September 22, 2015

coneyislandSitting at my breakfast table holding a copy of The New York Times, I was filled with jealousy. It was May 10, the newspaper published the first of its two-part 7,000-word investigative story about the exploitation of workers in New York’s nail salons. The stories had a big impact including lawmakers tightening regulations on the industry.

But to me, the main question was why hadn’t the nail salon stories we wrote had that impact. The Chinese language newspapers in New York have been writing about labor conflicts in Chinese-owned nail salons for the past decade. I personally interviewed and wrote about disgruntled nail salon workers as a junior reporter for Sing Tao Daily when I joined the newspaper in the early years of the last decade, before passing the story onto newer colleagues.

Sing Tao is based in Hong Kong-based and has eight overseas editions around the world, including the New York paper I work for. It is well known In the Chinese diaspora around the world. But it is not The New York Times. We do not have an English-language edition. And our stories don’t have as that sort of impact.

And we are not alone. My friends from Korean-language newspapers in New York told me they too have been writing about the issues in the Korean-owned nail salons for a long time without triggering major waves.

That is a frustration for journalists working for ethnic media. In the 12 years I have been working for Sing Tao, I have seen so many good stories coming out of the Chinese community papers that would be compelling to a much wider audience. But most of them fail to get traction outside the Chinese community. Sometimes, when the stories badly need broader attention, I pitch them to the mainstream media myself and that can lead to much more impact.

One such story happened in 2007 when a dozen or so Chinese small business owners shared with me their nightmares after switching their electricity provider from Con Edison to an energy company based in Canada, which had been aggressively marketing to non-English speaking customers in New York.

The business owners were approached by the sales representatives and promised a long-term fixed rate that could save them $200 to $300 per month. But a few months after they signed the contract, they all saw their utility bills double or even triple because of a fluctuating fee in the English language contract which had never been translated or explained to the Chinese-speaking customers. And when the victims asked to cancel their contracts, they were told they had to pay a $10,000 cancellation fee.

I did a series of stories for Sing Tao but the company completely ignored my requests for comments. However, once I pitched the story to the New York Daily News and started to re-interview, the company immediately responded. It even formed a special task force to help frustrated customers. I did an initial story for the Daily News. And I wrote a follow-up when the first piece triggered more small business owners from various communities to come forward with similar tales. By the time the second piece was published, all the victims had been repaid the excessive charges and were allowed to cancel their contracts without extra charges.

That was a win-win-win situation for Sing Tao, the Daily News, and, most importantly, the victims. But a triumph like that doesn’t happen as often as it should. Most times, the picture is more depressing than rosy.

Ethnic media journalists don’t have big resources and usually have to write a daily quota of stories (at Sing Tao and many other Chinese language newspapers, the quota is 2,000 words per day). That doesn’t give us much time for in-depth reporting, and means many important stories get covered with short blurbs.

Meanwhile, journalists in the mainstream media work hard to produce reports from diverse communities but often lack the ability to get the full story because of language or cultural gaps. Their misunderstandings and lack of sensibilities about ethnic cultures are noticeable, from mixed last and first names of the interviewees to bias and stereotypes that can tarnish the stories.

An ideal solution is to form partnerships between ethnic media and mainstream media so the reporters can work on the same stories together and the media outlets can then jointly publish the story in different languages to reach more readers.

Such partnerships may sound difficult in an industry built on chasing exclusives and competing fiercely. But the financial decline in the print media industry has provided a need for smart collaborations. And there have been many, but it rarely happens between ethnic media and mainstream media.

One of the reasons may lay in the nature of ethnic media. Different ways of telling stories, language barriers and the almost exclusive focus on one single ethnic community may have erected barriers to joint projects. But this has been changing as ethnic media continues to grow.

In New York, there are five Chinese-language daily newspapers, three Chinese-language TV stations and two Chinese-language radio stations, and that’s not counting smaller weekly or monthly or quarterly publications and some online sites. In the recent years, these media outlets have seen more and more U.S.- trained Chinese journalists joining them.

Take Sing Tao. When I joined the New York office of the newspaper in 2002, I was the only one among the reporters holding a Master’s degree in journalism issued by a college in the U.S. Now seven out of the nine reporters have Master’s degrees from colleges here, including six journalism or media-related majors.

The new blood brought into the newsroom has not only increased the language proficiency to conduct interviews and write in both English and Chinese, but also meant that there is more of an American approach to journalism.

This is not to say that there is no collaboration with the ethnic media. The San Francisco-based New America Media and the Center for Community and Ethnic Media of City University of New York (CUNY) have been translating the best stories from ethnic media outlets for their own websites and trying to facilitate collaboration among their member or partner media organizations.

To select and translate the most interesting stories in the myriad of foreign language newspapers in the U.S. in a timely manner may sound daunting. That is until you find the right mechanism to do it. At NAM, in-house translators have been doing excellent work to not only translate stories in ethnic media into English for its website, but also the English language stories written by NAM’s own reporters into various languages and offer them to ethnic media for free.

CCEM is a well-established network of freelance translators who are ethnic media reporters. The translators, myself included, pitch suitable stories to the editor right after they see them in the media outlets in their community. On hot news topics the translated pieces can often be uploaded onto the website of Voices on the same day they are published in ethnic media.

But whether the mainstream media is ready to work with the ethnic media as their partners is another story. In the past few months, I have been testing waters with any colleagues from the mainstream media that I have met by pitching them the collaboration idea. The result is not so encouraging. Among the dozen or so people I talked to, including people who work for many major newspapers in this country, only one showed genuine Interest. And that was Sarah Maslin Nir, the Times reporter who wrote the nail salon stories.

Jo Ellen Kaiser, executive director of the San Francisco-based Media Consortium, told me such collaboration is more likely to happen with smaller mainstream media than bigger organizations.

The consortium was founded a decade ago by journalists from 15 independent media outlets, including Mother Jones and The Nation. The aim was to see how to survive in a digital era by working together. That has become increasingly urgent and the number of members of the group has almost doubled since 2011 to 75. Members often work on the same story from their own perspectives and link or republish one another’s stories to reach a wider audience and maximize resources and the impact.

This year an outreach campaign to ethnic media has been put on the top of its agenda. Kaiser has formed a committee with representatives from New American Media, CUNY and many other organizations that work with ethnic media to discuss how to break down the silos (full disclosure: I was invited to join the committee).

“We know even people who are reading big national outlets are rooted in their local community,” said Kaiser. “We know that in order to connect with the local community, we have to connect with the people who are already there.”

Bigger media outlets may not feel the need just yet. But Kaiser is hopeful. “Bigger organizations are still in a competitive mindset. Also a lot of them feel they have already reached a big enough audience on their own.” Still, she pointed out the increased levels of collaboration in the last year between major newspapers and broadcasting outlets to make multimedia stories. “What you see is a shift even with bigger organizations … eventually the big papers are going to realize that they will need to partner with other types of news organizations to really get the stories they need.”

This could be a question of survival for many as their traditional readership in some cases dies off. It will serve the wider public and help the media shed light on the way people are treated by authorities of all kinds.


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