Ethnic Media Outlets Seek To Fill Coverage Gap

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The number of ethnic media outlets in the U.S. has proliferated in the past decade. Executives of many of these sources say they are designed to provide in-depth coverage of America's diverse communities frequently missed by mainstream media organizations.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Arianna Huffington recently announced that her online news powerhouse, The Huffington Post, would add pages devoted to black and Latino news and perspectives. The reaction was mixed.

Many saw it as an important step in diversifying mainstream media while others said having separate sections for black and Latino news is segregation. Independent publications have served specific communities for centuries. Today, such media serve virtually every ethnic group in the country and take all forms, from national TV networks and websites to local papers and radio stations.

As of 2009, New America Media estimated that 57 million Americans get their news from ethnic media on a regular basis. If you consume ethnic media, what values does it have? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Or you can also join the conversation on our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll talk about controversy surrounding the film and bestselling book "The Help," but first the value of ethnic media. David Wilson is managing editor and founder of theGrio.com. He joins us from our New York bureau. David Wilson, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVID WILSON: Hey, hello, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: What do you think of the new sections that the Huffington Post just announced?

WILSON: Well, I think it's a good thing. It's competition to our site, but, you know, we welcome - look, the more voices you have in this particular field I think the better the African-American audience is served.

So we've been in it for two years, as some of your listeners may know, the Grio is a part of NBC News. So we know all about the type of criticism that HuffPo may be receiving from launching HuffPo Black Voices and HoffPo Latino Voices.

ROBERTS: But the Grio didn't start as part of NBC, right?

WILSON: Well, we started in collaboration with NBC. It was a venture that my company actually launched in partnership with NBC News. But from a consumer standpoint, that wasn't, you know, altogether clear. We still posted NBC content, and NBC still promoted it as one of their brands.

So, you know, although from, you know, the corporate side of things, it wasn't the case. From a consumer-facing part of things, it was.

ROBERTS: So how do you respond to the criticism that instead of having a separate site specific for in your case an African-American audience, NBC should be covering more stories on their, you know, main pages that are of interest to an African-American audience?

WILSON: You know, I think that they do. The reality of it all is that, you know, whether you're watching MSNBC or NBC News, we find a lot of the stories that interest African-Americans are being covered.

One of the things that I think an African-American audience is looking for is depth, and if you are a general news outlet, you can't go in-depth sometimes on some of the stories and some of the perspectives that only African-Americans are interested in because you have to serve a general audience.

So that's where, you know, our - that's where we step up. You know, we go deep in some of these issues, and we also talk from a perspective that many general news outlets can't speak from. So I think that's where we step up.

And you are seeing - I mean look, I watch MSNBC every day, and there's a lot of stories that we actually cover on the Grio that's actually represented. As a matter of fact, you know, we call it the trickle-up effect at NBC News, where we even originate some of the stories that you'll see on NBC News or MSNBC.

ROBERTS: Now, of course the black community itself is diverse. It's not a monolithic media interest any more than any other group of millions of people possibly could be.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: Do you face some of the same criticism as the mainstream media for not serving all segments of your audience?

WILSON: Absolutely. We get criticism, you know, and this may not be politically correct to say, you know, I think the African-American audience is probably the toughest crowd. You know, I think one of the things that they look for - they hold us to a high standard.

You know, traditionally and historically, African-Americans have been negatively portrayed in the media, and so what they look for in an African-American news outlet is something that is going to combat that and offset that. And sometimes we have to report on stories that aren't all positive.

And so I think we get a lot of flak from that, but, you know, we have to cover everything. A lot of folks feel that, you know, we, you know, African-Americans are only, you know, of the Democratic ideology. We have to represent conservatives, as well. We have to represent LGBT African-Americans.

So there's a lot of folks that we have to serve, and I think, you know, we're not going to please everybody all the time.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Yvette(ph) in Tallahassee. Yvette, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

YVETTE: Hey, good afternoon.

ROBERTS: To you, too. You're on the air, Yvette, go ahead.

YVETTE: Okay, well, I just wanted to say that I am a fully acculturated Latina here in the United States, in fact I'm a professor. But I live with my mother, who is here just because she - well, she fell ill with cancer, and she had to live with me and my daughter, who is a teenager and a full American, she'll be glad to tell you.

