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This is one of a series of features, news articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. To read more about the conference and local news, visit: localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

By ABBY PLENER
Staff reporter

The Canadian Ethnic Media Association’s upcoming directory will list more than 1,200 outlets currently operating in Canada.

Mohamed Busuri leads the way upstairs from the small retail stores on Weston Road, past the beauty boutique on the first floor, to his office. A Somali Canadian Times label is laminated on the door of his one-room office, which has just enough space for a green screen, lighting equipment, a newsstand full of past issues, three chairs and a single desk. Hanging on the walls are photos and medals from the six different soccer teams he coaches, a journalism and business certificate from Seneca College and a press pass from the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada.

For the past decade, Busuri has run the biweekly publication serving Toronto’s Somali community. He is the publisher, editor and only full-time employee. He has two part-time staff and three other freelancers who help produce the paper, which sells for 50 cents at local shops. Busuri pulls out the latest issue, which includes a half-page message from Premier Kathleen Wynne wishing the community Ramadan Mubarak on behalf of the Ontario Liberal Party.

“There are so many newcomers who don’t speak English,” Busuri says, noting that most of the paper is written in Somali. About 20 per cent is reserved for English content because, he says, second-generation immigrants may not speak their parents’ language. He views the paper’s role as educational, and has regularly interviewed local politicians including members of Parliament and Mayor John Tory. “We need to let people know the system and ask how our community will benefit,” he says.

When Busuri moved to Canada 20 years ago, he worked in the advertising department at Corriere Canadese, an Italian-language newspaper. His Italian, he jokes, was better than his English at the time. One of his colleagues encouraged him to start his own paper, which he did in 2007. At one point, there were six other Somali publishers in Toronto. Now, the Somali Canadian Times is the only one left standing.

It hasn’t been easy. While ethnic media outlets cover both local community news and homeland news, many have trouble staying afloat. “Many of them operate as small businesses and the rate of success for ethnic media remains fairly low,” says Daniel Ahadi, who researches ethnic media at Simon Fraser University. “It can take up to a decade to become established, and many of them fold before that.”

Publications with a longer lifespan are more likely to get press releases from government agencies and be invited to press conferences, but those with smaller circulation often fly under the radar. While the Parliamentary Press gallery has 324 members, only 10 are from ethnic media outlets. Yet there are hundreds of publications like the Somali Canadian Times across the country.

The catch-all term “ethnic media” refers to a wide range of outlets. Many are “mom and pop” shops, supported largely by local advertisers in their respective communities and run by a small staff or even volunteers. On the other end of the spectrum, there are larger media entities like Sing Tao Daily, a Chinese-language paper owned by a Hong Kong-based company and the Toronto Star, with daily editions published in three Canadian cities. Some have access to the Canadian Press wire service, but many don’t, and providing quality translations of government notices can pose its own set of challenges. According to marketing consultant Andrés Machalski, who specializes in multilingual media, some have more ambitious journalistic objectives, while others “are basically commercial vehicles for retailers in that ethnic community.”

The content in ethnic media is often split between Canadian news and news from the country of origin. Researchers suggest this balancing act represents the dual sense of identity immigrants experience: as Canadians and as representatives of their home country. But as University of Toronto journalism professor Sherry Yu explained to attendees at a local news conference hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre in June 2017, this division is not simply an editorial choice – it’s an economic one. Because many ethnic outlets are under-resourced, they lack the capacity for consistent coverage of Canadian issues.

“Obviously they don’t have the same infrastructure as mainstream media,” says George Abraham, founder of New Canadian Media, an online news source for Canadian immigrants. “I can’t think of a single ethnic media outlet that does justice to local [Canadian] politics,” he says, noting that for many ethnic outlets, a substantial amount of coverage is devoted to their country of origin instead Canadian politics

During the last two federal elections, support from ethnic communities was key for both the Liberals and Conservatives, and the multilingual press became a major vehicle for courting these votes. Former immigration minister Jason Kenney said he paid close attention to ethnic press, reading translated summaries as a part of his morning routine. In her study on the 2011 election, Ryerson University local news researcher April Lindgren noted that the Conservatives got the most coverage in Toronto’s ethnic media. Because these newsrooms often have limited budgets, they may be more willing to accept content, photo-ops or press releases provided by various political parties. In part because of Canada’s first-past-the-post system, targeting ridings where specific ethnic groups cluster can be a winning strategy for candidates, and cities with diverse populations like Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver become major battlegrounds.

While many mainstream Canadian media outlets struggled to gain access to Stephen Harper during the 2011 election, the former prime minister made himself available for the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada (NEPMCC), which aims to foster networking opportunities for ethnic outlets. The council includes member organizations from more than  700 ethnic media outlets.

