Student reporters dug deeper into local news issues based on research presented at Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future, a conference held June 3-4, 2017 at Ryerson University in Toronto. Here’s what they found.
By ABBY PLENER
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 from within their respective communities and run by a small staff or sometimes 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 recent local news conference hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, 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 although some ethnic media producers do have a journalism background, many are generating content for the first time. That said, “there’s a tremendous appetite for that kind of training,” he noted.
Ahadi says it’s problematic to think of ethnic communities as homogenous 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.”
Abby Plener is a master’s candidate at the Ryerson School of Journalism. Her work has been featured on CBC Radio along with bylines in NOW, Spacing, Shameless and the Ryerson Review of Journalism.