So the ethnic media, the Latino media serves as a bridge for our generations to communicate, in particular telenovelas.

ROBERTS: A ha.

YVETTE: Yes, because we watch them together because my mother has to watch telenovela, and she has guilted us into...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YVETTE: And so we sit - I don't want to tell you which one because it probably is not legal, but we have to sit with her to watch telenovela. And, you know, my daughter does a lot of eye-rolling, and I'm like oh my God, but, you know, we talk about the subject matter, and we express, you know, what informs our decisions, our opinions, our, you know, our reactions to what we see.

And I have to tell you, I've come to cherish that time every day at seven.

ROBERTS: Yvette, thank you for your call. Appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: David Wilson, Yvette was talking about telenovelas on Spanish-language television, and you and I have been talking more about news, but there is, of course, a cultural aspect to ethnic media, as well. Does some of what she's saying ring true to you?

WILSON: Absolutely. Stories, whether you're talking about news, or whether you're talking about drama series, whether you're talking about, you know, comedy, you're talking about stories, stories that certain people can relate to.

I think ethnic media sort of gets a bad rep because we've all been taught to believe that - and this is absolutely right - that all men are created equal, and we all are. But we all have unequal or different experiences.

And so I think that's what ethnic media really looks to target, you know, tapping into those different experiences. You know, a lot of folks wouldn't get upset if there was a news site for veterans. A lot of folks wouldn't get upset if there was, you know, a news site for women. But because we've been taught that race, we should not look at each other's race, there is a lot of discomfort when we begin to examine stories or perspectives based off of race.

ROBERTS: I want to bring Osama Siblani into this conversation. Osama Siblani is the publisher of the Arab American News, and he joins us now from Detroit, Michigan. Welcome to you.

OSAMA SIBLANI: Thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Tell me about the Arab American News. How many people does your publication serve, and who is your general audience?

SIBLANI: Well, we started back in 1984, actually on September 7 of 1984, and we have been publishing weekly in both languages, Arabic and English, in one edition.

ROBERTS: A print edition.

SIBLANI: Pardon me?

ROBERTS: It's a print edition?

SIBLANI: Yes, it's a print edition. We have one online, arabamericannews.com. But the print edition is the same edition that we put online. We update it if things developed, you know, in the community or overseas, but we do actually put whatever we have in print, we put it online.

We serve the Arab-American community in Michigan and in the neighboring states. Actually, when we started out paper, we had no other papers in the United States, bilingual, serving the Arab-American community. In fact, when we started the paper, we had to import our equipment from Saudi Arabia, and we had to bring engineers to put the Arabic in it.

We had to bring it in a crane, to install it in the second floor of our offices. But today, we work with laptops and iPhones, and we can send messages or receive messages in both Arabic and English.

I mean, when we started, the technology was not there at all. As we live in this global information technology, we still continue to function actually better than before.

ROBERTS: And do you find that, say, second- and third-generation Americans stay with your paper as much as newer immigrants?

SIBLANI: In fact, our readers, perhaps about 35 percent of our readers are non-Arabs, people who are interested in Middle Eastern affairs, and they would like to look at a different perspective of what's happening in the Middle East. And they go to our paper to read it.

We have - that's why we have the Arabic and the English section because this is where both cultures, you know, meet, the newborn - I mean the American-born Arabs and the immigrant Arabs. They read the same paper. If the husband is married to an American-born lady, and his kids are growing up here in the United States, both - everybody in the family can pick up and read the paper, even the grandparents.

So yes, we do have, you know, generations of Arabs reading the paper. In fact, when we started the newspapers, the newspaper 27 years ago, we had many immigrants, you know, looking at the paper and saying okay, well, you know, the English section will be for our kids.

And it is true. The English section is serving great now the 25 and 18 years and 30 years who are born and raised in this country. And they depend on this newspaper, and they interact with the newspaper.

ROBERTS: That's Osama Siblani. He is the publisher of the Arab American News. We are also joined by David Wilson. He's the founder and managing editor of The Grio. And we're talking about the value of ethnic media. What do you turn to ethnic media for? What does it offer that other media sources might be missing?

