In 1994, as the number of migrants coming to the United States started to hit a peak, Abu Taher arrived in New York City. A daily newspaper in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, that he worked for at the time had sent him to the U.S. on assignment. Taher lived in a small apartment that he shared with more than 10 other Bangladeshi immigrants in the Bronx.
It was his first experience to get his bearings in a newfound American life.
Whenever he would go to social gatherings on weekends or visit the mosque, Taher realized, the Bangladeshi immigrant families that he’d meet had almost exactly the same questions in his mind: where to find a reasonable car dealer, a trusted immigration lawyer and an experienced real estate broker, or how to access information. Those questions, though they seemed basic, kept him wide awake at night; he knew that they were critical for anyone new to this country.
A veteran journalist, Taher decided to establish his own weekly newspaper in 1996, Bangla Patrika, that would serve as a “life link” to members of his community in the New York and New Jersey areas and their loved ones in Bangladesh, covering news and information that they could use practically.
“That was the main purpose of the publication: giving information to my fellow Bangladeshi immigrants on how to live a normal life in a new homeland and, at the same time, connecting them to the homes they left behind,” he said.
Print as the flagship
Taher said that Bangla Patrika, now one of the longest-running ethnic media news outlets in the city, has remained true to its core purpose.
Despite significant changes brought by digital technology — utilizing mobile devices, blogging — joining multiple social media networks and producing slideshows and videos, Taher said that the survival of his paper still largely rests in the same community that he’s served since its inception over 20 years ago.
Like hundreds of ethnic media in New York and New Jersey, particularly among newspapers, the print edition remains to be the flagship of the news outlet — unlike its mainstream counterparts that have shifted by and large to digital and relegated its print edition to a secondary portal to news access.
In fact, over the last decade, some digital-first ethnic media publishers inNew York and New Jersey have found that some community members they serve don’t consider a news organization legitimate unless it has a print edition.
“In the Filipino community, you are not considered a ‘real’ newspaper, if you don’t have a print edition,” said Cristina Pastor, publisher and editor of FilAm.net.
While many publishers can see the value of digital presence, not all in the ethnic media sector believe it’s the most effective way to keep the business afloat.
Kaushik Shah, publisher of Gujarat Darpan, a monthly magazine in Gujarati based in central New Jersey, said that his paper’s circulation grew to nearly 15,000 copies a month — a 75 percent increase over the last 20 years.
While his magazine has an online edition, mostly PDF files uploaded to its website, he said he owes the growth to his print subscribers and readers who are mostly Gujarati immigrants in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. These subscribers, according to Shah, may be on Facebook using their smartphones, but the majority of them still access their news and information through print.
“This is why enhancing my digital existence is not a top priority for us. Gujarati readers who are, for example, in San Francisco, they could get their news from other Gujarati publications based in California — we don’t have to capture them on the Internet,” Shah added. “But in order for us to stay in this business, it is not just all about increasing the number of readers from across the U.S. and around the world, but rather it is about going back to the basics: provide local content that our readers actually need.”
Advertisers Still Prefer Print
Kleibeel Marcano, publisher and editor of Reporte Hispano, one of the biggest Spanish-language weeklies in New Jersey, was on the same page. The ad sales, he admitted, have gone down, but the number of his readers — including those on social media and online generally — has increased nearly tenfold in recent years.
As he enhanced the paper’s digital presence, it also increased his overhead cost. Most interestingly, Marcano admitted that his paper, like any ethnic media news outlets on a shoestring budget, also finds it challenging to monetize digital content:
“Our biggest advertising revenue sources still come from our print advertisers,” Marcano said.
While he lost some of the paper’s big corporation advertisers, he added, most businesses in the community still place ads in the print edition.
“Whether we are expanding our reach through online or boosting our social media presence, there’s no way that we could get rid of our print edition,” Marcano said. “The Internet has inundated our readers with information that they actually don’t care about, with unreliable and untrusted sources. Because our readers know that we are part of our community and we know our community, they will continue to grab our newspaper from the newsstand.”
Oni Advincula was a former editor and national media director for New America Media and a correspondent for The Jersey Journal and The Associated Press. He is the co-author of “The State of Ethnic and Community Media in New Jersey” and has worked with ethnic media in 45 states for more than 20 years.