Digital First Responders
How Innovative News Outlets are Meeting the Needs of Immigrant Communities
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At a time when all of journalism is in an existential crisis, the financial pressure on resource-deprived immigrant outlets is greater than ever. Yet the pandemic, and the protests over the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and dozens of others, have put innovative immigrant-serving digital outlets into overdrive, as reporters squelch rumors via WeChat and Facebook Live and beam interviews with local officials into living rooms via Roku and JadooTV boxes.
The most successful of these outlets – as measured by ballooning audience numbers – rely on tireless reporters and anchors with a direct line to listeners and viewers. Journalists like Mario Guevara with Mundo Hispánico in Atlanta have made it their business to maintain contact with immigrants using social media. Guevara listens to their questions, hears their complaints, and then gives them the critical information and support they need. That, rather than news flashes or push notifications, has become the lifeblood of immigrant media. Guevara, with nearly half a million Facebook followers on his personal account, recently livestreamed as he took a rubber bullet to his leg while interviewing Latino kids on why they were out protesting against the police.
For many immigrant communities, these outlets provide information they just can’t get from other sources. “The local media landscape is predominantly white,” said Mukhtar Ibrahim, the Somali-American editor of Sahan Journal in St. Paul. When he went to report on the protests and looting in Minneapolis, which occurred essentially in the backyard of many Somali residents, he was struck by how few journalists of color were covering the story. But he was not surprised. Most newsrooms in Minnesota, said Ibrahim, are “slow in making news coverage more inclusive, despite the increasing diversity and the rapid growth of Minnesota’s immigrant population.”
In contrast, immigrant outlets are vital sources of information for people from indigenous farmworkers to Chinese engineers to Somali Uber drivers. On the Chinese social media app WeChat, Houston Online documented empty Chinese-owned businesses well before most U.S. outlets were paying attention to the pandemic’s reach. Punjabi Radio USA in Northern California reported on dangerous rest stop conditions for truckers, one of their main listener groups. And as Queens emerged as an epicenter of coronavirus in the U.S., TBN24, a Bangladeshi digital television outlet with more than 2.7 million followers on Facebook alone, informed viewers about everything from how to get a stimulus check to how to connect with funeral homes.
The technology may be new, but today’s immigrant outlets build on a long history of serving their communities in crisis. During the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest and riots, Radio Korea shut down all broadcasting operations and became a control center fielding hundreds of calls for help as businesses burned and police were nowhere to be found. These days, when the station does live programs, hosts will often collect comments and poll listeners via KakaoTalk, a social media popular in Korea, as well as run a YouTube live chat.
Wielding new technologies can generate huge followings for immigrant media outlets, but these followers are not paying the bills. In coming months, while some immigrant outlets will surely go out of business, the nimble and the scrappy may yet show the way to survive and even thrive. They’ve embraced virtually cost-free digital platforms and delivery systems, so there’s not much room to slash expenses. On the revenue side, ads have plummeted dramatically. Still, glimmers of hope can be found in new models, from going the non-profit route to building auxiliary businesses that aren’t journalism, but fund it.
For the past year, the Center for Community Media has been studying news outlets serving immigrant communities for models of growth and innovation. The cross-currents that have battered community media outlets across the nation threaten their sustainability, and the Center for Community Media has responded by redirecting its mission to help outlets develop survival skills. This report is part of that effort. [A shorter “preview” version of this report was published by CCM in early April.]
We interviewed and surveyed more than 150 people in 30 states to identify outlets that are in the vanguard. The editors and reporters we spoke with come from around the world and have different strengths in radio, broadcast, print, and digital. Yet we found that the best of them have been successful at converging around multiplatform practices. In particular, we found that immigrant-serving news outlets are evolving in four key ways:
- Wielding social media for community engagement. In recent years the internet decimated classified ads, shrinking revenues for many immigrant-serving newspapers, while social media that trafficked in rumors decimated their audiences. Now, successful immigrant-serving outlets are using social media as a way to offer verified information, cultivate community conversations, and respond to concerns. Live broadcasting is booming, with the unparalleled immediacy and shareability of bringing viewers to a news conference, community festival, or a drive-through coronavirus testing station. Some outlets are even operating primarily on social media platforms like WeChat, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Facebook.
- Leveraging a small staff to reach big audiences Media outlets serving immigrant communities have historically been relatively small operations, but with delivery technologies like livestreaming on Facebook or “micro-TV stations,” being small is no longer an impediment to being timely, and may even work in an outlet’s favor. One-person operations can report, produce and broadcast – and consequently boost audiences substantially at very low cost at a time when revenue models are challenged.
