Ethnic media at the NCMR: Outsiders?


At last weekend’s National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR), Anthony Advincula sounded dismayed as he opened the forum “The Fighting Press: Ethnic Media Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.”

“We’re competing with Arianna Huffington next door,” he said to an audience of about 30 at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Saturday. “Hopefully we won’t have outsider status next year.”

“It doesn’t seem like we’re being taken seriously—we’re not being videotaped,” quipped Edwin Okong’o, editor of Mshale, an African community newspaper in Minneapolis.

Highlights from the NCMR Ethnic Media panel

“We are not being noticed. Even within the media reform [movement] we are struggling to make our presence felt. There is a perception that ethnic media [are] not serious, that there is no story to tell,” said Edwin Okong’o, the editor-in-chief of a Minneapolis-based African paper that covers the African immigrant community in Minnesota and other states around the country. Citing the success of U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison within the African community, Okong’o stressed that African immigrants are an important political demographic. Okong’o also saw “a need to correct the mainstream media’s perception and narrative of the African.”

Loris Ann Taylor from Native Public Radio offered a different approach. “Why are we fighting so hard to get onto the mainstream highway?” she asked. “For Native Americans, media reform will only happen when we have access and ownership over [media] facilities.” In referring to what she saw as a fight by ethnic media to be recognized within the media reform, Taylor cautioned, “If there is no media reform within the media reform then there will be no reform.” Taylor looked forward to a paradigm shift in the telling of ethnic communities. “We are not victims of the main culture, but are the agents for this change.”

The moderator of the discussion, Anthony Advincula from New America Media, saw a need to create alliances with other media. Juana Ponce de Leon, who works with the New York Media Alliance, agrees with Advincula. “There are natural alliances to be made with progressive media since they are interested in human rights issues.”

Minnesota is home to the largest Hmong population in the United States. Zuag Kimberly Chang, who writes for Hmong Today, knows that there will always be stories to tell in her community. “We are a voice…not just about the news…the character is the community…there is a way that we can write that is so different.”

-Julia Opoti

Saturday’s forum focused on the strengths of ethnic media organizations across the United States. At the forum, representatives of ethnic media shared strategies that have worked in their communities. The New York Community Media Alliance (NYCMA), for example, has helped raise the visibility of ethnic media in New York City by banding news organizations together and publishing translations of stories in English. NYCMA’s weekly publication, Voices that Must be Heard, is sent to City Hall and posted online. Advincula’s organization New America Media, based in San Francisco, represents over 2,000 ethnic media organizations. It syndicates stories and organizes ethnic media outlets in an effort to give them clout with political leaders nationwide.

“We’re competing with Arianna Huffington next door. Hopefully we won’t have outsider status next year.”

Advincula said he’s been attending the NCMR for four years, and he feels like ethnic media is still struggling for a seat at the table. This year, the fact that the ethnic media panel was scheduled at the same time as a high-profile, heavily-advertised session featuring Arianna Huffington made Advincula believe that organizers “assume that not many people are interested” in ethnic media.

It may be true that the conference doesn’t give ethnic media enough attention, says Federico Subervi, director of the Study of Latino Media and Markets at Texas University in San Marcos, but he notes that all conference attendees—including representatives of ethnic media—share a broad interest in media reform. “Reforming the mainstream media should be the major focus of the conference,” he says. Subervi says he’s sympathetic to critiques about the NCMR’s inclusion of ethnic media and minorities, but he says this year’s conference is more diverse than either of the previous two.

“Ethnic media” can be a difficult concept to define. While papers like the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and La Prensa de Minnesota seem to clearly fit the definition with their grassroots reporting, other media—such as Spanish-language commercial radio stations owned by Telemundo and Univision—might also be called “ethnic media” even though they are corporate-owned and operate much like any other major networks. Subervi says these larger media are subject to the same cost-cutting pressures as mainstream media, and sometimes end up with only a thin veneer of local news coverage. “They may say ‘register to vote,’ but they won’t say anything about policies—what you are voting on,” says Subervi.

Large ethnic media owned by companies like Telemundo and Univision are subject to the same cost-cutting pressures as mainstream media, and sometimes end up with only a thin veneer of local news coverage.

Craig Aaron, a spokesman for Free Press—the organization that sponsored the conference—says the roots of the media reform conference come out of progressive politics and academia. The media reform movement is evolving, and ethnic media are increasingly being included in the movement as it grows, says Aaron. “Ethnic media [are a] crucial component of media reform. We want to support and nurture a diverse and independent press.”

For more on ethnic media in the Twin Cities, read Ethnic media take up the mantle of public interest
by Kathlyn Stone, TC Daily Planet.

For immigrants like Okong’o and Advincula, the struggle of ethnic media is personal. They both arrived in the U.S. as young men and worked low-level jobs, eventually gaining mainstream media credentials. Advincula wrote for the New York Times and Okong’o completed a Master’s degree in journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

For Advincula, now a national editor at New America Media, the mainstream media world seems incongruous to his identity. He recalls writing about Chinese street vendors in New York City applying for permits to sell in Central Park. Advincula, who is Filipino, says he had the feeling that he was using his Asian looks to get into the community and the New York Times was only interested in the “juicy parts” of the story. “It was like they are using you for access,” Advincula says.

“It was like they are using you for access.” -Anthony Advincula, a former reporter for the New York Times

Aaron, with Free Press, says there is a lot common ground between progressive media reformers and ethnic media. “We need to focus on long-term funding for noncommercial outlets,” he says, noting that ethic media suffer from the same tight operating budgets as other independent media.

Juana Ponce de Leon, with New York Media Alliance, says she has seen some successful collaborations between the two groups. “Progressive media have their attention trained on human rights, and they have investigative reporters.” Ethnic media outlets, she says, rarely have the time or resources to dig deeply into an issue. With immigrant communities facing raids by government authorities and post-9/11 xenophobia, ethnic media outlets need allies to help expose injustices.

Ponce de Leon says Bangla Patrika, a Bangladeshi community paper, collaborated with City Limits, a progressive New York City magazine, to take an in-depth look on how Bangladeshi street vendors were working for less than minimum wage while local government turned a blind eye. “The writers collaborated,” says Ponce de Leon, “and showed the links between policy issues and economic interests, and they published their work in both places.”

Aaron says he is welcomes constructive criticism from ethnic media advocates, but he notes that NCMR organizers had every intention of including ethnic media. Pointing out that representatives of ethnic media participated in many of the conference’s sessions, he acknowledges that “you can always do better and do more.”

Joel Grostephan is a reporter based in St. Paul. His work is regularly aired on KFAI Radio and in The Environment Report (based in Ann Arbor, Michigan). He’s always looking for a good story about class, race or poverty.