Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

How can collaborations between ethnic and mainstream outlets serve communities in the digital age?

Voices featured in Voting Block, a collaboration coordinated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

A Nigerian chief, a Chinese activist, and a Muslim Republican shared their perspectives on the hotly contested 2017 New Jersey governor’s race.

The stories and more than a dozen others like them are part of Voting Block, a unique, statewide collaboration between more than 20 ethnic, hyperlocal and mainstream news outlets. Each publication commits to writing voter profiles and hosting a “political potluck” where neighbors talk politics over a meal with their neighbors.

In a time when immigrant communities are in the political crosshairs and hate crimes are on the rise, collaborations between mainstream and ethnic publications can change the stories news outlets tell. These partnerships can build coverage of diverse communities and increase access to about a quarter of U.S. residents who turn to more than 3,000 ethnic media outlets for some of their news.

Often overlooked because of cultural and linguistic barriers, these ethnic outlets publish and broadcast in languages ranging from Amharic to Zapotec. They tend to be more connected to hard-to-reach and vulnerable communities of color than mainstream outlets.

These partnerships can be particularly effective when ethnic media reporters provide community access, while mainstream reporters contribute expertise, context and resources.

All stories produced in the Voting Block project are available for any of the partners to publish. That means they can reach immigrant communities that often do not turn to mainstream partners, as well as mainstream audiences that don’t often see nuanced portrayals of immigrants.

The ethnic publications in Voting Block tap into perspectives that often do not make it into mainstream news. In turn, they get funding to produce stories they probably wouldn’t do otherwise. And by bringing these diverse publications together, connections can be forged between reporters and editors that could lead to further alliances.

This article is the first of a series about how ethnic and mainstream media outlets can build effective collaborations. Though these collaborations are no substitute for diversifying staff and coverage at mainstream outlets, they can open up new avenues of storytelling, expand reach, and show the types of stories that are passing below editors’ radar.

We will focus primarily on ethnic media that is produced by and for immigrants, most of which is in languages other than English. However, many of the lessons about collaboration apply to other ethnic media targeting racial and ethnic minorities, such as black, Jewish or indigenous communities. Many lessons may also apply to partnerships with any identity-driven publication, including those focused on particular religions, ideologies, niche interests and industries.

This research, part of the American Press Institute’s series of Strategy Studies, builds on a prior report about nonprofit-commercial partnerships. We’re doing this one a bit differently — publishing our findings as we go and compiling it all into a final report.

To do this work, we need your help: If your newsroom has been involved in a partnership between an ethnic and a general-audience, English-language media outlet, we want to know about it. We’ve included a brief questionnaire below.

Though these collaborations are no substitute for diversifying staff and coverage at mainstream outlets, they can open up new avenues of storytelling, expand reach, and show the types of stories that are passing below editors’ radar.

Examples of ethnic and mainstream media collaboration

These partnerships can take many forms: Some simply involve reporters from different outlets teaming up, as WNYC and Telemundo did recently. They revealed that a felon who represented immigrants in court was selling bogus ID cards that could supposedly protect people from being deported. Tag-teaming aided the reporting and reached immigrants who could be affected by the scam.

Other times, an English-language news company creates its own foreign-language outlet. The weekly Spanish-language newspaper Al Día holds joint editorial meetings and co-reports stories with its mother newspaper The Dallas Morning News. The two work together on a community outreach project at local libraries targeting Latino parents.

Collaborative journalism is all the rage, but when it comes to actually working with the ethnic press, few mainstream media do it.

Other collaborations have experimented with digital reporting methods. ProPublica joined with Univision for the Electionland project, which asked people to use WhatsApp to report polling place problems and watch out for voter suppression during the 2016 presidential election.

There is a common theme among these partnerships between mainstream and ethnic media: They are rare. “Collaborative journalism is all the rage, but when it comes to actually working with the ethnic press, few mainstream media do it,” said Karen Pennar, editor of Voices of NY and co-director of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

“I have seen so many good stories coming out of the Chinese community papers that would be compelling to a much wider audience,” Rong Xiaoqing of the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily newspaper wrote for Poynter.org on the need for more collaborations. “But most of them fail to get traction outside the Chinese community.”