Though NEPMCC president Thomas Saras welcomed Harper’s appearance, the meeting was criticized by Madeline Ziniak, chair of the Canadian Ethnic Media Association (CEMA). She told the Globe and Mail it was simply a photo-op for Harper to connect with ethnic voters, with no substantial opportunities for questions.

Because of the Globe interview, Ziniak says she was “blacklisted by Stephen Harper,” and stopped getting press releases and event invites from his staff. “I have to say, some editors and publishers do like having photographs taken with leadership. They put it up on the wall in their office. But that’s not enough. You need to have the conversation and not only to call upon ethnic media when there are elections.”

She says “it’s very important to have ethnic media be a trusted source and contribute to good Canadian citizenry.”

Abraham is concerned about the disproportionate attention paid to ethnic media during campaign periods. “I think the interest is very superficial. It’s what I would call ‘parachute journalism’. It’s not connected to the community,” he says. During the last election, Abraham encouraged writers at New Canadian Media to report on their respective ridings and represent their communities’ interests.

Since Abraham launched New Canadian Media in 2014, the organization has provided a series of free workshops for journalists who report for ethnic media outlets. He hopes to expand the program if funding allows, but admits training can be challenging in these newsrooms because, while some ethnic media producers do have a journalism background, many are generating content for the first time. But “there’s a tremendous appetite for that kind of training,” he says.

Ahadi says it’s problematic to think of ethnic communities as homogeneous voting blocks. For example, he says many in B.C. assume members of the Chinese community are strident Conservative supporters, but that logic was disproven with the most recent provincial election results.

Politicians seeking to court voters from diverse backgrounds have run into controversy before: In 2013, a leaked document from the B.C Liberals revealed an extensive ethnic outreach plan, including directions to develop an ethnic media strategy. In a joint paper published by Ahadi and Yu, the authors noted that Korean media in Vancouver played an important role educating readers on how to vote during the 2008 federal election.

The walls of Saras’ NEPMCC office is covered with photos of past prime ministers. When asked why Harper made meetings with him while ignoring other media outlets, Saras replies “This is baloney. They just don’t know how to play the game.” Saras went on to describe the effort he made to comply with requests from Harper’s security detail to ensure all guests at the NEMPCC meet-and-greet were properly vetted.

Saras organizes monthly meetings which usually feature a guest speaker. At the most recent meeting, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horvath delivered a prepared speech about her party’s plan to reduce electricity costs, then stayed for 45 minutes while editors from various ethnic outlets asked questions. Afterwards, members lined up to take photos with the politician, while her staff passed out printed copies of her speech. Prior to Horvath’s appearance, Saras alerted the 50 members in attendance that there would be an upcoming press conference hosted by the Canadian Armed Forces, and that he was asked to bring “as much ethnic press as possible.” He also encouraged attendees to join the Iftar celebration hosted by one of its members.

Saras says he often gets requests from government agencies and politicians seeking to connect with other members of the ethnic press. At his office, he points to an inbox full of press releases that he forwards to members regularly.

Ahadi says that few ethnic publishers in Vancouver are aware of the Toronto-based CEMA and NEPMCC, despite their supposedly national reach. At the same time, these groups are trying to fill a void in a media landscape where little collective infrastructure exists, and ethnic outlets remain separate from one another and mainstream media. As Yu wrote in a recent paper, “No matter how loud ethnic media owners shout about the growing potential of the ethnic market, their voice is met with cold indifference by the industry stakeholders who are not convinced about the value of ethnic minorities as a commodity and market.”

Because of the volatility in the news sector industry, it’s difficult to ascertain how many ethnic publications are currently operating in Canada. To this end, CEMA is currently developing a directory of ethnic outlets. After surveying radio, print, online and television platforms across Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, Ziniak says more than 1,200 media entities have been added to the directory thus far.

Ziniak says the federal government needs to expand its diverse languages program to help support ethnic media. For its 2017-2018 budget, the diverse languages program will receive $3 million out of a nearly $350 million dollar budget – an amount Ziniak says is not proportionate to the audience served by ethnic media. She also says the CRTC needs to make it easier for independent producers, like ethnic media outlets, to apply for broadcast funding.

Ziniak, a former national vice president of  OMNI Television, a multilingual news network that suffered substantial layoffs in 2015 when Rogers cut its newscasts, said public broadcasters should also play a bigger role in delivering multilingual content, a recommendation Ahadi and his fellow researcher Catherine Murray have also championed. Ahadi points out that in the United Kingdom and Germany, public radio services operate in multiple languages. In fact, Ontario Settlement services direct newcomers to BBC World service to get their news.

“I think it should be a national priority to invest in ethnic media,” says Abraham. “Media plays a big role in making new immigrants feel a part of the national fabric…It will take resources, and professional development and it’s a very fragmented industry. Something has to change and I hope something will in the not so distant future.”

