A Polish Paper Fights To Survive Amid Reverse Migration

Mural at the offices of Nowy Dziennik Photo: Jocelyn Gonzales

Mural at the offices of Nowy Dziennik. (Photo: Jocelyn Gonzales)

New York City has hundreds of newspapers that serve immigrant and ethnic readers. But in the conversation about the sweeping changes that are reshaping the media, these newspapers are often ignored.   This is the second article in FI2W’s series on how New York’s ethnic newspapers are adapting to new economic realities and the revolution in news gathering and distribution.

Jan Latus, 50, ushered me into his fourth floor office in Midtown Manhattan. Nothing unusual about going up four flights of stairs. But on a daily basis when Latus, the editor-in-chief of the Polish news daily Nowy Dziennik, needs to speak to reporters in his newsroom, he has to go down to the second floor.  Should he need to check out layout with the ad department, he needs to trek up to the third floor.

While the recession’s financial woes prompted the decision to put the Nowy Dziennik building up for sale, there could also be other reasons, said Latus, flashing an Aaron Eckhart smile: “It’s not very convenient to work with people climbing the stairs all the time.”

The daily, which turns 40 this year, is one of more than 350 ethnic newspapers (weeklies and dailies) serving New York City’s diverse communities. It claims to be the most widely distributed and read Polish – language publication in North America. The city’s Polish population is approximately 66,000, and is served by two other papers besides Nowy Dziennik.  There is Super Express, which gets most of its news from Poland, and Gazeta Polska, whose distribution is concentrated in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, the heart of New York’s Polish community .

While traditional mainstream newspapers are filing for bankruptcy or simply folding, the ethnic media stubbornly persist in publishing issue after issue, selling copies to break even or just giving them away.

“They have a loyal audience,” Ernest Sotomayor, assistant dean at Columbia Journalism School, said, sharing his thoughts on the resilience of the ethnic press. “It’s how they view the communities; how they understand the issues, know the people dealing with these issues, the bodega owners, the small business owners, the housewives. There’s a connection.”

It’s this “connection” that’s enabled many ethnic papers to keep going. As long as the readers are there, the immigration lawyers, insurance companies and phone card providers will continue to advertise, and the newspapers will continue to sell.

But the time-tested business model that Nowy Dziennik and other ethnic papers have relied on has been shaken by the recession. Production costs are up, readers are flocking to the Internet, and advertising budgets are being cut. Some Polish immigrants are even going home as jobs become scarce in the U.S., causing readership to slide.

Listen to Nowy Dziennik‘s editor Jan Latus discuss the state of his newspaper:

[audio: JanLatus_v2.mp3]

Jan Latus, editor of Nowy Djiennik

“All these [factors] affected Polish businesses in America,” said Latus, sitting in the Nowy Dziennik building, which also houses a Polish bookstore and art gallery, and is considered a landmark, a source of national prestige for the paper.

Now they are looking to rent an office that is more sprawling than vertical, where employees walk, rather than scale, as they move from one department to another. There’s been a standing offer for $4.3 million, he said, but the consensus appears to be to “wait for a better offer.”

That the paper now has enough leverage to pick and choose the best offer demonstrates its impressive turnaround over the past year.

But that turnaround came at a considerable cost.

During the 2007 to 2009 recession, the paper faced a new economic reality. While immigrant Poles in the U.S. were losing jobs and income, Poland was experiencing a mild boom in its economy.  Due to Poland’s admission into the E.U., its itinerant population now has the opportunity to work throughout western Europe.  Latus said his native country is “no longer in a desperate situation,” and Poles are coming to the U.S. in “small numbers.”

The drop in Polish immigration has led to reduced readership for Nowy Dziennik and simultaneously means fewer customers for businesses that once advertised heavily in the paper. The paper lost about 20 percent of its advertisers, but some big companies—such as the Polish & Slavic Federal Credit Union and Lot Polish Airlines—stayed put.

Without an influx of new Polish readers, the paper faces a perilous future relying on an aging immigrant population.  Second generation Polish immigrants consider it “staid, formal, the paper of their parents,” said Latus. He’s made efforts to pull in new readers, but balancing the needs of its stalwart readership while trying to make changes to attract youth have been complicated, to say the least.

One experiment with a bilingual edition angered older immigrants. A photograph of a provocatively dressed Lady Gaga further incensed the entrenched readership who groused against “pornography.”

In the end, Latus went back to a Polish-only paper and decided to focus on his core set of readers rather than chase after young, assimilated Polish Americans. “They’re more into show business than political analysis. They’re into Time Out and New York Post. This is a lost generation for us,” Latus said.

“We try to keep our elder readers and at the same time try not to become too stale or old-fashioned,” he explained.

Nowy Dziennik, a paper serving the Polish immigrant community of New York City - Photo: Jocelyn Gonzales

Nowy Dziennik, a paper serving the Polish immigrant community of New York City. (Photo: Jocelyn Gonzales)

Nowy Dziennik’s circulation, like its advertising, has dropped “15 percent to 20 percent,” said Latus. Circulation is now about 10,000 a day on weekdays and 30,000 on weekends. It’s sold for 75 cents and $1.50, respectively, in newsstands across the New York Tri-State area, with concentrations in the Polish neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Ridgewood and Maspeth in Queens. The paper is slightly slimmer than it used to be, and the number of pages has dropped —from 24 down to 20 pages on weekdays and from 16 to eight on weekends.

The paper was also forced to trim its salaried staff to 28, from 40 employees in what Latus called the “glory days” before the recession. They laid off two reporters, bringing down the pool of writers to 10. Reporters’ salaries are competitive by ethnic media standards, ranging anywhere from $30K and $50k, and employees are entitled to a package of benefits that includes medical insurance, vacation leave, and a 401(k).

When the crisis deepened, the paper had to cut salaries by 10 percent across the board—including the editor’s. “We didn’t want to fire another person,” Latus said.

The process of becoming leaner was painful, but the paper pulled through. Latus is now focused on reorienting the streamlined paper as an international and national news source for the Polish diaspora.

The paper’s website, dziennik.com, gets about 160,000 hits a month. Although Latus said they “have been unable to get any significant money from the Internet,” he is confident of its long-term potential. Nowy Dziennik has hired a consultant in Canada to turn the website into another revenue stream. Second generation Polish immigrants might not be interested, but Latus believes that Polish people scattered around the globe want to know about the lives of thousands of Polish immigrants in the U.S. and to read news about New York in Polish.

“We want to address our website to Polish people all over the world,” he said. “We hope we will be widely read by Polish people all over the world seeking independent news, independent from any political party, independent from any big media organization.”

Like the building it occupies, Nowy Dziennik is an institution and a cultural unifier in the Polish community. Major change is ahead, but Latus maintains the future of Nowy Dziennik, like a change in office space, looks promising. “We’re not in the red,” he said. “Now we are in the black already.”

Cristina Pastor is a Feet in Two Worlds business and economics reporting fellow.  Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.

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