Why aren’t ethnic-mainstream collaborations more common?

We undertake this research with the belief that there is room for more of these collaborations.

We know from personal experience how these partnerships can add new dimensions to reporting projects and extend their reach. We also know many of the reasons they are not undertaken more often.

Daniela Gerson, one of this study’s authors, has worked at daily newspapers in New York and Los Angeles, collaborating with reporters from Chinese, Polish, and Latino outlets. She was founding editor of Alhambra Source, a community media site that has worked with Chinese and Spanish-language publications.

Carlos Rodriguez, also a co-author of this study, has worked as a reporter and translator for the New York Daily News, El Diario/La Prensa, and Voices of NY, which curates and translates stories from the city’s ethnic media into English. One project he was part of, a Spanish-language weekly published by the Daily News, went under due to distribution and financial troubles.

Partnerships between any media outlets can be tricky; cultural and linguistic differences add another layer of complexity. Ethnic media outlets sometimes have a different understanding of their relationship to their communities, and tend to advocate for them. They generally lack resources. As a result, mainstream reporters often treat ethnic outlets with distrust or even disrespect.

There are interpersonal barriers as well: Journalists in mainstream and ethnic media are generally not in the same social networks, and they don’t typically attend the same conferences.

But the notable successes show these barriers can be overcome to produce journalism that is important for immigrant and other minority populations, as well as larger, English-speaking communities.

“The goal of collaborative journalism is about expanding the news lens, particularly now in a very diverse society,” said Sandy Close, director of New America Media, a national network of ethnic news outlets. “How do you as a reporter step inside a story, report on it from the inside out, so to speak, if you don’t have some knowledge of language, culture, experience?”

Nearly 20 years ago, Close helped facilitate one of her first collaborations, between The San Francisco Examiner and India West, a weekly newspaper and website in California with a weekly readership of more than 100,000.

The goal of collaborative journalism is about expanding the news lens, particularly now in a very diverse society.

The Examiner paired two of its reporters with one from India West on a story that took them from California to India, tracing the roots of two teen girls who had been kept as sex slaves by a well-known immigrant restaurateur in Berkeley. The India West reporter knew the Indian community in the East Bay, as well as the dialect they spoke. The stories were published in both publications and contributed to legislation imposing longer prison sentences for human trafficking.

Another time, Close recalled, a reporter with the Chinese-language publication Sing Tao Daily worked with a San Francisco Chronicle reporter on a series about traditional Chinese medicine. Those collaborations were like many that followed: the ethnic media reporter offered knowledge of language and the community; the mainstream reporter provided an outside perspective and sometimes additional investigative, data, and graphics resources.

Beyond that, Close said, “working together on stories creates common bonds of friendship, information sharing, and support among and between reporters.”

America’s long history with ethnic media includes Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln

Ethnic publications in America predate the United States. For generations, they have helped immigrants keep their feet in two worlds — helping recent arrivals stay connected to their native countries and easing the transition to a new society.

In 1732, Benjamin Franklin founded the first ethnic newspaper in North America, the German-language Philadelphische Zeitung. He correctly foresaw a demand; German publications dominated ethnic press throughout the 1800s, with more than 1,000 outlets.

With these first publications, trends emerged that continue to define ethnic media, as a 2014 exhibit at the Newseum highlighted:

  • Insider knowledge: Franklin’s initial effort failed after a few weeks. He was an outsider who could not master the German typeface. Since then, most ethnic media publications have been founded by immigrants, who have a better understanding of their community.

  • Diverse in format and politics: Some of the German publications were socialist, others right-wing. Some focused on news back home and others on local politics. There continues to be a wide range of editorial approaches, with varying political allegiances, within each segment of ethnic media.