Our number here is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And we'll have more in just a minute. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts. We're returning to our conversation about ethnic media. The Pew Research Center puts out an annual report on the state of the news media, and in their most recent survey, they paid special attention to African-American media.

They found that digital gap separating African-Americans from other ethnic groups is closing and that the black press is remarkably resilient. If you consume ethnic media, African-American or otherwise, what value does it have for you? Call us at 800-989-8255. Or send us email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

David Wilson, founder and managing editor of the Grio, and Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News, are my guests. And let's take some calls. This is Hiawatha(ph) in Oklahoma City. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Hiawatha.

HIAWATHA: Hi there. How are you?

ROBERTS: I'm well, how are you?

HIAWATHA: I'm just wonderful. Yeah, the reason I'm calling in, as I said, I live in Oklahoma City, but I'm retired military. I've lived all over the country. And something that's amazing to me is the fact that we have to have separated media. And I don't understand that.

Granted, the moment you use the word ethnic, you've just separated us. We're still American. Living in Oklahoma City, where we've got two black newspapers, but they only have information from that side of the town, if it's underserved or marginalized, they don't get the resources, the information that's on mainstream. And if we don't see it's on mainstream, we don't aspire to go to mainstream. So I really feel that we've got to not only close the gap, but what we've got to do is begin to combine our efforts.

ROBERTS: Hiawatha, where do you get your news from?

HIAWATHA: Pardon?

ROBERTS: Where is your major news source?

HIAWATHA: Well, my major news source happens to be NPR or the Oklahoman paper here, the New York Times, the Washington Post. I grew up in Chicago. So I read the Sun Times and the Tribune and the black chronicle in Chicago, the Defender. But the point I'm making is now that we are historically equal, we should act that way.

ROBERTS: Hiawatha, thanks for your call.

HIAWATHA: I mean, I don't feel that the news should be separated, especially when we see only things such as entertainment, crime and sports when I see African-Americans in the newspapers that are mainstream.

ROBERTS: All right, let's give David Wilson a chance to respond. Thanks for your call.

WILSON: Okay, first I want to say something: We are not separated media, all right. One thing that you'll be surprised, and your callers and a lot of your listeners will be surprised at is that a good percentage of our usership is from non-African-American.

We offer a perspective. You know, this is - we always say that the Grio is a site focused on news and stories that reflect and affect the African-American community. We do not say it's an African-American news site. And the reason for that is because we feel that the African-American perspective is one that is valued with all Americans.

And so, I - you know, you don't have to be black to visit the Grio. So that's one thing. I actually think we also enrich mainstream media because we have an audience and we have reach, particularly at the Grio and I would imagine the same thing would happen at HuffPo Black Voices, where we are attached to a bigger media arm.

We are able to get stories that come from the community that would otherwise go unnoticed, and we're able to push those up to bigger outlets. So, you know, I don't buy the argument that we're separated. And look, we are in a - a part of being American is having different groups, having different parts to society and celebrating those differences.

But, you know, I would guarantee you that the majority of people who go to the Grio do not come to the Grio first, that they read the New York Times, that they go to MSNBC.com, CNN.com, and then for a deeper reach, for a deeper perspective, for an alternate perspective, they come to the Grio.

So, you know, we understand that, and we are not trying to compete with mainstream news outlets. We are part of one. But we are just trying to add some depth to some of the coverage.

And the other thing I'll add is that we are covering, oftentimes, mainstream stories, but what we do is, again, provide an African-American voice or perspectives to those stories.

ROBERTS: Well Osama Siblani, this echoes what you were saying, that a good percentage of your readership is non-Arab, that it's the point of view they're trying to read, not necessarily the information.

SIBLANI: Yes, in fact I would even go further than that. I would go to the opposite of what you're caller mentioned. If it wasn't for the ethnic media, the ethnic communities would have been isolated because, you see, with the global information revolution, ethnic communities stood, you know, between two huge producers of media.

One is the mainstream market, the mainstream media, and the other one that's coming over the Internet and over the satellites. And both of them are so huge that they are disconnected from the local communities, and they do not cover, definitely ethnic communities. And the ethnic communities don't see themselves reflect in both medias.

