There is no "digital first" strategy at 169-20 Hillside Avenue, a nondescript shop offering photo services, money transfers and video rentals in Jamaica, Queens. From its basement, Khalil ur Rehman, a first generation Pakistani immigrant, has been publishing the Urdu Times for over two decades.
In his office are two computers, a fax machine, and a phone. “Before, we used to actually have a printing press here,” said Rehman, amid the distant rumble of the F-train that passes under every few minutes. Less frequently, water discharged from a toilet above noisily whooshes down a pipe next to the publisher’s desk.
It’s a barebones operation, but Rehman’s weekly newspaper has 14 editions today, with a total of nearly 100,000 copies printed every week. These include nine cities across the United States, and standalone editions in Canada and the United Kingdom. “Now, I’m trying to see if I can start an edition in the Middle-East,” he said in early March. “I’m travelling there next week.”
At a time when the death of print media is regularly predicted, Rehman's Urdu Times is going strong. And it isn’t alone.
There are close to a hundred ethnic newspapers in New York City with a combined readership of 2.94 million, almost a third of the city’s total population, according to the New York Press Association.
Together this collection of monthly, weekly, and daily newspapers are part of a larger ecosystem: More than 270 community and ethnic publications in 36 languages that are published in New York. In the last two years alone, at least 21 new ethnic newspapers have been launched. In contrast, the number of daily newspapers in the United States has dropped from 1,480 in 2000 to 1,382 in 2011.
But these small publications, often run out of basements such as Rehman’s, are surviving—and occasionally even thriving, riding the coattails of the city’s burgeoning immigrant population. More than 3 million of New York’s 8.2 million residents are foreign-born, the city’s planning department estimates—the highest percentage of immigrants since the European influx of the 1930s.
Javier Castaño is among them. The Colombia-born journalist started out as a reporter for the United States’s oldest Spanish-daily, El Diario La Prensa. Eventually, he rose to become the editor-in-chief of Hoy Nueva York, a free Spanish-language daily. In 2008, Hoy’s print edition was shuttered, and Castaño fired.
Instead of finding another job, Castaño decided to turn publisher. He started the Queens Latino, an online news outlet focusing on Queens’s Spanish-speaking community. It’s a huge demographic bloc: More than 27 percent of the borough’s 2.3 million residents are of Hispanic or Latino origin. A few months later, he launched a monthly newspaper.
“They say that Latinos use the Internet in a strong way and they go to see videos all the time,” explained Castaño, sitting at his home-office in Jackson Heights. “But I don’t think they are getting the news still via the Internet. So you need that newspaper.” The Queens Latino currently prints about 15,000 copies every month.
A 2005 study by Bendixen & Associates, "The Ethnic Media in America: The Giant Hidden in Plain Sight," claimed that almost a quarter of America’s population read the ethnic press. Of this, 29 million were primary consumers, alongside another 22 million secondary consumers that “prefer mainstream media but access ethnic media on a regular basis."
Two decades of rapid growth in immigration—13.2 million new arrivals between 1990 and 2000, and 14 million from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—have strengthened the ethnic press market.
This captive readership is also the bedrock of the business model. Businesses seeking to target immigrant communities often find more value in advertising in these small publications than the mainstream press.
Disruptions like Craigslist, which has bled dry classified sections of large print publications, have had limited impact on these publications. The foreign-language ethnic press is reaching an audience that isn’t necessarily online and doesn’t always understand English. Nearly a quarter of New York’s population, according to the U.S. Census data, isn’t proficient in English.
The result is that many of these publishers can still support their operations with revenue from print advertising. Castaño, for example, makes 90 percent of his money from print ads, with the majority coming from local businesses. “I’ve been profitable since the beginning,” he told me.