Digital First Responders
How Innovative News Outlets are Meeting
the Needs of Immigrant Communities
For the past few months, the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY has been investigating how a select group of independent news outlets are finding ways to grow and effectively serve immigrant communities under threat, interviewing more than 150 people nationwide. From our research we knew these outlets can save lives during crises. But we could not have foreseen that a pandemic would engulf the globe as we were working on this report. Now, CCM is sharing some of our findings in an early, preview version of the report, and offering five profiles of outstanding examples of immigrant news outlets rising to the communication challenges of 2020.
These outlets are seeing record traffic, as they demonstrate the critical roles they play informing their communities in crises. Houston Online started covering the damage to local Chinese-owned businesses on the app WeChat well before most U.S. outlets were paying attention locally. Jambalaya News is broadcasting live multiple times a day, answering listeners’ questions in Spanish with the most reliable information the editors are able to obtain from local official sources in Louisiana. And Punjabi Radio USA is broadcasting and sending out via WhatsApp, YouTube, and Facebook reports on how new trade and work restrictions impact truckers, one of their main listener blocks.
Yet, while their news business may be booming, these outlets, many of which were experiencing growth in advertising before this crisis, are now seeing massive cancellations of those contracts. Tightly linked to their communities, they tend to depend on other small immigrant-run businesses to support them with advertising.
The coronavirus crisis has made even lean, well-run outlets financially vulnerable. Now more than ever, dynamic and innovative immigrant media outlets such as these should be supported and sought out as key information distribution partners by larger media outlets, local governments and public agencies. While the editors and reporters we spoke with come from around the world and have different strengths in radio, print and digital, we also found that they have been successful at converging around multiplatform digital practices. Together, they have been carving out new roles that suggest opportunities for others in three key areas:
- Social media as a tool for growth in the age of fake news: In recent years the internet decimated classified ads, shrinking revenues for many immigrant-serving newspapers, while social media that amplified rumors decimated their audiences. Now, successful immigrant-serving outlets are embracing social media as a way to provide verified and trusted information, and thereby grow their audiences.
- Rise of live streaming and the “micro-TV” station: Media outlets serving immigrant communities are usually small operations. Broadcasting over the internet cuts costs dramatically, and the immediacy and shareability of a live broadcast from a news conference, community festival, or even a drive-through coronavirus testing station allow small outlets to compete with much bigger operations. Almost every outlet we spoke with is now livestreaming on Facebook to a growing audience.
- Global production and audiences: Outlets hire 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.
News outlets serving immigrant communities have existed since before the founding of the United States. In a country of more than 44 million people born in other countries, more than half of whom are not proficient in English, these varied outlets have played a key civic orientation and integration role, and for many years also helped their audiences to track developments in their countries of origin.
Today, though, a Korean student in Michigan can click the search engine Naver on her cell phone to navigate to Seoul-based Chosun. In cities such as Los Angeles, parallel internets in scores of immigrant languages offer food recommendations, housing or job listings. Brazilian immigrants on Martha’s Vineyard today can check out the Brazukada Facebook group to learn how the local food pantry is functioning during the coronavirus crisis, as well as to hear jokes in Portuguese or news of the birth of triplets.
These shifts, as well as the broad decline of local news, threaten immigrant media’s sustainability. The Center for Community Media has responded by redirecting its mission to help outlets develop survival skills – and this report is part of that effort.
Even before the latest crisis, immigrant media outlets have been folding: In New Jersey alone, at least 19 ethnic and community media outlets serving the state closed from 2009 to 2019, according to a study by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media. Many of the outlets that remain are glorified classified papers or radio stations that fit in a bit of national programming between songs.
Yet, in the face of incredible challenges – before the pending economic disaster – a select group of media outlets serving immigrant communities were finding ways to grow. To identify them, we asked immigrant organizers, media specialists, journalists and others 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
Further, we decided that to qualify for inclusion in the report a nominated outlet must be based in the U.S.; independent and not funded by large influential players such as Univision, or Sing Tao Daily; and unaffiliated with any advocacy organizations at the present time. We reviewed coverage from more than 50 nominated sites, and interviewed representatives of more than 30 of them as well as audience members and outside experts.
We will continue our research as the crisis unfolds, and would appreciate any nominations for the full report, map, and database that we plan to release in early summer.
Social media as a tool for growth in the age of fake news
As soon as news of the coronavirus broke, so did rumors of local outbreaks on social media. For Michigan Korean Weekly, the questions poured in through the social media app KakaoTalk from community members who did not trust the official government reports; at WJFD, the country’s biggest Portuguese radio station, based in Massachusetts, via phone lines and Facebook Messenger, listeners worried about how the market closure would impact their Social Security.
