“Who says print is dying?”
This question was posed by Rakhee Prabhakar, owner-editor of The Asian Connections newspaper, an English-language newspaper catering to Toronto’s South Asian community. Prabhakar, recently back from a trip to India, questions the logic behind the discourse that’s shaped the prevailing view of printed news in North America.
The world, we keep being told, has lost interest in print publications. Shrinking advertising revenues are threatening the large daily, weekly, and even monthly newspapers. Except, Prabhakar said, that common knowledge is actually not accurate. In countries like India, she said, the story is different. “In India print is booming. It’s everywhere you look.”
It’s not just India. It’s also true of Canada, home to at least 660 publications, including 400 newspapers and magazines, in 110 languages that describe themselves as belonging to the country’s ethnic press. Ranging from The Afghan Post to the Jamaican Weekly Gleaner, they have their own press council and reach. According to the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada’s (NEPMCC) circulation numbers, their members serve more than 12 million Canadians from around the world.
It’s true that the media is fragmenting. One size no longer fits all. Since the mid-2000s, consumers have been deserting traditional omnibus publications and broadcasters for digital media options that they can summon on demand, without what feels like any cost. But on the flipside, there are all the new media products that have attracted readers and viewers. Mostly, they are the ones with the cheapest, or the most convenient, delivery platforms. But they are also the media that deliver what, specifically, each media market wants.
Ethnic publications have been doing this for decades, many with 10 or fewer full-time employees. Their products have always been designed to serve a niche market, such as the ethnically diverse communities that surround the University of Guelph-Humber. In a time of media turmoil and disruption they are thus decades ahead of the mainstream market. That said, they are not without challenges, which include the whims of government policy as well as the cultural assimilation of new generations, but they have more than held their own during the most tumultuous period their mainstream competitors have ever known.
The self-described ethnic press–which includes media primarily published in languages other than English or French, known as “third-language” papers, and ethnically-focused English-language papers–serves information-hungry diasporas such as Canada’s South and East Asian, as well as African, Caribbean, European, Filipino, Jewish, Latin communities and those representing other faiths, cultures and international origins. “When you talk about ethnic newspapers, it’s categorized into two parts,” Prabhakar explained. “One is the colloquial language that is the language newspapers. The mother tongue.” The other subdivision, she said, is made up of English-language newspapers that service these groups, such as her own.
Prabhakar and her husband Sandeep have published The Asian Connections since 2007. Prabhakar studied both English and journalism, and earned an MA in English, before working as a hospital worker and institutional administrator. But, she said, she had news in her blood. “I’ve always had that in me, even though it sort of took a backseat while I was living in India.”
When she joined Sandeep in Canada, he was already working in marketing for an ethnic newspaper. “Everyone used to tell us, ‘Why don’t you start your own publication?'” she recounted. “We thought: why not?” The newspaper they acquired had been started by someone else who could not continue running it, so Prabhakar and her husband took it over. “From there, for the last seven years, that’s how it’s been.” They publish an online edition, as well as 25,000 print copies, distributed in dropboxes.
Publishing in English enables them to span the linguistic scope of the South Asian community. “When you talk about South Asia, it’s a very vast community,” she said. “It’s not just India, it’s got Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh” as well as Afghans and other Central-Asian cultures. It’s a big region encompassing different countries, different cultures, and different religions, Prabhakar added. But there are also many similarities and shared interests, she said, including food, physical appearances and, most important, family values. “The biggest similarity among South Asians is the feeling of family, love, how families stick together,” Prabhakar said. “We are very close-knit.”
There is research suggesting that mainstream publishers are in fact losing advertising revenue to the ethnic press. A 2010 report by NEPMCC researcher Gabriel Houston concluded that this is a concern for Canada’s big news organizations. “Mainstream media and third-language media compete for advertising dollars,” Houston wrote. Saras said in an interview that any revenue diverted to the ethnic press, however significant for these small newspapers, represents only a “fraction of the advertising dollars” that go to the larger mainstream newspapers.
