This story is part of a series highlighting stories from the front lines of local news reporting in Virginia. It is presented as part of the Virginia Local News Summit, co-hosted with the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy which took place April 20-21, 2023.
By Christopher Connell for Foothills Forum
Newspapers that specialize in covering the interests and concerns of Black Americans, ethnic groups, gay readers and other targeted groups face the same economic and demographic challenges that buffet general-interest newspapers in Virginia, including declining ad revenues and aging readerships.
For those that publish in the native language of immigrants, they must deal with the reality that the more fully Americanized second and third generations may not read that language as well as their elders.
Young people and, increasingly, older ones also now prefer getting news online rather than thumbing through print weeklies with stories that may quickly get stale.
These special-interest news organizations are scrambling to beef up their websites to capture their audiences and convince businesses and public entities to buy the ads that keep the news enterprise going, especially since many such community weeklies are given away for free.
“The problem that weeklies and specialized newspapers have is not dissimilar from the problems that print media has had more generally. Subscriptions have gone down and they’ve had to transition online,” said University of Richmond historian Julian Hayter, whose 2017 book The Dream is Lost examined the role of the Black press in the struggle for voting rights in the former capital of the Confederacy.
A special challenge for urban African-American papers such as the Richmond Free Press was that “their communities were becoming more diffuse as people began to move to suburbs. They had to appeal to an audience no longer centralized in segregated communities,” he said.
Henry Lewis Suggs, emeritus professor of American history at Clemson University and author of several books on the Black press, said these papers played a very important role during the struggle for civil rights, but now face “the same kind of issue that the white press is dealing with. They are not going to become extinct, I don’t think, but they’re certainly going to face new challenges.”
Among them is capturing the interest of “a new generation who knows nothing about the struggle, who are very much integrated into society and who don’t see a need for a separate press,” Suggs said. “But I think as we move into the next generation, there will be even more need for it.”
According to the State of Local News 2020 report from the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media, there are 951 ethnic news outlets – newspapers, online websites, and radio and television stations – across the nation.
The Center for Community Media at the City University of New York Newmark Graduate School of Journalism counted 624 Latino news outlets of all types across the United States and nearly 300 that serve Black communities. (Newspapers are only a portion of those numbers and they include monthlies and lifestyle publications.)
The Center’s Latino Media Initiative said that with the immigrant population most outlets target declining, the large majority of U.S.-born Latino millennials and younger “increasingly prefer to get their news from the Internet and English-language news sources.”
Even publications with built-in audiences face economic pressures that buffet the newspaper business. The Arlington Catholic Herald, the biweekly newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, prints 110,000 copies, most of which it mails to the homes of parishioners in 21 counties from Northern Virginia to the Blue Ridge and down to Kilmarnock on the Northern Neck. Its expressed purpose is to assist the church’s evangelization efforts with blanket coverage of Pope Francis, Bishop Michael Burbridge and their activities and priorities.
Parishes, not individual subscribers, pay for the paper, which also relies on ad revenues. “Advertising declined during the pandemic, reflecting the overall economy’s downturn. Since then, it increased gradually over time,” said Kevin Sweers, the executive editor. “The return in full of in-person events has helped bring back additional advertisers promoting meetings, conferences, etc.”
The paper has its own website, distributes a weekly newsletter with links to articles and promotes the online content through social media.
Here’s a look inside four other specialty publications, including two based in Washington but providing extensive coverage of Virginia.
LGBTQ editor is optimistic: ‘Many of us pivoted’
The 54-year-old Washington Blade, the country’s oldest LGBTQ news publication, has not been immune to financial pressures wrought by COVID-19. Some of the stores and restaurants where readers picked up the weekly were closed during the pandemic, and the print circulation is down from 25,000 to roughly 20,000. Sixty-four-page papers were the norm in 2019; now they are usually 40 pages.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story, says Kevin Naff, the top editor, who leads a news staff of nine, also smaller than before COVID. “We’ve got 300,000 unique readers a month online.”