In mid-February, someone created a fake post saying that there was an outbreak of coronavirus at a Los Angeles area Seafood City, a popular Filipino grocery chain. Christina Oriel, the editor of the LA-based Filipino newspaper Asian Journal, checked with the county’s Department of Public Health which said it was false, and then she posted about it on Facebook, where the post was widely shared. Their audience, said Oriel, is looking for fact-checked news that counters fake news.
Being a trusted brand on social media leads to reporting that better serves the changing interests of audiences, especially as new waves of immigrants often have different perspectives 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 essentially doing good beat reporting digitally in order to get people to share the content. That includes “being out there every single day with sources,” and “social listening,” or responding to sent messages and tagging the person when you respond to a news tip they submitted.
However, there aren’t nearly enough trustworthy news outlets operating effectively on the diverse social media outlets that immigrant communities frequent. And the platforms demand dedicated and continuous verification of news and information by editors, especially as they engage audience members who may be reporting rumors and offering unreliable information in their comments.
Furthermore, using social media may reward immigrant news outlets with enormous audience growth, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into revenue growth. Broadcasting via Facebook Live effectively may increase reach at low cost, but securing advertising dollars remains challenging for all outlets, in particular on these platforms. Nonetheless, growing audiences at least support the case for selling more ads.
Rise of live streaming and the “micro-TV” station
Long before cocktail parties held via Zoom thanks to the coronavirus, immigrants in New York used video conferencing to connect with loved ones. About 15 years ago, immigrants from Ecuador flocked to special video centers in Queens, while Dominicans connected via video in Washington Heights. Today, immigrant communities continue to be early adaptors in their communication practices, with live streaming particularly widespread.
In mid-March, New Orleans’ Jambalaya News took its audience along as it checked out a drive-through coronavirus testing station and offered a Spanish-language summary of the mayor’s press conference, while Nguoi Viet also visited a coronavirus testing station, in Southern California. These two outlets, as well as Gazeta News and Punjabi Radio, also produced regular live studio updates, some of which generated more than 100 comments.
Smaller passion project outlets can also have an impact by embracing low-cost video broadcasting. By day, Richard Vang is an “unassuming heads-down, loyal employee” at Harley-Davidson headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But when he returns to his suburban home at night, he descends the stairs to his basement closet, selects one of his many suits and transforms into an internationally known news anchor for Suab Hmong International Broadcasting Co. Suab Hmong, the “Voice of the Hmong,” is among the oldest and most important U.S. outlets for the Hmong ethnic minority community, a stateless people that arrived in the U.S. after the Vietnam War, mostly as refugees from Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.
Recently, he’s ventured outdoors to discuss COVID-19 with local experts and Hmong guests, as well as share stories from Laos and run public safety announcements. Before the crisis, Vang would travel on weekends to different Hmong communities from Wausau, Wisconsin to St. Paul to Sacramento, then edit footage for broadcast during the following week.
In Seattle, where the coronavirus first gathered strength on U.S. shores, Salaxley TV has been offering the Somali community news and reassurance. Founder Mohamad Atma, who started experimenting with YouTube broadcasting after finding a dearth of math videos in his native Somali, expanded to produce local information videos in 2016. In mid-March, Atma, an Uber driver, joined with other app-based drivers in front of an image of the Seattle skyline to explain the implications of the virus for their safety and to explore ways to get financial relief to drivers and other Somali immigrants.
Global production and audiences
Nguoi Viet, the Vietnamese newspaper and digital powerhouse based in Orange County’s Little Saigon, publishes multiple newsletters a day. Its YouTube videos have a larger audience outside the U.S. than in the U.S. As it tracks the coronavirus on its various platforms, including the newspaper it has published for four decades, it is not only informing its Orange County audience about what is going on, but also giving 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.
In the coming months, the globalization of both production and audiences may not be enough to save many news outlets that serve immigrants. The ad downturn is likely to be devastating, and shouldering the burden of lost revenues will be impossible for many. The five outlets profiled, though, show that immigrant-serving media can achieve greater relevance, responsiveness and impact, and can do so by being lean and nimble in adapting to changing and even difficult circumstances. Many of the platforms and strategies they’ve used can be tried by others, and may offer at least a chance of achieving sustainability during the very tough months ahead.
None of the five outlets profiled are non-profits. They do not receive grants. If we lose them and others like them, moving forward it will become even harder to keep our society as a whole, including our immigrant communities, informed. And that will hurt all of us.
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, Darleen Principe, Jennifer Cheng, and Son Ly.