Saras, who received mainstream media attention this past winter after representatives from the ethnic press council had a much-publicized meeting with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford the afternoon before Ford was caught on tape rambling in an inebriated version of a Jamaican patois, runs a Greek-language newspaper called Patrides, published monthly in Toronto, Vancouver and Tampa.
Saras fled Greece after the military coup d’etat of 1967 and landed in Toronto with bachelor’s degrees in Greek law and international business. Ryerson University, then a degree-granting polytechnic, would only grant him a couple of credits toward a degree in Canadian law and journalism. “I had to completely start over,” he said. Ethnic newspapers such as his own end up being more than just a source of news and information, Saras said. They also provide tools that new immigrants can use when faced with the many challenges posed by adjusting to a new lifestyle and culture, including a consumer protection role on behalf of new arrivals. “There are people that take advantage of new immigrants,” he said, “but the ethnic press is here [to help].” In addition, ethnic newspapers can tap into markets that other publications do not reach, Prabhakar said. One reason: mainstream papers are too wordy, too heavy and too analytical in their approach to the news. Her readers feel lost. On top of that, Prabhakar believes mainstream newspapers are filling their pages with information her readers don’t always find useful. In covering major news events like the crisis in Ukraine, or the ongoing civil war in Syria, they publish too much speculation.
Houston, an international business professor at Seneca College, concluded that lack of corporate or media conglomerate control is a feature that distinguishes the ethnic from mainstream media. “Third-language media tend to broadcast/publish news content unfiltered,” he wrote in the 2010 NEPMCC report. Prabhakar said this is a competitive advantage. “They have all the ministers and MPPs commenting, but you don’t have to put all that in the paper,” she said. Her readers don’t want comment and opinion. “Just write the facts. Write what’s happening. Write what Canada’s standpoint is. Write what Putin is saying. Write what the United Nations is saying. That’s it.”
“We offer a podium to people to write about anything and everything.” – Rakhee PrabhakarHolding up her latest front page–which features a close-up of a Canadian senator facing allegations of sexual harassment, alongside Russian president Vladimir Putin and an update on growing tensions in Ukraine–she said her readers like the tried-and-tested inverted pyramid, packaged with a South Asian angle. “People make an effort to come and pick it up,” she said, and “they read it because it is precise. It is selective news. And we know what probably would interest them.” They include a lot about politics, and offer an opportunity for people who want their voices heard. “We offer a podium to people to write about anything and everything,” she said.
This is not to say that running an ethnic publication is without its challenges. Federal budget cuts have meant no government advertising in third-language newspapers in the past year. Canada still welcomes more immigrants than any country in the world–and political expediency favours that policy–but the on-going debate about curbing immigration continues to create anxiety. More worrisome is the prospect that, without the influx of immigrants seen a half-century ago, the interest in unfiltered foreign news, especially what is delivered in “mother tongues,” will dwindle with an aging population. “The first generation who do not speak English as comfortably as the next generation are reading the ethnic news,” Saras said, “but the younger ones do not speak the old language, so they are reading the Toronto Star.”
Prabhakar is more optimistic about the future of English-language ethnic papers. The ethnic press will lose relevance if immigration is significantly reduced, she acknowledged, but for the time being it appears steady enough. In fact, as the next generation is raised in English, she expects her readership to slowly build.
Young people are unlikely to take the time to read a large 80-page daily newspaper, but they might be drawn to an ethnic publication — so long, Prabhakar predicted, as it is published in English. “They read English. They may speak the [foreign] language, because it is spoken at home, but they read and write in English. You can’t dismiss the younger generation. We cater to the younger generation. Twenty-five to 30,” she said. “That’s where the buying power is.”
Lead photo credit: Gross Vitalij, Fotoli
Stack of newspapers photo credit: Les Cunliffe, Fotolia