April 26, 2002

The Growth in Ethnic Media Usage Poses Important Business Decisions

By Pui-wing Tam
The Wall Street Journal

April 23, 2002 - Every morning, Jing Xu reads five newspapers. Of the five, only one is written in English. The others are in Chinese.

“The English media just doesn’t cover all the news I’m interested in,” says 30-year-old Ms. Xu, who emigrated from China a decade ago and now lives in San Francisco. “I get a different perspective from the ethnic media.”

Among nonwhites, Ms. Xu (pronounced Shoe) is more the rule than the exception, it turns out, at least in California. A new survey that may be the first comprehensive effort to quantify ethnic-media usage in California, the first “majority minority” state in the mainland U.S., reveals noteworthy trends. Ethnic media are pervasive: Fully 84% of the survey’s Hispanic, Asian-American and African-American respondents say they get information through ethnic television, radio and publications.

Ethnic-media consumers are loyal: 68% of respondents say they prefer ethnic TV stations over English channels for watching news. And 40% of respondents say they pay more attention to ethnic-language ads than ads in English media.

The results, released Tuesday by New California Media, a nonprofit San Francisco foundation that tracks ethnic media, reinforces an idea many social scientists share about ethnic groups in the U.S. Islands of ethnic communities are emerging in the American mainstream. Defying the traditional image of America as a great melting pot, these islands rely on their own sources of information and advertising and to a large extent define themselves as a community by the ethnic media they consume.

It’s a shift with immediate ramifications for corporations and others with a stake in reaching the masses. “The growth of the ethnic media is helping to slow the process of assimilation and thereby making this a much more complex country,” says Sergio Bendixen, a Coconut Grove, Fla., pollster who conducted the survey. “It is now more complicated than ever to reach people, whether you’re trying to sell a car or you’re a plumber.”

If present trends continue, demographers say, the U.S. as a whole will join California in having more nonwhites than whites by the year 2050.

The survey, of more than 2,000 ethnic Californians, asked about media usage with the aim charting the little-known contours of America’s ethnic-media landscape, says Sandy Close, director of New California Media and a former recipient of a so-called Mac-Arthur genius award. Only 27% of the respondents were interviewed in English; the rest responded in Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Laotian and other tongues.

“This is a first step in showing how the ethnic media has high levels of confidence from their audience,” says Ms. Close.

Bank of America Corp., for one, is paying close attention. Liam McGee, president of the California unit of the nation’s largest consumer bank, says Bank of America believes about 80% of its future U.S. growth will come from increasing populations of Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Hispanics, particularly in the big markets of California, Texas and Florida.

Mr. McGee says the survey results he has seen in summary form, validate the bank’s plan to “dramatically” increase ad spending in multicultural media this year, especially on non-English television. Bank of America spent $10 million on multicultural ads in 2001 and will spend $40 million this year.

Still, despite fast-growing audiences, most of the ethnic media remain largely on the fringe, executives in the field say. Major exceptions are Spanish-language TV channels Univision Communications Inc. and Telemundo, which cater to the 35-million-strong Hispanic community in the U.S. Last year, General Electric Co.’s NBC unit, eyeing a foothold in the market, said it was buying Telemundo in a $2 billion deal.

Jo Muse, chairman of Muse Cordero Chen & Partners, a Los Angeles multicultural ad agency, says the industry is so fragmented by language and geography that clients hoping to buy ad time or space on a national scale often are frustrated. In the end, Mr. Muse says, companies usually buy English-language media instead.

Pedro Tuyub, editor of El Tecolote, a San Francisco Spanish- and English-language magazine with a circulation of 20,000, says the publication doesn’t attract many national advertisers. “Most of our advertisements are still from locals,” Mr. Tuyub says, noting the magazine also hasn’t aggressively sought national ads. Mr. Tuyub says in the past few months, more national consumer-products companies have been sending press releases about new products. “That never used to happen,” he says.

The survey found ethnic Californians still prefer English-language media for certain things. For instance, 43% of respondents prefer looking at English ads before making large purchases such as cars or refrigerators, compared with 32% who look to native-language media for those items. And 40% of respondents read English ads before searching for food or drugstore purchases, compared with 33% who search for those items in ethnic ads.

But when ethnic Californians look for local services such as plumbers, lawyers or restaurants, 44% said they consult native-language media, compared with 34% who consult mainstream media. Thirty-three percent of respondents report using the Web for this purpose.

The survey found 63% of ethnic Californians watch native-language TV daily, while 20% say they watch at least a few times a week. Some 58% listen to native-language radio every day, with 26% saying they listen several times a week. Ethnic newspapers, meanwhile, are read daily by 22% of ethnic Californians; 29% say they read them several times a week and 32% say once a week.

Gabriel Reyes, 35, who runs a Latino entertainment company in Los Angeles, says he reads and watches plenty of mass-market media but needs his daily fix of Hispanic newspapers and TV. The ethnic media “absolutely puts me in touch with a world that is part of my roots, and it also puts me in the world where I work,” he says.

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