How innovative news outlets are meeting the needs of immigrant communities

The technology may be new, but today’s immigrant outlets build on a long history of serving their communities in crisis

June 23, 2020

You can find this study in full here. It comes from the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. The introduction to the study has been republished here with permission.

On June 30 CCM will host a forum on how immigrant media innovators are responding to the current crises. The forum will review findings from the report, and feature leaders from outlets whose work is highlighted. You can register here.

At a time when all of journalism is in an existential crisis, the financial pressure on resource-deprived immigrant outlets is greater than ever. Yet the pandemic, and the protests over the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and dozens of others, have put innovative immigrant-serving digital outlets into overdrive, as reporters squelch rumors via WeChat and Facebook Live and beam interviews with local officials into living rooms via Roku and JadooTV boxes.

The most successful of these outlets – as measured by ballooning audience numbers – rely on tireless reporters and anchors with a direct line to listeners and viewers. Journalists like Mario Guevara with Mundo Hispánico in Atlanta have made it their business to maintain contact with immigrants using social media. Guevara listens to their questions, hears their complaints, and then gives them the critical information and support they need. That, rather than news flashes or push notifications, has become the lifeblood of immigrant media. Guevara, with nearly half a million Facebook followers on his personal account, recently livestreamed as he took a rubber bullet to his leg while interviewing Latino kids on why they were out protesting against the police.

Houston Online is based on the Chinese social media app WeChat. The top post is on Texas’ connection to Juneteenth and the lower one on a forum that asked: ‘Who is the Chinese George Floyd?’

For many immigrant communities, these outlets provide information they just can’t get from other sources. “The local media landscape is predominantly white,” said Mukhtar Ibrahim, the Somali-American editor of Sahan Journal in St. Paul. When he went to report on the protests and looting in Minneapolis, which occurred essentially in the backyard of many Somali residents, he was struck by how few journalists of color were covering the story. But he was not surprised. Most newsrooms in Minnesota, said Ibrahim, are “slow in making news coverage more inclusive, despite the increasing diversity and the rapid growth of Minnesota’s immigrant population.”

In contrast, immigrant outlets are vital sources of information for people from indigenous farmworkers to Chinese engineers to Somali Uber drivers. On the Chinese social media app WeChat, Houston Online documented empty Chinese-owned businesses well before most U.S. outlets were paying attention to the pandemic’s reach. Punjabi Radio USA in Northern California reported on dangerous rest stop conditions for truckers, one of their main listener groups. And as Queens emerged as an epicenter of coronavirus in the U.S., TBN24, a Bangladeshi digital television outlet with more than 2.7 million followers on Facebook alone, informed viewers about everything from how to get a stimulus check to how to connect with funeral homes.

The technology may be new, but today’s immigrant outlets build on a long history of serving their communities in crisis. During the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest and riots, Radio Korea shut down all broadcasting operations and became a control center fielding hundreds of calls for help as businesses burned and police were nowhere to be found. These days, when the station does live programs, hosts will often collect comments and poll listeners via KakaoTalk, a social media popular in Korea, as well as run a YouTube live chat.

Radio Korea connects with listeners via KakaoTalk and live broadcasts on YouTube where there is active commentary.

Wielding new technologies can generate huge followings for immigrant media outlets, but these followers are not paying the bills. In coming months, while some immigrant outlets will surely go out of business, the nimble and the scrappy may yet show the way to survive and even thrive. They’ve embraced virtually cost-free digital platforms and delivery systems, so there’s not much room to slash expenses. On the revenue side, ads have plummeted dramatically. Still, glimmers of hope can be found in new models, from going the non-profit route to building auxiliary businesses that aren’t journalism, but fund it.

For the past year, the Center for Community Media has been studying news outlets serving immigrant communities for models of growth and innovation. The cross-currents that have battered community media outlets across the nation threaten their sustainability, and the Center for Community Media has responded by redirecting its mission to help outlets develop survival skills. This report is part of that effort. [A shorter “preview” version of this report was published by CCM in early April.]

We interviewed and surveyed more than 150 people in 30 states to identify outlets that are in the vanguard. The editors and reporters we spoke with come from around the world and have different strengths in radio, broadcast, print, and digital. Yet we found that the best of them have been successful at converging around multiplatform practices. In particular, we found that immigrant-serving news outlets are evolving in four key ways:

  • Wielding social media for community engagement. In recent years the internet decimated classified ads, shrinking revenues for many immigrant-serving newspapers, while social media that trafficked in rumors decimated their audiences. Now, successful immigrant-serving outlets are using social media as a way to offer verified information, cultivate community conversations, and respond to concerns. Live broadcasting is booming, with the unparalleled immediacy and shareability of bringing viewers to a news conference, community festival, or a drive-through coronavirus testing station. Some outlets are even operating primarily on social media platforms like WeChat, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Facebook.
  • Leveraging a small staff to reach big audiences. Media outlets serving immigrant communities have historically been relatively small operations, but with delivery technologies like livestreaming on Facebook or “micro-TV stations,” being small is no longer an impediment to being timely, and may even work in an outlet’s favor. One-person operations can report, produce and broadcast – and consequently boost audiences substantially at very low cost at a time when revenue models are challenged.
  • Globalizing both production and audiences. Increasingly, outlets are hiring staffers overseas to cut costs, while stateside reporters serve both the diaspora in the U.S. and home country audiences. The geolocation of audiences has shifted dramatically in recent years, as reverse migration, press restrictions overseas, and far-flung diasporas boost audiences for immigrant media based in the U.S. Dynamic outlets are becoming transnational enterprises. One Brazilian newspaper in Massachusetts reported it has 60% of its audience in the U.S. and 30% in Brazil while a Hmong outlet in Wisconsin reported 40% of its audience comes from outside of the U.S.
  • Diversifying business models and revenue streams. Even before the pandemic, immigrant media was feeling the pain of ad cuts. Now, though, a few are reporting that their funding sources are stable or even growing modestly. That’s thanks to a grab-bag of strategies, from operating as a non-profit to lining up grant funding to getting government advertising to targeting supplement funding sources. Our database shows 13 out of 50 outlets are non-profit, while a handful have put up e-commerce sites, developed a consulting business and even launched English-language classes to boost the bottom line.

You can read the Center For Community Media’s full report here, plus find case studies and a database.

This report was researched and written by Daniela Gerson, senior fellow at the Center for Community Media and assistant professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge, with research and reporting assistance from Chi Zhang, Taehyun Kim, Darleen Principe, Jennifer Cheng, Omar Shahriar, Yana Kunichoff, Son Ly, and Maria Angela Vega. This report was edited by Karen Pennar.

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