Money Talks, But Does It Speak Amharic?
Immigrant-Focused News Outlets Find Growing Audience, Funding Obstacles
|By Krissah William
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006
Dereje Desta worked the room, passing out fliers promoting his biweekly newspaper’s fourth anniversary. He is the founder, owner, editor and sole reporter of Washington’s only Ethiopian-oriented news publication.
He is also its only salesman, trying to build his small newspaper’s revenue and convince advertisers that the more than 22,000 Ethiopians living in the Washington region are a valuable consumer base.
“The main things is to explain my community, how large they are,” Desta, whose first language is Amharic, said in halting English.
Desta, 41, was one of a dozen of the newest entrants into Washington’s growing media industry who mingled over drinks, grilled shrimp and roasted duck tarts at a reception Thursday evening at the Center for American Progress.
The center has dubbed these ethnic-media leaders the New-Media Moguls, though it’s a name that reflects a lot more hope than reality. They have little or no financial backing; their chief asset is access to the nation’s fastest-growing market: immigrants.
In that way they have the opposite problem of traditional media. While general-market newspapers and broadcast networks are profitable, their well-heeled audience is steadily shrinking. These ethnic media — whose readers, viewers and listeners are often recent immigrants of lower income and limited interest to advertisers — say their current worth may be small but their potential is immense.
Their ranks have grown in the past several years as the number of immigrants in the District and its suburbs has soared to more than a million. Nationally, there are more than 2,500 ethnic-media outlets — mostly newspapers and magazines, with a sizable number of radio stations and television broadcasts, according to New America Media, a California-based trade group for immigrant and minority-owned media. In the Washington area, the number is between 80 and 100. Most are Spanish language, reflecting the Latino community’s surging population.
“Washington really now is at the front end of this explosive growth,” said Sandy Close, New America Media’s executive director. “California has seen this growth over decades, but Washington is where it is happening now.”
Among the newer outlets in this region are an Afghan American lifestyle magazine (Zeba, launched in June in English and Dari, aiming at about 14,000 people who are Afghan or descended from Afghan immigrants); a weekly Vietnamese-language television program (District-based Vietnamese American Television, which aims at an audience of 42,000); and a month-old syndicated Spanish-language talk radio show (Epicentro PolÃtico, backed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which reaches a dozen cities and is aimed at the country’s 41 million-strong Hispanic market).
Desta’s four-year-old newspaper, Ze Ethiopia — loosely, “Belonging to Ethiopia” — is in English and Amharic. Almost all its advertisers are Ethiopian, mostly lawyers, restaurateurs and parking-garage owners.
“When the others come, I am ready,” he says. For now, Desta pays himself a small salary but cannot afford a staff.
A nationwide poll that surveyed about 2,000 minorities and immigrants last year about their media consumption habits found that 45 percent of African American, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American and Arab American adults say they prefer ethnically targeted television, radio or newspapers to their mainstream counterparts, according to Miami polling firm Bendixen and Associates. That preference has been driving growth in the ethnic media niche, but many of the media outlets are not financially sound.
There’s no question that the buying power of minorities and immigrants is significant and growing — they spent about $1.5 trillion in 2004, according to a report by the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth. But as their disposable income grows, people tend to join the mainstream and consume mainstream media. So many ethnic media outlets have begun to publish and broadcast not only in their native languages but also in English, hoping to appeal to older and younger generations.
The huge and still-growing Latino community is hefty enough to attract big-business advertisers for Spanish-language broadcast networks and radio corporations. Last year, “El Zol,” WLZL (99.1 FM), owned by Infinity Broadcasting, entered Washington’s radio market as the first major Spanish radio broadcaster, signaling that Latino listeners had become a serious draw for corporate America.
Smaller ethnic media outlets rely instead on their own communities.
Nhan Vo, executive director of Vietnamese American Television, says almost all local Vietnamese immigrants watch the weekly program, which is also broadcast on DirecTV’s Saigon Broadcasting Television Network. He calls on the community to support the broadcast through an annual sponsorship drive that correlates with the celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese new year that falls around late January or early February. Last year, he and his volunteer staff raised $10,000 to keep the network running.
At the reception last week, Aman and Samira Feda, the husband-and-wife team who own the Afghan magazine Zeba, handed out their latest issue. Hammasa Kohistani, a beauty queen of Afghan heritage, graced the cover. Aman, a mortgage broker, is bankrolling the publication for a year.
“We always felt we were the only ones doing this, [but] you see people in other communities struggling with the same thing,” Samira said. “They are dealing with the same issues.”
John Wilson III, publisher of Access Monthly, an online magazine targeted at local minority politicians and workers on Capitol Hill, made a plea on behalf of the media leaders a few minutes before the reception ended. He’d like to publish a paper version, to create a product people can hold onto and pass around, but he doesn’t have the money to do it.
“We need investors, and we need finances,” he said. “This is not the time to fake the funk. The print bill is going to come due. Help us with some money.”