Melbourne’s ethnic press in the new media age

10 May 2010

Written by: Kelly Theobald

With glassy eyes and a sigh of nostalgic reflection, a man stands upon the scuffed linoleum of a busy newsagent. His dark olive skin is an intricate river system of deep, twisting lines. Emotion and anguish bleed onto his face as his eyes skim over the story on page one.

The headline on the newspaper he holds, Il Globo, reads “L’Aquila ricorda un anno dopo.” It is the one-year anniversary of the earthquake which killed 308 people, injured thousands and caused extensive damage to the hillside town of L’Aquila, Italy.

‘I used to live there, a very beautiful place you know,’ he muses in a thick Italian accent, as he hands over his money to the man behind the counter.

As he leaves, five young Vietnamese women approach the counter and buy the Chieu Duong and the Tivi Tuan – San, both Melbourne and Sydney-based Vietnamese newspapers.

‘I don’t know what they do, but these non-English language newspapers still sell very well,’ laughs the newsagent.

The ethnic press in Melbourne still appears to be vivacious and thriving. It may seem odd that while many leading mainstream newspapers in Melbourne are becoming increasingly fragile under the pressure of new media, the ethnic sphere is enduring the challenges posed.

For years ethnic newspapers have played a vital role in the integration and the social and geographic mobility of immigrant groups. Time and again they have found ways to connect people back to their homelands and nurture cultural yearning and belonging.

Allan Kaufman, the director of Leba Ethnic Media says that the ethnic press is trying to adapt to the internet in new and inventive ways.

‘The publications that have gone for an online presence haven’t necessarily made that move to provide up-to-date information; they have made it to strengthen their position in the media and community. A lot of publications utilize the internet to their own advantage by extending their offerings online.’

Virosh Perera, editor of the Serendib news, a Ski Lankan newspaper in Melbourne, said that while they already have a ‘very popular’ 3D print model of their newspaper online, they are in the process of launching a news website for the paper and looking at new ways to satisfy the ‘tech-savvy’ Sri Lankan community.

‘Online is static for a lot of newspapers’, says Perera. ‘They don’t know how to ‘make it happen’ for their readers. Online news should be interactive. In reality, we all have to keep news distribution alive. There is a million ways you could do this through the internet; it’s just a matter of finding those way and creating new channels of communication.’

Perera is excited by the prospect of what the internet could offer his readers. ‘We could reach a bigger audience of readers online for a fraction of the cost. We are looking at integrating social media into our strategy and creating a global portal. It could connect not only the Sri Lankan community, but anyone who is interested,’ he says.

Although the Serendib newspaper is only published monthly due to limited advertising and costs, it offers a vast range of overseas news and community related stories. Perera believes that the print version of Serendib is integral to the community.

‘We want to educate our community, keep them “in the know”. One of the best ways to do that is print media. People generally still like to sit down with a cup of tea and enjoy the articles at their own pace.’

The editor of the Dutch Courier, Cor Lefel, agrees that print is still an appropriate medium for news in ethnic communities.

‘The internet does not take precedence, the printed news does. The reason is costs as well as community news not having the same urgency as general news. At present, a newspaper is the best way to reach the community, especially the more senior members that are not and may never be on the internet,’ says Lefel.

The Dutch Courier will celebrate its fortieth anniversiary  thjs month. The paper publishes monthly and boasts a readership of 20,000. Lefel believes that ethnic media will always be in demand, as the readership consists of people who are constantly looking to stay in touch with their ‘old country’.

As well as the newspaper, the Dutch Courier also has an web page, but Lefel says it was mainly created ‘to help with the timely distribution for a newer generation Dutch’.

Ethnic media provides the type of news that mainstream or local Melbourne news outlets do not cover, which is one of the main reasons why non-English media is still blossoming and growing.

Andy Abramson, CEO of Comunicano, told the US-based Online Journalism Review that the ethnic press’ livelihood lies in its knowledge of its target audience. ‘You now have niche and micro targeted media. It’s not how many people read the story, or see the newscast, or hear the broadcast. It’s about who is reading, who is watching, and who is listening,’ he said.

Allan Kaufman of Leba Ethnic Media holds a similar view and attributes the understanding of their audience to the success of ethnic newspapers in Melbourne. ‘If they didn’t have a good understanding of their readers and interests, the publications would fold. They’ve got to be in touch with their community and know what they want to read and learn about,’ Kaufman explains.

Relatively small editorial teams work tirelessly to provide community coverage and editorial positions on ethnic relations, news and events within a community and greater news from around Australia and abroad. These concerns and interests in the community have influenced the expansion of many ethnic publications. Historically, most ethnic papers have been more concerned with providing a service to the community, tracking the scale of their readership. In concentrating on their readers’ needs, the ethnic newspapers have inevitably produced a very strong following.