Since the initial German dominance, ethnic media has reflected the changing waves of immigrants to the United States. The first Spanish-language media outlet, El Misisipí, was founded in 1808 by intellectuals in New Orleans exiled from Spain. But Spanish-language media did not proliferate until the 1900s.

In 1965, immigration laws were liberalized, spurring a flood of newcomers. A large, diverse group of Hispanic news outlets were created to serve this new audience. Demand increased as the number of immigrants climbed in the following decades, peaking at about 43 million in 2015.

Ethnic media have followed immigrants throughout the U.S.

Today, ethnic media for immigrant communities are extraordinarily diverse. They include:

  • Multinational media companies such as Univision and the Chinese-language World Journal and Sing Tao Daily

  • Offshoots of mainstream media outlets such as Al Día, a sister publication of The Dallas Morning News; Hoy, a sister publication of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and The San Diego Union-Tribune; and the Miami Herald’s El Nuevo Herald

  • Opinion-driven efforts that blur the line between publisher and reporter, such as Al-Akhbar, a Syrian publication in the Los Angeles suburbs

  • Small, advertising-heavy publications such as El Informador Latino in southern Indiana, which consists mostly of community information for Spanish speakers, or Zethiopia in Washington, D.C.

  • Blogs about ethnic issues and identity, such as Angry Asian Man and Latino Rebels

Ethnic media outlets in the U.S. are concentrated in cities with the largest immigrant populations, naturally. In New York, a recent study found 270 ethnic outlets in 36 languages. Thirty-one catered to Latinos, nine to Pakistanis, and three newspapers to the city’s relatively tiny Nepali community.

But new publications have followed immigrants to rural and suburban areas throughout the country. If a town has a church or shop catering to Vietnamese, Indonesian or Nigerian residents, odds are there is a publication catering to them, too. (And it’s probably sold at that store.)

Initially, ethnic media appeared to be insulated from the publishing crisis of the Great Recession. But in recent years, they’ve been hurt by stagnating or declining newspaper circulation and television viewership, just like larger, English-language outlets. Contributing to the declines are a decrease in new arrivals, particularly undocumented Mexican immigrants.

Aided by the internet, international media are increasingly encroaching on local ethnic media outlets.

New immigrants can easily stay connected with media back home, and they’re using new social networks focused on their needs. The Pew Research Center reported that Latino viewers are increasingly turning to foreign outlets that focus on Latin America, such as the Mexican-owned networks TV Azteca and Televisa.

The Los Angeles Times documented the growth of a “parallel Chinese-language internet” in the San Gabriel Valley that helps affluent, young Chinese immigrants navigate America and find jobs, restaurants, and information about LA. Both of these trends may result in fewer immigrants turning to traditional, local ethnic media in the years ahead.

Yet ethnic media remains a large sector of the news industry. One in five Americans speaks a language other than English at home. Many of them still turn to ethnic media to learn about crime in their communities, get help in a natural disaster, and to stay on top of national matters such as immigration policies.

What’s ahead, and how to participate

In the overall media industry, news outlets have responded to cutbacks, startups and different business models by collaborating. We want to learn how collaborations can help ethnic and mainstream media outlets as well — particularly how they can improve coverage of immigrant and minority communities.

Here are some of the issues we plan to investigate in the coming months:

  • What can we learn from partnerships that have an ethnic media component?

  • What are the business opportunities in these collaborations?

  • How has the digital transformation of the news business affected ethnic media, and what challenges and opportunities does this create for partnerships?

  • Immigrant communities have different relationships with social media and digital media. How could that shape news collaborations?

  • How do you partner with an outlet that may have a different perspective on advocacy or neutrality?

  • What tools and workflows can aid translation? What are the pitfalls of translation software?

This is where you come in. Ethnic media is diverse and fragmented, and we don’t know about every innovative partnership. If you have an experience that will inform our research, please fill out the form below.

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

Featured topics

Go deeper on…

Dive deep on everything we produce about these key topics.

Strategy Studies

The best practices for innovation within news organizations

This Strategy Study presents examples and insights about journalism innovation, offering actionable advice and methods to move your journalism and business forward.