By ISABELLE DOCTO
Special to the RJRC

Photo reprinted courtesy of The City of Brampton

Photo reprinted courtesy of The City of Brampton

Efforts by the City of Brampton to reach newcomers through ethnic media will be an important test of how municipalities can better communicate with newcomers, particularly those who struggle with English, new research suggests.

The study, by Ryerson University journalism professor April Lindgren, examines the evolution of Brampton’s ethnic media strategy over the past decade.

“I knew that [Brampton] had a large number of media that served the Punjabi-speaking community,” Lindgren said. “A decade or so ago, a research study showed that the city’s policies in general weren’t all that welcoming to newcomers. But then in 2015 Brampton introduced a new ethnic media policy that is probably the most pro-active in the country. I wanted to investigate the reasons for this dramatic shift in attitude.”

Lindgren said local ethnic newspapers, websites and television programs play a key role in making local news and information accessible to immigrants, particularly those who are not fluent in English or French.

“Telling local stories is a really important role for ethnic media,” she said. “It helps newcomers to understand everything from the practical things, like what are the rules for clearing snow off the sidewalk, to intangible things such as what does this society value.”

Methodology

Lindgren used Kristin R. Good’s book “Municipalities and Multiculturalism: The Politics of Immigration in Toronto and Vancouver” as the starting point for examining Brampton’s evolving communication policy. Good’s 2004 fieldwork showed that Brampton officials were generally unresponsive to the dramatic demographic changes happening in the city. The city’s population surged by more than 60 per cent between 2001 and 2011, mostly the result of immigration. More than 17 per cent (91,345 people) of city residents now identify Punjabi as their mother tongue, which Statistics Canada says makes it the second most frequently spoken language after English.

The number of ethnic media outlets also expanded rapidly so that today about 50 ethnic news organizations — including 40 that target South Asian groups — receive press releases from the city.

Brampton’s communications department tried to reach out to its newest residents in 2007 by expanding the distribution of English-language news releases to include ethnic media. But Lindgren’s research showed this didn’t have much effect.

Her content analysis of the Canadian Punjabi Post, one of the higher profile Punjabi-language publications in Brampton, identified 480 news items about the Greater Toronto Area published over a three-week period in 2011. While 157 of the news items were about Brampton, only three pertained to city hall matters.

“When we looked at the Canadian Punjabi Post we found that there was actually very little Brampton city news in the paper. So clearly the city’s message wasn’t getting through – it wasn’t enough to just send out those English-language press releases to ethnic media,” Lindgren said.

Significant changes

In 2013 the city hired a specialty media coordinator who speaks and reads Punjabi. And then, in 2015, Brampton councillors embraced an expanded ethnic media strategy, approving an additional $408,937 to hire a second specialty media coordinator and engage an ethnic media monitoring service. The money was also allocated to translate some key corporate communications materials and all press releases into French and the 10 most commonly spoken languages other than English.

Although the original plan was scaled back, the city council did commit to funding the translation of media releases into French, Punjabi, Urdu and Portuguese for a trial period until the end of 2015.

In the paper, Lindgren attributes Brampton’s attempts to reach out to residents via ethic media to rapid demographic shifts that caused “friction between newcomers and other residents.” The tensions, she said, pointed to the need for a more proactive policies to foster better intercultural understanding.

Major changes to the local council as a result of the 2014 municipal also helps explains the shift in direction, Lindgren wrote, noting that Brampton’s new mayor, Linda Jeffrey, “championed the expansion of ethnic media services.”

Lindgren suggested the new policy is symbolically important for Brampton’s multicultural communities: “I don’t think you can underestimate the symbolic importance of what the city’s done in terms of saying ‘we recognize these media outlets as being part of the established media’ in a sense and as being legitimate and valuable way to get their message out,” she said in an interview.

She speculated that the changes may lead to more city hall coverage in the ethnic media because the “staffing and financial constraints that plague many small news organizations suggest that a ready supply of translated local news may be to some degree irresistible.”

In a recent news report, however, the publisher of the Canadian Punjabi Post argues that better access to city politicians would be more helpful than translated press releases.

“The city is spending a lot of money on translation, which is not worth it as I have to rewrite the releases. This does not make sense to me,” Jagdish Gewal told New Canadian Media.

“My reporters are capable of writing news in English and Punjabi.”

Meanwhile, the trial period for Bampton’s expanded ethnic media strategy has been extended and a report on its effect will be discussed by council in the next few months, a city official said.

Lindgren’s paper, “Municipal Communication Strategies and Ethnic Media: A Settlement Service in Disguise,” was published in the 2015 fall Issue of the Global Media Journal — Canadian Edition, Multicultural Media and Immigrant Integration.