Il Globo was one of the pioneers. With the influx of Italian immigrants into Australia in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, the Melbourne-based Italian newspaper, quickly became a mouthpiece for the Italian community. The paper was one of the first ethnic newspapers established in Australia. By 1982, the paper was published weekly, selling approximately 40,000 copies.  The paper now sells over 30,000 copies daily, with 25,000 selling in Melbourne alone.

A book celebrating 50 years of Il Globo’s service to Australia’s Italian community was released late last year by two Swinburne University academics. Co-author, Dr Bruno Mascitelli says the newspaper has gone from strength to strength and is continuing to do so, a trend seen in a lot of today’s ethnic newspapers.

‘The paper is still very relevant today. For first generation migrants who struggle to understand English, it gives them an opportunity to connect with and get more out of society,’ says Mascitelli.

It’s a familiar story for most ethnic papers. Like others, the Chinese Newspaper Group relies heavily on the trends affecting migration. The privately owned and operated company was established along with the Daily Chinese Herald in 1986. Since then, the company has expanded its operations to specific niche markets and the needs of each capital city.

The Chinese Melbourne Daily is published six days a week, and with a circulation of 8000, it is the largest Chinese newspaper sold in Melbourne. The newspaper covers a vast range of topics from council decisions to projects around Melbourne, to community group meetings and general news. The Chinese Newspaper Group has also created supplements for specific interests within the Chinese community. These include the Chinese Melbourne Property Weekly, Chinese Modern Living, Chinese Auto Weekly and an entertainment paper in the form of The Oz Weekly.

A part of this expansion is exploring digital marketing channels. The Chinese Newspaper Group has a comprehensive website which draws its contents from all nine of its papers. It features news from around the world, news videos, health trips and recipes, a free job seeker section and a property network.

A major development in the ethnic press over the past 20 years has been its ability to niche market and expand its horizons in light of what the readers want. Many publications are adapting to the new generation of young immigrants and their concerns. While most young immigrants will already know basic English, those that don’t will try to simulate better into the community by learning.

The media is adapting to these changes by producing magazines and interactive websites for the youth that are in English, but still have a strong ethnic focus. Leba Ethnic Media’s Allan Kaufman has noticed that publications have matured and become more sophisticated in recent years.

‘Publications have become more substantial. Media offerings are now fragmented. They used to be generalist newspapers like The Age and the Herald Sun, but now they’ve become more specialised.’

Kaufman has been working for Leba Ethnic Media for nineteen years and has assumed the position of Director for the past seven years. While Leba was initially an advertising agency, Kaufman says there was a need to service the foreign language media and Leba quickly evolved into a media representation company, uniting all ethnic media companies in Australia together and bringing them to advertisers in a professional and packaged manner. Today, they offer services in market identification, translation, production, dispatch, public relations and media planning and buying. Leba serves over 600 clients and represents over 200 ethnic newspapers and magazines.

Leba statistics show that the number of Australians consuming ethnic media has been growing enormously. Kaufman says the demand is overwhelming.

‘When I started in 1991 there were about 50 publications, now there are over 300 Australia-wide.’

Population growth is central to the success for the ethnic press. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported last month that Victoria is leading Australia in population growth. Record levels of immigration have led to this rise, with approximately 1200 people moving to Melbourne permanently each week. An increase of 451,900 people entered Australia last year, with 66 per cent from overseas migration.

Kaufman agrees that population growth has greatly influenced the trends of the ethnic media.

‘Media consumption is reliant on the life cycles within these community groups. For example, the Greek and Italian communities are now in their third generations in Australia so demand for their media is declining, whereas the Chinese are in their first generation the demand is rocketing.’

Yet while the current ethnic media landscape is thriving, how much longer will this growth persist and how much more life do these publications still have in them?

‘The ethnic press is going to have a promising future in Australia,’ Kaufman says.

The last census in 2006 revealed that 32 per cent of Melburnians spoke a language other than English. Leba Ethnic Media are expecting this figure to rise further in the 2011 Census. In the 2006 census, the three most commonly spoken languages other than English were Italian, Greek and Chinese. These communities are large, yet tight-knit and are expected to continue to develop and grow. Between 2000 and 2005, 72,136 Chinese people migrated to Australia. This number compares significantly to the 1970s when only 14,571 Chinese immigrants arrived in the country.

The ethnic press acts as a central access point for multicultural Australia, Editors of the ethnic press remain adamant that the internet will assist and expand the functions of traditional forms of ethnic media. Cyberspace has the power to strengthen communication and social networking within cultures, as well as helping immigrants adapt more easily into their new environment without losing ties to their old one. “I think there will be room for both on-line and printed news for a long time yet. As long as there is the demand, then why can’t they co-exist?” says The Dutch Courier’s Cor Lefel.

Elizabeth Bacchetti is a Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.