Even if you look at al-Jazeera, the Arab channel, the communities in the United States do not feel that al-Jazeera reflects their causes and their opinions. Yes, they watch it, and they watch the news from overseas, but what about the news in their neighborhood? You know, who is covering this?

And if it wasn't for the ethnic media that links both communities, you know, and bridges the gap, it would have been - the ethnic communities would have been isolated. That is one more, you know, thing that the ethnic media provides, and your guest, you know, touched on this.

It's that we set up as a source for mainstream media. Our newspaper on a daily basis and in touch with the - with other communities. And in fact, we have just formed a new Michigan media in here, and the board is formed from five major ethnic newspaper, the Jewish News, the Arab American News, the Korean Weekly and the Michigan Chronicle, which is the black daily newspaper in the state, and also (unintelligible).

So we are trying to connect our communities together, and we're trying to even serve the mainstream media by providing them such an important information about our community. In an overall view, we cannot compete with the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News and the New York Times because they are covering America on a wider scale.

But those communities that really needs to be covered, and they need to be brought into the fold of mainstream of America, they do not have a space in those major newspapers in the mainstream media, not even when the media is coming from overseas via satellite. So they need those vehicles, they're called ethnic media, in order to link them with the mainstream publications.

ROBERTS: Well, these collaborations among local ethnic media organizations, as you mentioned, are often affected by New America Media. And joining us now from the New America Media office in San Francisco is Jacob Simas. He's an associate editor there. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JACOB SIMAS: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Explain to us how New America Media works with ethnic media outlets.

SIMAS: Sure. Well, thank you for having me on the show, Rebecca. It's been a pleasure listening to both Mr. Siblani and Mr. Wilson talk about their good work. New America Media was founded by Pacific News Service in 1996, and it was really the first time that there was a nationwide collaboration of ethnic media news outlets.

And we have a membership, a collaborating membership, of over 2,000 ethnic media outlets in the nation. Primarily we function as what I would describe as an AP newswire for the ethnic media. We both produce our own original content and send that content out for free to the ethnic media, but we also aggregate the contents of the national ethnic media, and we provide a platform for their content by, you know, oftentimes translating from non-English into English and giving them a space on our website.

And we do have a national audience. So we're producing, we're aggregating, and we're disseminating, both our original content, and the content of the national ethnic media.

ROBERTS: And we've been talking about ethnic media as this sort of umbrella term, but of course within that, there are all kinds of different communities with different language skills and different interests. And what are some of the differences you see among the groups that consume your different media sources?

SIMAS: Well, you know, the audience is very diverse, but the media outlets themselves are diverse. And, you know, ethnic media, in a sense it's, you know, the phrase there is a little bit limiting because we take an even broader view as to what that means.

Of course you have immigrant communities. You have ethnic minority communities that have been in this country for many years. But we also see ourselves very much as serving and representing, in a nutshell, really the voices of those communities that, you know, have been left out of the mainstream national discourse.

You know, youth, young voices are very much a part of our strategy and our mandate and what we're trying to do, as are the voices of elders, in addition to ethnic communities. So we take a very broad view of what that means.

ROBERTS: Rose(ph) in Beverly Hills joins us now in the line. Rose, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ROSE: Hello, good afternoon, thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: Welcome.

ROSE: This show has been very, very interesting. I was actually talking to my mom a couple days ago about this situation, actually. I'm a 32-year-old Colombian American that is - every day has to go through a little cautious to get my full news information. At 5 o'clock, I watch (unintelligible) on Univision; and then at 6:00, my local American news; and then at 6:30, Diane Sawyer to get my world news. And that's a daily process I go through to get a full spectrum of what's actually going on. And I do that every single day to make sure that I do get a full amount of information and news for everything that I'm interested in.

ROBERTS: And what do you think in particular is - do you find in the Univision cast that you're missing in the other sources?

ROSE: They're more specific of what's going on in South American countries. My parents came here legally from Colombia, but we lived in many, many different countries while I was growing up - South America, Central America. And things that are going around in Honduras, in El Salvador, in Venezuela, those things are not focused on in the American news media unless it's something serious that might be happening.