“I would caution you that the news isn’t so dire as it sometimes comes off when it comes to discussing media outlets in 2023,” said Naff. “The pandemic hit everybody hard, but many of us pivoted and are not just surviving but thriving.”
Naff is a veteran of 20 years at the Blade, which has a younger sister paper in Los Angeles.
“Virginia has always been part of what we consider our local audience,” he said. “I know of no other publication right now in Virginia that covers LGBTQ exclusively.”
The commonwealth has been a big source of news in recent years, including the 2017 election of the country’s first transgender state legislator and, more recently, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s moves against school district accommodations for transgender students.
The Blade puts on events and has other revenue-producing ventures. “We’re not a newspaper company. We’re a media company,” said Naff. “We distribute our concert through multiple channels and we make money through multiple, different revenue streams. We’re not sitting around putting out a print newspaper in 2023 and complaining about dwindling revenue.”
The Blade began in 1969 as a one-page, typed newsletter called The Gay Blade that was distributed in bars in the nation’s capital. Today it comes out on Fridays in a colorful edition stuffed with ads and updates dozens of local and national stories daily on the web.
“You have to remember that not everyone is web savvy and online. There are still people who prefer the print copy to hold in their hands,” Naff said. “You’re not going to pick up the print copy for breaking news, obviously, but it functions as a week in review.”
The Blade’s parent went bankrupt in 2009, but it reemerged under new ownership.
Nobody thinks print “is going to last forever, but as long as there are readers and advertisers to support it, we’ll keep publishing it,” he said. “I’m platform agnostic. I don’t care if you read us in print or on your phone or somewhere else as long as you read it.
“There are folks who have been reading us for decades, and so there’s a loyalty there. But I wouldn’t say it’s easy to hold onto readers. There are so many options nowadays. We compete for all of the eyeballs that we can,” he added.
“We try to stay relevant and innovate. We’re always making sure that we’re out, holding events and meeting our readers face to face to cultivate those connections …. We do have loyalty, because of our longevity, but we don’t take any readers for granted.”
A Spanish-language site hopes a national audience will let it expand locally
Washington and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs have had a Spanish-language weekly, El Tiempo Latino, since 1991. The Washington Post acquired the company in 2004, aiming to reach the growing local Spanish-speaking community, then approaching a half-million. It may have hoped to emulate the success of the Miami Herald with its El Nuevo Herald in an even larger Hispanic market. At the time, the Post reported, there were two dozen weekly Spanish-language newspapers in the Washington area.
But in 2016, the Post sold El Tiempo Latino to El Planeta Media, the Boston publisher of El Planeta, the largest Spanish-language paper in Massachusetts, saying the new owner “could devote the time and resources that would enable it to grow.” The owner and publisher is a Venezuelan-American businessman, Javier Marin.
Today, El Tiempo Latino distributes 45,000 copies of the weekly, but also publishes newsletters – three daily and one weekly – with 10,000 subscribers. All are free. The website emphasizes national and international news in hopes of gaining a following across the country.
The print paper, by contrast, emphasizes local stories on the front page, such as the formation of a nonprofit organization for Hispanic women in construction, a large Virginia auto dealership becoming employee-owned, and a group seeking more mentors for Hispanic teens. Bannered under the masthead are the words in English “Knowledge and Diversity for Progress.”
“One of the objectives when we bought it was to keep the physical paper strong but to also build the online presence,” said Rafael Ulloa, executive vice president for content of both El Planeta and El Tiempo Latina. “That’s our strategy now, trying to become the equivalent of the New York Times or the Washington Post in Spanish for the U.S. Latinos.
“Between our website, social media and newsletters, we reach about seven million people every month,” said Ulloa, who runs El Tiempo from a WeWork office in Washington with two full-time reporters, an editor and two other reporters on retainer. Ulloa also reports some himself.
