In the internet era, what is the future of the ethnic media?

By Indira Laisram
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Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash // https://unsplash.com/@gemmachuatran

Every Friday night, Jews in Melbourne observe the traditional Sabbath dinner, a traditional Jewish practice the world over when families get together, enjoy food and company. For the Australian Jewish News (AJN) newspaper, it is a time when the paper becomes a focal point of reading with grandparents, children and their grandchildren partaking in conversations around the dinner table.

In that sense, the 125-year-old AJN is probably the most handed around of all ethnic newspapers in Victoria. The physical paper sits on the coffee table or elsewhere. For the community, there is very much a connection with the physical paper.

But it is not just the AJN that cements community and culture. There are hundreds of ethnic media organisations who are the community’s eyes and voice. The ethnic media represents niche communities that are not necessarily represented or don’t see themselves reflected in broader mainstream media.

“In certain ethnic groups, language is a key part of that, less so for obvious reasons with the AJN because in the Jewish community everyone speaks English. But in a broader sense, yes, that cultural connection through language is something that is truly unique in that area,” says David Redman, CEO of Polaris Media Pty Ltd, publisher of the Australian Jewish News and Property Weekly.

Pradeep Taneja, Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies, Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, recalls avidly listening to community radio station 4EB’s one-hour weekly program in Hindi in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Brisbane. “There were no Indian newspapers in Brisbane then.”

Pradeep Taneja

It was only after Taneja moved to Melbourne in 1991, that the few Indians settled here saw some opportunity. Thus, came The Indian Voice (magazine in English) founded by Raj Dudeja, and Devanagiri (newspaper in Hindi) published by Hindi Niketan, one of the oldest Indian organisations in Victoria of which he was a member. The latter no longer exists.

However, the multicultural media landscape is still large and dynamic.

“The print market is made up of approximately 200 titles spanning 47 communities. There are over 13,000 hours per week of multicultural radio programming broadcast in over 100 stations, and there are over 100 Australian based multicultural websites serving over 26 million impressions per week,” according to Leba, Australia’s largest advertising service providers in cultural and linguistically diverse media.

Today, along with SBS, more than 100 community radio stations feature content in over 100 languages. There are also ethnic media organisations that broadcast or print content in English, according to John Budarick, Lecturer in Media, University of Adelaide.

A quick search into the Victorian Multicultural Community directory throws up 180 results for ethnic media.

And in more recent news, during COVID-19, the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters’ Council started a Multilingual News Service (MNS) for Victoria and is producing daily news bulletins in seven languages with plans for expansion. The MNS is produced by ethnic community radio broadcasters in Arabic, Greek, Spanish, Hindi, Punjabi, Pacific Islander English and Mandarin.

No doubt, the ethnic media is the result of the changes in the diversity of the population, but with local news outlets withering, with people consuming news via the phone and computer, the question is: will the ethnic media survive the onslaught of time, what is its future and value?

“It is definitely a challenging time,” says Redman.

Wayne Tseng

“While the ethnic media has evolved over the years, the press is dying out,” says Wayne Tseng, MD of eTranslate.com.au, a leading translation firm which in 2001 devised the multilingual internet publishing standards that are used today. Its subsidiary ChineseDigitalMedia.com serves government agencies by providing access to almost 90 per cent of the Australia Chinese community

“We used to have 24 Chinese newspapers. Now in a span of seven years, the number is reduced to three perhaps, the reason being a lot of advertisers want to improve the circulation but they are unable to.”

But that having said, the Chinese have abandoned the web component and pivoted to social media with the entire publication uploaded on Facebook version and on WeChat, says Tseng, who is also the president of the ChinesePrecinctChamber.org.au which advocates harmony between Chinese and the mainstream community, The Chamber invented the AustralianChineseZodiac.com.au which is now a symbol of Australian Chinese.

Redmond is also of the opinion that one of the balancing issues for any publisher is moving it from a physical focus to a digital focus and finding a way to bring the existing community and readership along to that transition and, at the same time, reflecting the changing business model for print media from physical advertisements to increased advertiser appetite for digital advertising.

“It’s a constant challenge but AJN is very much committed to maintaining the physical presence. It’s how do we enhance that experience for our community. I don’t think the ethnicity of the publication is the challenge, it’s the scale that presents some specific or different challenges,” says Redmond.

“We used to have 24 Chinese newspapers. Now in a span of seven years, the number is reduced to three perhaps, the reason being a lot of advertisers want to improve the circulation but they are unable to”
— Wayne Tseng, MD // etranslate.com.au

But the beacon of hope is that loyal readership and niche advertisements have sustained the industry as every ethnic group has an ethnic economy.

“For instance, if a Chinese person, particularly first-generation migrant, wants to renovate a bathroom, he/she looks for a Chinese trader because they feel comfortable speaking in their own language. Or, if you look at the over 60 years old Italian newspaper Il Globo, it is a weekly that still comes out though the demography of the readers might be changing. There are community announcements such as birth, death notices for which people say,” says Taneja.

The future of the ethnic or multicultural media comes down to financial sustainability and professionalism, adds Taneja. Given that Indian community now in Australia is 700,000 strong, he believes there is a future for a quality Indian English language newspaper or magazine that covers India and provide perspectives and news from Australia, of particular interest to Indians and Indians in Australia.

Going forward, Tseng believes the ethnic media must expand their platform, not just news and advertisements, so that it becomes a part of the social fabric. “An example: there is so much you can easily put together that facilitate students, cheaper alternatives to delivery, or for the elderly address mental health. They are a big market, there is a lot we can do to provide a particular niche in the market.”

David Redman

Agrees Redmond, “It’s finding that niche and that does take a fair degree of nimbleness in both content and in business model.”

To financially survive in this very difficult environment, particularly for print, at the moment they should look at leveraging or working with mainstream media, say, share resources, collaborate and support each other, says Taneja.

However, with the government focussing its thoughts and conversations around the five top media companies that cover 95 per cent of what most people watch or listen to or read, it could be a dismissive thing, argues Redmond.

The fact remains, the strength of the paper is a reflection of a strength of the community, and the close-knit nature of the community, whether it’s the Chinese or Greeks or Italians.

“That’s the unique element of these magazines or papers, the close-knitness. And how do you broaden that and how do you provide more value to the community in a way that they recognise and acknowledge and are willing to contribute to that connection, is the question.

“As each generation goes through being a first, second or third generation migrants, those connections shift and change, I don’t know if they necessarily diminish, but they shift and change. And so being adaptable to those changing demographics and generations in a way they engage and the type of things they engage with—that is a bit of a tricky thing.

“It needs to be reflected with each different community but, as a summary, I would say the secret lies in developing closer connection with the community you are serving and scaling your operations appropriately to that size of the community,” says Redmond.


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