Demographics, Computers Multiply Asian-Language Media in the US

Market now includes some300 newspapers and 75 TV shows

Tucked in near a Chinese restaurant in Seattle's "international district" is a newsroom so small it could pass for a high school paper's. But to Chinese immigrants and other Asian Americans here, it represents a cultural lifeline in an often-unfamiliar land. The newsroom is home to the Seattle Chinese Post, published in Chinese, and the English-language sister publication, the Northwest Asian Weekly.

Editor Assunta Ng says that before she founded the Chinese Post in 1982, immigrants "had to go to a billboard in Chinatown to find out what was going on."

Now Ms. Ng's newspaper tells them about community events and news in a regular weekly paper, along with updates about issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. The paper is also a forum for advertisers to reach this specific audience.

The Seattle Chinese Post was a relatively early participant in what has become a significant trend - the proliferation of Asian-language media in the United States. The growth is fed by demographics, since Asian and Pacific ethnic groups make up the fastest-growing segment in America's population.

Now there are perhaps 580 Asian-oriented publications and broadcasts in the US, says the Imada Wong Communications Group in Los Angeles. Last fall, the public relations firm had 522 listings in its "Asian Pacific American Media Guide."

In Seattle alone there are several Chinese-language newspapers, as well as ones for Koreans, Vietnamese, and Filipinos. Nationwide, the Asian-language market includes more than 300 newspapers (92 dailies), 50 radio shows, 75 television shows, and miscellaneous products such as phone directories.

"It's increasingly becoming more sophisticated," says Garrett Gin, vice president of Imada Wong. About 40 of the products are "pan-Asian," aiming to connect to all Asians, he says.

In one sense, this is an industry still in its infancy; observers say there is room for strengthening both print and broadcast offerings. For example, there are few Japanese TV broadcasts produced in America; most are beamed from Japan.

The Asian-American population has grown 70 percent in the last decade; it now stands at around 8.5 million. Advertisers, awakened by these figures in the 1990 census, are turning their attention to Asian ethnic groups, after first moving to tap the much larger - and linguistically more homogeneous - Hispanic market. Particularly keen to reach the Asian community are the long-distance phone companies, eager to connect phone calls across the Pacific Ocean.

But, in part because of its boom, the Asian-language media may also be ripe for consolidation, says Judy Yu, co-president of AsiaNet Marketing Resources, a Seattle consulting firm.

"At some point, there's going to be a shakeout," she predicts. The survivors will be largely the older players with deep pockets. Generally these firms are Asian-owned. They include Sing Tao Holdings Ltd. (Hong Kong), Journal (Taiwan), Korea Central Daily, and the Korea Times (both with South Korean backing). The Chinese giants compete with regional editions in the US, while the Korean ones have more numerous metropolitan editions.

Even now, ethnic publications come and go, Ng says. And pressure is building in some states, such as California, for Congress to restrict new legal immigration.

The Seattle Chinese Post, with about 5,000 subscribers, is a survivor so far. "Assunta has gone after the community angle," says Ms. Yu, the Seattle consultant.

Indeed, the growth of Asian-language publications may signal a demand for stories and viewpoints that the bigger publications are not providing, says Lisa Chung, executive director of the Asian American Journalists Association in San Francisco.

The Seattle Chinese Post covers local news angles that are often missed by bigger Chinese dailies with regional editions published out of San Francisco. But it also has lots of national and overseas news. The Northwest Asian Weekly, by contrast, focuses on local news. With a full-time staff of just 11 people for both papers, Ng keeps busy writing as well as managing. "I'm always trying to do a lot of things at once," she says, grabbing her camera to take news photos even while on a lunch break.

The existence of Asian-language papers in America is nothing new. Ms. Chung points out that one of the first papers in San Francisco, in the mid-1800s, was the Golden Hills News, in Chinese. One longstanding success is the Japanese-language Rafu Shimpo, based in Los Angeles.

Fueling the growth is not just demographics but also the computer revolution, which has allowed production to become ever cheaper. Software for typing Chinese or Japanese characters on standard computer keyboards, meanwhile, has been improving.

"What we're seeing now are more of the home grown variety" of publications, says Felix Gutierrez, executive director of the Pacific Coast Center of the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit foundation that studies the news media.

Broadcasting has had its technological shift, too, with cable and satellite TV allowing more programs to be made available. Typically, Asian-language shows buy time blocks on radio or TV. One Orange County, Calif., station is now broadcasting in Vietnamese 18 hours a day, Gin says.

Another southern California station is Korean-language all day. Lacking in broadcast, Gin says, is a national Asian network comparable to the Spanish-language Telemundo or Univision.

Print publishers, for their part, have yet to make a resounding success in the pan-Asian, English-language market. One difficulty is bringing together many cultural backgrounds and ages. Since immigrants tend to read in their native language, these publications cater more to second- and third-generation Asian-Americans.

"They're just beginning to sense that they have a community," a distinctive place within American culture, Ng says.

One start-up in Los Angeles is the quarterly magazine Yolk, which like the older A. magazine published in New York aims at an audience of young adults.

Another magazine, called TransPacific, is positioned more toward a middle-age audience, Ms. Chung says.

"They keep coming and going," says Bob Shimabukuro, a columnist with the International Examiner in Seattle, which competes for the pan-Asian market against the Northwest Asian Weekly. The Seattle papers and San Francisco's Asian Week have all been around for some years now, but with a limited audience. Asian-Americans born and raised in the US tend to be "pretty much mainstreamed," and thus make a hard marketing target, Mr. Shimabukuro says.


Non-English Media Nourish Community

Is the growth of non-English media threatening the cohesiveness of American society? Assunta Ng, editor of the Seattle Chinese Post, thinks the answer is no, and she devotes much of her energy to proving that proposition true.

"I think it's absolutely essential, for America to survive, to appreciate diversity," she says. Different races and cultures "all have something to contribute," and in order for them to do so, their community identity must be nourished and maintained, she says.

Ms. Ng, born in China and a resident of the United States since 1971, supports the idea that all US citizens should be able to speak English. But Americans should also "appreciate the person who is able to speak another language."

Asian-language publications help immigrants become acclimated to their new culture as well as stay in touch with their roots, observers say. For example, several reporters for Chinese-language papers cover each meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, helping to keep their readers informed of city news, says Lisa Chung, executive director of the Asian American Journalists Association.

Ng sees her newspaper as helping to foster a sense of community among Washington State's far-flung Asian population so that, in turn, that community can contribute more to the larger society.

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