Ulloa would like to hire two more reporters to cover Hispanic-interest news in Virginia alone, but to do that El Tiempo needs to generate more revenues from the online offerings that appeal to a national audience, he said. “That’s our strategy. The more pages and the more local news we can include, then that’s better for everyone – for us and for the community.”
A daily newspaper in Korean
The Korea Times is the only ethnic daily newspaper in Virginia, publishing five days a week plus a full-scale online edition on Saturdays. It is based in Annandale, a Fairfax County community that has long been a magnet for immigrants from South Korea.
When the Korean-language paper began publishing in 1969, it was part of the Korea Times in Seoul, but is now separate. It is one of five dailies owned by the company published across the United States and Canada (the Los Angeles edition is the largest).
Printed in full color, the Washington edition is a 40- to 48-page broadsheet that runs stories of local interest reported by its news staff of eight, as well as news from and about South Korea.
The paper is smaller than before the 2008 financial crisis. Back then 86-page papers were the norm. Jong Kook Lee, the chief editor for the past quarter-century, asked how he manages to put out a daily and hang on to readers, replied with a laugh: “It’s a top secret.”
But he acknowledged it isn’t easy.
The paper had a print run of 20,000 papers in the 1990s and into the next decade, but “after the 2008 financial crisis, the number of our readers was going down,” said Lee, 62, a native of Sangju, South Korea. “Our readers, like other newspapers’, usually are in their 60s and 70s.”
So, what does he foresee in 10 years?
“It’s a very difficult question,” the editor replied. “Maybe the size can be reduced, but Korea Times subscribers, they are immigrants. As long as Korean people are coming here to the U.S., we think this paper is going to exist.”
Deputy Editor Chang Yul Lee said a change in U.S. policy has allowed fewer immigrants from South Korea since 2010. “Before it was open, but now it’s closing,” he said.
Keeping Vietnamese culture alive
Suong Truong, owner and manager of the Viet Post (Hoa Thịnh Đốn Việt Báo), the oldest Vietnamese language newspaper in Northern Virginia, escaped her homeland in 1980 as one of the boat people fleeing communist rule. Her husband, Tuyen Huu Giang, was a former South Vietnam Navy officer who left after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Giang started the weekly in 1983, and despite financial challenges, his widow has kept it going uninterrupted since his death in 2004 – and added a website as well. From the beginning its mission has been not just to keep the Vietnamese immigrant community informed of news about the country they left, but also to keep alive the language and culture of Vietnam.
Like newspapers of all sizes and stripes, the Viet Post was struck a hard blow by COVID-19. “Our circulation was 5,000 copies a week,” Truong said. “Due to the impact of the pandemic, the newspaper’s income through advertising has decreased so much that we have had to reduce the weekly print circulation to only 2,000.”
Vietnamese immigrants form one of the largest foreign-born immigrant populations in the United States with upwards of 80,000 living in the Washington metro area, including Northern Virginia.
“A large number of our Vietnamese readers belongs to the first generation, so they are getting older and older,” said Truong. “That is the common situation – not just for me but for every other publisher.
“However, as long as they still need a newspaper with updated news stories and interesting articles in their native language, we think we must do our best to serve them, and that’s why we try to keep our business running,” she said.
A rival publication, Pho Nho, expired at the end of 2021 after 33 years. Pho Nho – literally “Small Town” – printed 10,000 copies a week and distributed them through Vietnamese shops, restaurants and other establishments.
“It was not easy at all to maintain a print edition given the Internet and everything. It’s really hard to stay in business,” said co-owner and former editor Peter Dao, 74, who was a young journalist in South Vietnam before the fall of Saigon. But he’s encouraged that the Viet Post is pressing on.
Truong relies on a staff of four, some of them volunteers, working from their homes. Cong Nguyen, a system engineer by profession, contributes part-time with the editing and special community event reporting. He, too, came to the United States to escape communist rule. “Publishing a newspaper is not a good business to make money, but it fills a spiritual need and passion to us and the Vietnamese community,” Nguyen said. “We believe that when the Vietnamese language is alive, our country still exists.”