- Globalizing both production and audiences. Increasingly, outlets are hiring staffers overseas to cut costs, while stateside reporters serve both the diaspora in the U.S. and home country audiences. The geolocation of audiences has shifted dramatically in recent years, as reverse migration, press restrictions overseas, and far-flung diasporas boost audiences for immigrant media based in the U.S. Dynamic outlets are becoming transnational enterprises. One Brazilian newspaper in Massachusetts reported it has 60% of its audience in the U.S. and 30% in Brazil while a Hmong outlet in Wisconsin reported 40% of its audience comes from outside of the U.S.
- Diversifying business models and revenue streams. Even before the pandemic, immigrant media was feeling the pain of ad cuts. Now, though, a few are reporting that their funding sources are stable or even growing modestly. That’s thanks to a grab-bag of strategies, from operating as a non-profit to lining up grant funding to getting government advertising to targeting supplement funding sources. Our database shows 13 out of 50 outlets are non-profit, while a handful have put up e-commerce sites, developed a consulting business and even launched English-language classes to boost the bottom line.
To develop our database, we asked more than 150 journalists, immigrant advocates, and media experts from more than 30 states across the country about the changing role of immigrant-serving media outlets in their communities. We asked them to nominate outlets that demonstrated:
- Delivery of local news to immigrants, not just music and entertainment
- Growth in audience, revenue, and/or staff
- Engagement with the communities they serve
In addition, we wanted the report to offer lessons for other immigrant-serving news outlets, so we only included U.S.-based outlets that:
- Are independent and not funded by large influential players such as Univision or Sing Tao Daily
- Include someone in a gatekeeper role who subscribes to core journalistic values of verification and fair representation
- Report primarily for immigrants, rather than about immigrants for a broader audience
We received more than 100 nominations of outlets, added outlets identified via our own research in immigrant communities, and then winnowed the list down to 50 for a database of immigrant-serving media outlets that are finding ways to grow. We selected outlets based upon the criteria above, as well as to reflect the geographic diversity of outlets in the U.S., countries of origin, and the range of emerging models.
The 50 outlets are based in 23 states and report in more than 30 languages. They include a wide range of formats and types, many evolving from more traditional backgrounds, among them:
- Weekly or daily newspapers, such as Mundo Hispánico, Rafu Shimpo, and Asian Journal
- Commercial radio stations serving communities in Arabic to Telugu, or radio programs that grew into broader presence such as Planeta Venus in Kansas
- Refugee and farmworker community radio sponsored by another non-profit
- Broadcast or cable television stations
What these varied outlets share with the more recent wave of digital natives is that they all function on multiple platforms and use them to keep in close touch with the communities they serve. We counted more than 25 digital platforms on which the outlets in the database are active, and there are surely some we missed. Most of the digital platforms are also used by U.S. mainstream press, although some are specific to country of origin such as the Chinese WeChat which is home to more than 10 million content producers, or JadooTV digital television boxes which are sold online and in “Desi grocery stores” and feature various South Asian stations.
As a group, the immigrant-serving outlets we selected for the database tend to be relatively new, which may explain why they are able to grow and are tech-savvy. With the exception of Rafu Shimpo, the Japanese-American newspaper founded in 1903, and Armenian Weekly, founded in 1934, they all are under 45 years old, with more than half founded in the past 20 years. This is significantly younger than immigrant-serving media as a whole. In New Jersey about a quarter of ethnic media outlets are more than 45 years old, according to a 2019 study by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media. Similarly, a forthcoming study of California outlets finds more than 20% were created before 1975.
Technology is not the only way the outlets in the database differ from immigrant-serving outlets as a whole. For example, the database includes a higher ratio of non-profit outlets. Overall, this database represents a cross-section of growing and innovative outlets, rather than general trends in the entire immigrant-serving media landscape.
From the broader group of 50, we selected 17 outlets for in-depth study and profiles. Diverse in geography and platforms, they were chosen because they provide specific examples of innovation that we believe other immigrant-serving, as well as mainstream, outlets may wish to replicate.
