March 31, 2006

Ethnic media filling the gap


By K. Oanh Ha
Mercury News

Three new Vietnamese-language newspapers and an online news outlet are vying to fill the void left by the closing of the Mercury News' Viet Mercury publication, underscoring the vibrancy of ethnic media even as mainstream newspapers face uncertain futures.

Two former Viet Mercury editors plan to start publishing in the next two months while the paper's former advertising manager has launched an online news portal. A third newspaper plans to offer bilingual business news.

The publications aim to nab readers of Viet Mercury, which ceased publication in November.

“The enthusiasm for replacing Viet Mercury speaks about the viability of the market,'' said Jim Nguyen, Viet Mercury's former advertising manager who founded online news site VietUSA News after leading an unsuccessful attempt to purchase the paper. The site will soon relaunch as a news portal catering to Vietnamese readers globally, Nguyen said.

Former editor De Tran and his managing editor, Hoang Xuan Nguyen, have plans for separate publications modeled after the one they ran together for almost seven years.

The proliferation of Vietnamese and other ethnic publications is in stark contrast to the challenges facing mainstream newspapers: declining readership and advertising. Knight Ridder, the nation's second-largest newspaper chain and owner of the Mercury News, agreed to be purchased by McClatchy, a sale forced by major stockholders unhappy about Knight Ridder's financial performance. McClatchy has announced it will sell the Mercury News and 11 other Knight Ridder papers.

The landscape of the ethnic press is dramatically different. About a dozen Vietnamese publications now circulate in the Bay Area. Readers of Chinese can choose from at least six dailies and Indian-Americans, at least six monthly and weekly publications.

Richer coverage

Ethnic media, including television, online and radio, reaches one-fourth of the entire U.S. population and 80 percent of adults in minority communities, according to a 2005 study by New America Media, a San Francisco-based association of ethnic publications.

“If all the mainstream media went on strike, I wouldn't miss a beat,'' said Ling-chi Wang, a prolific reader of Chinese publications who heads Asian-American studies at the University of California-Berkeley. “What I read in Chinese papers is so much richer than mainstream content . . . There's many more pages of news about Asia.''

The success of ethnic publications goes hand-in-hand with increased immigration. The Chinese-American population in Santa Clara county more than doubled between 1990 and 2004 to 134,000 while the Vietnamese-American population also doubled, to 107,000. Numbers of Indian-Americans grew nearly threefold, to 72,000. As a result, the circulation of monthly magazine India Currents increased 20 percent, to 22,000, in Northern California over the past five years.

“It's pretty competitive,'' said editor Ashok Jethanandani. “I've seen so many publications come and go.''

The ethnic press thrives on a symbiotic relationship with mom-and-pop enterprises since both predominantly serve the local immigrant communities. “Korean dry cleaners need Korean media to grow their businesses,'' said Sandy Close, founder of New America Media.

Still, ethnic press have challenges of their own. Readership drops off considerably with the second generation, according to a 2003 San Francisco State University study on ethnic media.

Mindful of that, two of the upcoming Vietnamese publications plan to offer some English content.

Leaders at the new ventures say they want to emulate Viet Mercury, which was well-received by readers for its balanced journalism and high professional standards in a community where advocacy journalism is the norm and papers are susceptible to pressures from political and business interests.

Viet Mercury was also the first local Vietnamese newspaper to attract mainstream advertisers on a large scale rather than relying on just area immigrant businesses for revenue. The new publications hope to pair that model with lower overhead that will allow them to charge less for ads.

Viet Mercury charged up to $1,000 for a full-page ad, and couldn't pull in enough high-paying advertisers. Vietnamese publications typically charge $120 for a full-page ad.

But competition is already intense, and some watchers doubt the market is large enough for many more entrants. All four of the new Vietnamese publications are currently talking to one another about combining forces.

Quality — and profit

Tran, whose VTimes publication makes its debut next month, is convinced he can deliver both quality and profit. “We'll have the same quality of Viet Mercury,'' he said. “But we'll do it for less and we'll be able to charge much less for advertising.''

Tran wants his paper to be “a bridge to connect Vietnamese-Americans to the larger community,'' he said. Viet Tribune, headed by Hoang Nguyen, will focus on culture and lifestyle, particularly on issues affecting women and seniors.

Each of the new papers is being jump-started with only a few hundred thousand dollars. They aim for circulations around 20,000, compared with Viet Mercury's 57,000. They will rely on freelancers for most content.

The small scale of those operations leave many wondering whether they can match Viet Mercury's editorial content.

“Viet Mercury raised the quality,'' said Nguyen Qui Duc, the Vietnamese-American host of KQED's Pacific Time program. “I don't know that anyone can duplicate that because no one has those resources.''

Nguyen of VietUSA News said he wants to replicate Viet Mercury's “integrity'' but said there may be limitations. “Because we had the backing and protection of the Mercury News, we were able to be bold and courageous about exposing fraud and write exposes,'' he said. “With a community newspaper that has no shield, would we be able to do those same kinds of stories?''

Tran is undeterred: “A paper that's high-quality, objective and well-designed — there's a great need for it in the community.''

Contact K. Oanh Ha at or (408) 278-3457.

One Response to “”

  1. […] Viet Q (Viet Kieu) News Blog“The enthusiasm for replacing Viet Mercury speaks about the viability of the market,” said Jim Nguyen, Viet Mercury’s former advertising manager who founded online news site VietUSA News after leading an unsuccessful attempt to purchase the paper. […]

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