The New New Media

Something very Californian,” said Richard Rodriguez, “is going on in this hotel. The Pakistani editor is talking to the Salvadoran publisher, who is talking to the Korean reporter, who is talking to the Mexican . . .” The hotel was The Beverly Hilton, home to the random movie star and a $25 breakfast. But the venue was a working lunch, where several dozen representatives of the fastest-growing branch of the California press were trying, playfully and unsuccessfully, to come up with a better tag for themselves than “ethnic media.”

The discussion highlighted an old tug of war -- between the desire to be singular but not to be ghettoized for that singularity. Rodriguez, the author and television commentator, told them that the labeling problem might solve itself. Leave the label to “the kids” of California, he suggested, since they are already coming up with creative tags for the state’s new genetic and cultural fusions. “We have Blaxicans, we have Negripinos,” he said. “There is a Hindu/Jewish couple I know whose kids call themselves Hinjews . . . .”

In California, so often a leader in the demographic-trends department, some 53 percent of residents identify themselves as members of an ethnic group, making those minorities, in a sense, the majority. One result has been an explosion of media to serve them. And many of these newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets were represented at the Hilton in mid-September, at an expo and awards show. A walk through the exhibit was a sort of globalizing experience: India Post, Filipinas, The African Times, Afghan Journal, Weekly Urdu Link, Viet Nam Thoi Bao, Pakistan Link, Los Angeles Asian Journal. Some are in English and some are not; some are well established, particularly the Chinese and African-American publications. But many of these enthusiastic editors and publishers had been in business only a short time. The event was sponsored by New California Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping this burgeoning press flex its editorial and marketing muscles and to find ways for its practitioners to aid each other, and to give-and-take with the rest of us in the mainstream press.

L.A.’s mayor was at the Hilton, as were the publisher of the Los Angeles Times and some big-time ceos, testifying to ethnic media’s rising influence. New California Media highlighted a poll, conducted by Bendixen & Associates, showing that some 84 percent of California’s Hispanic, Asian and African-American people (about 17 million residents) use ethnic media regularly.

The expo was fine, but it was the awards dinner and the panel discussions over two days at the Hilton that imparted a sense of the journalistic spirits about. People were passionate about the special needs of their readers and listeners, not only for service journalism but for investigations. A representative of El Observador in San Jose spoke proudly of taking on the Mexican owners of a grocery chain, who were abusing their Mexican employees by “violating every labor law known to man.” An editor from El Andar magazine told of its investigation into dangerous conditions at factories in the shadow of Silicon Valley. A news director from Radio Bilingue, a five-station public-radio network, picked up an award for a piece about a Mexican ice cream vendor whose life was turned upside down after he was seen photographing federal buildings. First the FBI, then the INS came after him. His terrorist offense? Taking pictures of his new city with his new camera to send to his brother in Mexico. A number of speakers, and not just Arabs and South Asians, spoke of a hostile post-9/11 climate for the immigrant populations they represent.

The representatives of these burgeoning ethnic media were clearly already sharing resources. The question of their connection to the mainstream press -- or lack of one -- was also raised. Will mainstream media get the new-immigrant religion and adapt to a changing nation? And if so, how? Will it crowd out this new competition? Buy it up? Or will both groups come up with interesting economic and journalistic partnerships, whether in story projects or polling or some other kind of mutual aid? Sandy Close, the director of Pacific News Service and the guiding spirit of New California Media, tends to see things positively, and frames the challenge to the mainstream this way: With a new ethnic press hungry to connect to the larger civic discussion, Close sees “an incredible opportunity” for mainstream media to find ways to make that connection, “just as we are losing our idea of what it means to be mainstream.”

Mike Hoyt is CJR's executive editor.

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