Chicago in Arabic | El Perico/The Reader | Gazeta Brazilian News | Houston Online | Jambalaya News |
La Gordiloca News | Mundo Hispánico | Nguoi Viet | Punjabi Radio USA | Radio Indígena |
Rafu Shimpo | Sahan Journal | Salaxley TV | Suab Hmong News | TBN24 |
The Haitian Times | WJFD 97.3 Portuguese Radio
Wielding social media for community engagement
While today’s immigrants have various options for news and information – a Korean student in Michigan can read Seoul-based Chosun and in cities such as Los Angeles parallel internets in scores of immigrant languages offer food recommendations, housing or job listings – the pandemic highlighted the need for sources of news that are at once verified, local, and community-specific. In Miami, for example, there are at least six Facebook groups serving Brazilians, where one can find recommendations for English classes, watch livestreaming evangelical prayer services, receive tips on an eyebrow trimmer – and read about false reports of ICE raids. Gazeta Brazilian News Editor in Chief and Director Fernanda Cirino once saw social media as competition after it took out a chunk of advertising, but now sees the proliferation of unsubstantiated reports as fueling a hunger for verified local information. She even credits social media with her news outlet’s recent resurgence: Gazeta now has a bigger Facebook following than any of the Miami-based Brazilian groups.
Being a trusted brand on social media can also lead to better reporting, especially as new waves of immigrants often have different perspectives and media consumption habits than the editors determining coverage. For Mundo Hispánico, in Atlanta, with a Facebook audience of nearly 5 million followers, the feedback loop has transformed coverage. “Your community is telling you what they want,” said María Bastidas, digital content director at Mundo Hispánico. “That inverted the process.” The important part, she said, is paying attention to what the community wants by studying audience data and responding to comments as a form of “social listening.”
Going even further with social media growth, in the past five years outlets have emerged that are primarily on WeChat, WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, among other social platforms. Houston Online started as a website, but quickly found that it was most effective at reaching audiences on WeChat and could sell advertising to it. Now almost all of its activity is on WeChat. Salaxley TV in Seattle is one of various Somali immigrant “television” outlets that exist primarily as a YouTube channel. They will cross-post to Facebook, which helps with distribution, but YouTube is their primary repository. And New American Neighbors in Denver is a refugee outreach program that does broadcasts via Facebook and WhatsApp.
Leveraging a small staff to reach big audiences
Long before Zoom cocktail parties thanks to the coronavirus, immigrants in New York used video conferencing to connect with loved ones. About 15 years ago, Ecuadorians flocked to digital call centers in Queens to connect with family left behind in Guayaquil and even remote communities. Today, immigrant communities continue to be early adopters of communication practices, with livestreaming particularly widespread.
As production costs have plummeted, immigrant outlets, which by and large rely on very small staffs, have used social media live video to reach tremendous audiences. Facebook Live was a game changer for Jambalaya News, which started as a sports newspaper for New Orleans’ Latino immigrant population and pivoted to providing news after Hurricane Katrina. “We can get there quicker, we are in the moment, we can interact with people right away, immediately,” said Editor Brenda Murphy, who after the stay-at-home order went into effect livestreamed multiple times a day answering individual questions in her hard-hit community.
Small passion projects have also been able to thrive. In Seattle, where the coronavirus first gathered strength in the U.S., Salaxley TV has been offering the Somali community both locally and around the world updates and reassurance. Founder Mohamad Ahmed can pull this off, mostly on his own, because the technology is cheap and accessible. At the end of May, he reported on white protesters taking to the streets of Seattle for racial justice, publicized information about free COVID testing, and hosted a live interview on challenges facing parents during the quarantine which received more than 8,000 views.
Even those outlets still using basic television channels or commercial radio, such as Khmer TV or Radio Iran, both based in Southern California, are simultaneously streaming video on Facebook Live. “These days you don’t have a choice, you have to do it,” Tony Lai, Khmer TV’s owner, said. He can reach a much broader audience of Cambodian residents beyond viewers in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town, as well as younger people who don’t watch television. When Chicago in Arabic, a relatively new site, started livestreaming protest coverage it saw its reach escalate 800%. La Gordiloca, a one-woman operation who usually reports on the Texas border out of her car, has reached hundreds of thousands of views with some of her posts.
Globalizing both production and audiences
Nguoi Viet, the Vietnamese newspaper and digital powerhouse based in Orange County’s Little Saigon, publishes multiple newsletters a day for readers in different time zones. Its YouTube videos have a larger audience internationally than in the U.S. The newsroom not only informs its Orange County audience about what is going on locally and in Vietnam, but also gives Vietnamese around the world a sense of what the community in the U.S. is experiencing.
And just as many immigrant-serving media outlets are globalizing their audiences, they are globalizing some of their labor inputs. Many take advantage of lower production costs abroad, using editors, graphic designers, or radio DJs located in home countries.
Diversifying business models and revenue streams
The ad crunch of recent years – exacerbated by the pandemic – means that outlets are actively hunting for new business models. Some, including for-profit outlets, are getting grants for the first time. Others are getting supplemental revenues by offering consulting services, selling goods online or even hawking English-language classes. And a few are testing out a digital subscription or membership model. Rafu Shimpo, the Japanese-language newspaper out of LA founded in 1903, credits such a plan with saving the paper in 2016.
