language Hispanic publications like Latina now reach 30 percent of adult Hispanics). They may watch Fox Sports en Español for soccer highlights.

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