But just, you know, the guerillas attacking, you know, small towns and people getting killed in Mexico and things like that, that unless it's something spectacular that the mainstream media has to capture to be a part with everybody else, Univision gets it every single day in their newscast. And that is one of the biggest reasons why I do watch Univision as my 5 o'clock news.

ROBERTS: Rose, thank you for your call. And, Jacob Simas, as I imagine, you hear this again and again that there - stories just don't rise to the level of a national newscast on a daily basis.

SIMAS: That's absolutely correct. And, you know, I've been listening to some of the comments that David and Osama made earlier. And it's very true that, you know, these communities are very often isolated in a sense that the stories aren't being told. But, you know, the relevance of that is, you know, not only that people need to have a platform to see themselves reflected in the media, but I would also say that the decision makers and the power brokers and the people that are influencing these communities, need to hear those stories just as much as the actual communities do. Which is why it's so important to fill the gap and make those connections between, you know, communities who are often living in the shadows and who don't have a voice, because of language or because of other things, and connect those people to the very people who are making the decisions that are influencing their lives.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we have on the line Samina(ph) in Houston. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SAMINA: Hi.

ROBERTS: Hi. Welcome to the show.

SAMINA: Hi. Yeah. Thanks so much for taking my call. I just wanted to say I definitely agree with a lot of things that your speakers are saying. I'm one of those people who uses a lot of different ethnic media sources, mostly on the Internet. My family is from India, so I guess I'm Indian American, but we're actually Muslim, which is significantly less part of the Indian population. So I think that the variety of ethnic media sources really is a great benefit for me because, you know, I can connect with maybe my Indian cultural roots, as well as my Muslim and then, of course, you know, with our mainstream media.

And I don't really think it's a bad thing at all. I think it would be, I guess, nice if maybe we could incorporate some more ethnic-related stories in the mainstream media. But, you know, I think that the main point is that these other sources give a lot of different perspectives, and also they can give a lot of different, you know, sources and depth to, maybe even our mainstream media stories.

ROBERTS: Samina, thanks for your call. And, Osama Siblani, Samina's sources, you know, are almost entirely online, an option that didn't exist when you started The Arab American News. How has the Internet changed your model?

SIBLANI: It has changed a lot. It changed us all. It's changed the world. But I can tell you right now as the dust settled from the Internet brouhaha, you know, all over the world, in particular in the United States, people are realizing that they need to have this - their news, and their information from trusted sources. So even though with all the junk that we have over the Internet, things are, right now, coming down and people are really looking for trusted sources. And when it comes to trusted sources, you have to establish yourself, you know, first, and people have to trust you.

We have established our self as a - for the last 27 years - as an ethnic media. And our website right now is visited from all around - we have, like, 112 countries - visitors from 112 countries to our website. Some country, like, we have six or seven, but in general, we have a large viewer and people who read. But there is one thing that I would like to mention as far as the ethnic media that the things that we have that mainstream media don't have.

SIBLANI: Like, for example, The New York Times and The Washington Post, they have, you know, an open door policy at the White House or State Department or the Defense Department. But we have an open door policy or an access to our communities, to the stories in our communities, to the things that our community cares about. And at the end of the day, you know, you can get what the White House is interested in getting out from - we get press releases every day. Actually, we get a lot of press releases from the White House. But what's important in here is really to have a story that reflects the suffering and the pain, or the agony or the fear or the accomplishments, of the community that we represent, that they don't see this in major newspapers or in major medias across the country, and even in Arabic media that comes over the satellite. So we need to...

ROBERTS: We have to leave it there, I'm afraid. Osama Siblani is the publisher of the Arab American News. He joined us from Detroit. Thank you so much. We were also joined by David Wilson, the founder and managing editor of thegrio.com. He joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks to you. And Jacob Simas, associate editor at New America Media, joined us from his office in San Francisco. Thanks to all of you.

Coming up, "The Help's" got a great cast - Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer - and it's doing well at the box office. It's also making audiences uncomfortable and prompting a lot of debate about whether the movie and the book whitewash life in 1960s Mississippi. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION.

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