While not yet a trend, non-profit news outlets serving immigrants appear to be growing. Two-thirds of the non-profit news outlets we feature in the database were founded in the past five years. There is a long history of immigrant media linked to community or religious organizations, and some of the outlets in the database such as Radio Indígena, which is a product of the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project, and Our Texas, which is produced by Houston’s Russian Cultural Center, follow that model. Recently a handful of outlets have been founded as news non-profits, including Sahan Journal, which has raised more than half a million dollars from major news funders including the Knight Foundation, and, via the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, the Ford Foundation and Democracy Fund.
The new non-profits are part of an emerging broader model that until recently had passed immigrant-serving outlets by. “There absolutely have been really significant gains in diversification,” said Sue Cross, the executive director and CEO of Institute for Nonprofit News, who noted there were almost no people of color-led organizations five years ago. She sees that changing, noting now 13% of their members are people of color-led organizations, and is convinced the upward trend will continue. Cross sees some of the traits that have helped immigrant media grow in the past – being nimble, entrepreneurial – will help them with this new business model: “They are not big corporate structures and so you see more innovation overall.”
For-profits are also seeing more opportunities for funding. The Haitian Times is hosting a Report for America fellow and recently received Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funding. Many others received Facebook or Google grants provided following outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m getting the sense that they recognize, finally, that ethnic media is important,” Rafu Shimpo English-language Editor Gwen Muranaka said of grant-making organizations. “It’s not just about The New York Times. It’s us little guys, and we’re hurting.”
Yet, Rafu Shimpo, like the majority of outlets, still relies upon advertising, which has taken a nosedive, both for local and national brands. The only significant ad growth seems to be coming from government outreach campaigns in a few communities. In New York City the mayor issued an executive order in 2019 guaranteeing at least 50% of city print and online advertising to community media outlets. (The Center for Community Media is working with New York City government to ensure the advertising funds reach local media.) And in California, $30 million was dedicated in 2019 to connect with ethnic media around the Census. For some outlets, that extra income has kept them afloat in recent months.
A few, however, have found auxiliary funding sources to supplement advertising. Some of the methods include:
- Consulting: El Perico, in Nebraska, has a digital media consulting agency that supplements its two papers, The Reader, an alternative monthly, and El Perico, a Spanish-language community paper. Reklama Media Company, which supports the Russian-language magazine and radio outlet in Chicago, Illinois, has a marketing company which works specifically with promoting brands to Eastern European communities in the area.
- Classes: Mundo Hispánico, out of Atlanta, Georgia, launched an English class that they heavily promote on individual Facebook posts from reporters, social media video, and advertising on their site.
- Business Directory: Nguoi Viet, El Perico, and Mundo Hispánico have all created robust local community business directories, initially in print and also with a digital version.
- E-Commerce: The Haitian Times launched a site of Haitian crafts and art in January but put promotion on pause when the pandemic hit. Rafu Shimpo has been developing a similar initiative for Little Tokyo products.
The last recession devastated media, especially immigrant-serving media. In New Jersey alone, at least 19 ethnic and community media outlets serving the state closed from 2009 to 2019, according to the Montclair State study. As a new and deeper recession takes hold, some immigrant outlets will close and all will be challenged. Yet we remain hopeful that some, particularly those outlined in this report, may fare better this time. Affordable and highly shareable social media and production techniques have brought some immigrant-serving outlets back from the brink of irrelevance. Whether old or new, the outlets profiled here are already lean operations. They have slashed publishing costs. And they are finding creative ways to tap into new funding.
The struggles in this country for racial justice will not go away. When the mainstream press has moved on to the next hot topic, immigrant-serving outlets will cover many of the battles to come – be they justice for Black immigrants, justice for indigenous laborers, or justice for Sikh long-haul drivers. A virus and protests have highlighted the value of informing and supporting immigrants, but the fact is that these outlets have long played a critical public service role in the day-to-day life of newcomers by helping them to navigate a difficult and often inhospitable environment. They will need to draw on their passion, their tenacity and their ingenuity as they continue to serve their communities in the challenging times to come.
This report was researched and written by Daniela Gerson, senior fellow at the Center for Community Media and assistant professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge, with research and reporting assistance from Chi Zhang, Taehyun Kim, Darleen Principe, Jennifer Cheng, Omar Shahriar, Yana Kunichoff, Son Ly, and Maria Angela Vega. This report was edited by Karen Pennar.