Only a few years ago, it was hard to convince New York politicians to meet with ethnic reporters. After all, most of these worked for small outlets published in foreign languages that elected officials are not usually able to read. Besides, not many politicians seemed to pay much attention to immigrant communities.
“There was not enough understanding about who the communities are that are being informed by this press and how important they are for the wellbeing of the city’s populace — and the country’s for that matter,” says Juana Ponce de Leon, executive director of the New York Community Media Alliance (NYCMA), a nonprofit umbrella organization of ethnic and neighborhood newspapers.
In a city where 36% of the population is foreign-born, not reaching out to some 300 ethnic newspapers and magazines seems like an oddly missed opportunity.
But recently this has started to change. The first turning point came in 2006.
“We had 400,000 people come out for the biggest immigration rally ever in New York City. And that was possible because the ethnic press got the word out. That’s the power of the ethnic press,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. (Other attendance estimates for the April 2006 march were lower.)
Many politicians realized then that there must be an alternative source of information with the ability to reach and mobilize millions of people around the country.
More evidence of the ethnic press’ influence came during the 2008 presidential election and most recently during New York’s mayoral election in November. In both cases, coverage provided by these outlets with the support of activists increased civic participation among immigrants.
“We saw a lot of first-time voters in the last elections, especially in the Asian American community, and also longtime citizens who didn’t get involved before voted for the first time,” says Hong. “I think that’s the trend of the future. You can’t just cater to your kind of typical frequent voter, which a lot of campaign strategists do.
“If anyone is serious about being relevant and wanting to reach New Yorkers, they have to think ethnic press. It’s one of the most powerful vehicles of communication that we have in New York City, that reaches millions of people.”
According to an Edison Media Research poll for The New York Times, the latest municipal elections saw the minority vote making up a majority of the voters in a citywide race for the first time in history.
Only 46% of the voters identified themselves as white, while 23% described themselves as black, 21% as Hispanic and 7% as Asian.
The latter showed the greatest increase in civic participation (in 2001, Asians accounted for 3% of the voters.) In part, this was due to Asian candidates’ running for various offices, including Margaret Chin, who won a city council seat in Chinatown. But it was the candidacy of City Comptroller-elect John Liu, the first Asian to win citywide office, that generated the biggest enthusiasm.
His goal would have been much harder to achieve without Chinese-language media, which provided their readers with daily coverage of Liu’s campaign and also explained how the election process works.
Liu, an immigrant himself, grew up in multiethnic Queens, surrounded by various communities and the papers they read. Maybe for this reason he has never limited his attention to Asian media only. Since he became a city councilman in 2001, he has attempted to build strong personal relationships with various ethnic reporters. During his campaign, in an unprecedented move, Liu –who received no endorsements from the city’s mainstream media– visited approximately 50 ethnic and community newsrooms, including Irish, Russian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi media outlets.
Liu credited his victory to a great extent to these news organizations. “They understood what my campaign was about and they got the information out to their readers,” said Liu, who is known for his proimmigrant views.
Liu may be the most persistent, but he was not the only politician who courted the ethnic press. Mayor Michael Bloomberg also seemed to be paying a lot more attention to the ethnic press during his latest campaign than in the past. Only weeks before the election, he met with a large group of ethnic reporters for an exclusive press conference, the first ever of its kind, where he answered questions for about 40 minutes. He also advertised in many ethnic papers and sought their endorsements.
His Democratic rival Bill Thompson met with immigrant journalists in October.
Even national- or state-level politicians don’t mind spending some time with the city’s ethnic reporters. In August, Congressman Charles Rangel (D.-Harlem) briefed them on the progress of health care reform. In December, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli met with them to discuss the state’s financial situation.
This has become a noticeable trend, Ponce de Leon says.
“In the past we were saying, ‘Hey, let’s do this, let’s do that’. But now, it seems to be happening the other way round,” she says. “All of a sudden we’re having a situation where they’re coming to us and asking us to pull things together for them.”