Ethnic media may have lessons to offer on connecting to audiences and providing diverse services as traditional news organizations seek new business models in order to make journalism profitable again.
The growing challenges of sustaining a news outlet in today’s market was the focus of a recent panel hosted by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, featuring the heads of three of the country’s largest media outlets.
It was a timely conversation given that across the board — in mainstream, community, ethnic and niche publications — newsrooms continue to downsize and even close.
Technology was at the forefront of the solutions panelists presented. These included paywalls for online content at The Globe and Mail and tapping into younger audience through tablet applications for La Presse and the Toronto Star.
But the solution to making news pay doesn’t rely solely on expensive technology, which may come as a relief for smaller publications.
Reconnecting with the audience
Attendee Saeed Vahid, who first started practising journalism in his native country, Iran, says that while the panelists — Phillip Crawley, publisher and CEO of The Globe and Mail, Pierre-Elliott Levasseur, chief operating officer of La Presse and John Cruickshank, publisher of the Toronto Star — had a strong handle on the business and technology side of the conversation, he felt there was some neglect in discussing how to establish a better relationship with the audience.
“I don’t think they are working [. . .] to eliminate the mistrust that exists between the media and the general public,” says Vahid, explaining he knows many “everyday people” who do not trust journalists, comparing them to politicians or used-car salespeople.
“I think that journalists and the media in general should address that as one of the [ways] to solve the financial problems,” he continues.
Across the board [. . .] newsrooms continue to downsize and even close.
Vahid, who immigrated to Canada in 2004 after a stint with BBC Persian, started his own outlet, Radio Doost, for the Persian community in the Greater Toronto Area. He says after studying ethnic media in Toronto within the Persian, Russian and Indian communities, he sees a level of disconnect between ethnic media and their audiences as well.
“Most of the Persian magazines in Toronto, their first stop is what the other websites are writing. Copy, paste, at best translate some stuff from CBC,” he explains.
Vahid says that if ethnic media outlets generated original content instead by talking to community members about everyday problems and issues, it would draw more interest from their audiences and make them “lively and fresh” rather than “second-hand”.
Crawley alluded to this on the panel. “If you are delivering appropriate content that’s in demand, people will pay,” he said.
Ensuring high standards
Crawley went on to say that part of the solution is about hiring the best talent for the job so that publications can produce the highest level of journalistic material.
“If you’ve got the right content, it doesn’t matter what platform,” he said.
In the case of ethnic media outlets, often the individuals working on them are not journalists, Vahid says, which poses a heightened challenge. Recent research published by the 2015 Global Media Journal supports this claim.
“First and foremost, the ethnic media should be educating itself, taking short-term programs to learn about what is journalism in a professional way,” Vahid says.
[Vahid] he sees a level of disconnect between ethnic media and their audiences as well.
He suggests that mainstream media organizations like the Star, The Globe, La Presse and CBC can lend a hand with this.
“Maybe they can provide some help for the ethnic and community media organizations by internships, training them, helping them to establish a better professional code of standards, that kind of help.”
This can be mutually beneficial, Vahid explains, because newcomer communities often don’t engage with mainstream media at first due to things like language barriers or a lack of understanding of the major political issues.
If these large organizations offer support to outlets that are newcomers’ first point of contact in Canada, they’re more likely to earn their readership later on.
Finding a business model that works
At the beginning of the night, the Star’s Cruickshank noted that this is one of the most exciting times for journalism because of the many ways that storytelling has evolved. He says a new standard for news is being set in our society.
The problem, as he saw it, was whether or not a particular business model could sustain this exciting stage in journalism.
For Vahid, it’s been a time of rebuilding. The Richmond Hill, Ontario resident put his radio show on hold in 2015, with the plans of re-launching it as a multifaceted social enterprise that could offer services such as translation, public relations and more.
Though the idea of surviving these times as a niche or ethnic outlet may be daunting, Cruickshank says it’s possible.
“We have a wonderful daily Chinese newspaper called Sing Tao that publishes in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary … what you’ll see there is a really tremendous initiative in finding different ways of getting the product into the community,” he says.
“They’ve done very, very well. It’s there, there are [business models there], but it takes an enormous amount of energy to make it happen.”