Do ethnocultural newspapers have a future in Canada?

By April Lindgren

If you walk for three short blocks along Bloor Street in my neighbourhood, just west of downtown Toronto, you can stop in shops and restaurants and collect more than 10 different newspapers in three or four different languages.

By April Lindgren

If you walk for three short blocks along Bloor Street in my neighbourhood, just west of downtown Toronto, you can stop in shops and restaurants and collect more than 10 different newspapers in three or four different languages.

They are among the dozens upon dozens of ethnocultural publications serving 200 immigrant and cultural communities in the Greater Toronto Area – a tangible expression of the region’s hyper diversity. The sheer number of publications, however, belies what is in many cases, a precarious existence. A 2012 survey of key personnel working for 223 ethnocultural news outlets in Canada (71 per cent of them newspapers) offers a glimpse of just how precarious.­­­­­

The federally funded survey, conducted by Seneca College and the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, found that 25 per cent of respondents work from home. Forty-three per cent said they “do not earn money from their work in ethnic media.”

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And more than half reported an average weekly circulation of fewer than 10,000 copies, making it a challenge to sell advertising to all but local businesses.

Respondents also bluntly outlined their concerns for the future – including concerns that help explain the recent cancellation of the print edition of Canadian Jewish News, the receivership status of ethnic newspaper publisher Multimedia Nova Corp. and the earlier demise of its Italian-language newspaper, Corriere Canadese. Some worried about disappearing audiences, as immigrant communities become more established and younger people abandon the language of their parents and grandparents. Others fretted about the threat posed by the Internet, which makes up-to-date news from immigrants’ countries of origin available 24 hours a day.

“As the current generation ages and dies, there will be less need for ethnic media as the newer generations integrate more with the Canadian community,” one survey respondent observed.

“The biggest challenge is our readers could access news all over the world,” fretted another. “The web takes away most of the newspaper business.”

For every Italian-language newspaper that disappears, however, others that serve more recent waves of South Asian, Chinese or Filipino immigrants appear on the street. Indeed, the thousands of newcomers who immigrate to Canada every year represent a lifeline for ethnocultural media.

Without doubt, a growing proportion of these new arrivals will be internet savvy and will use those skills to keep up with news from home by viewing websites from their country of origin.

At the same time, however, newcomers urgently need to figure out how things work in their adopted community. Immigrants, many of whom at least initially struggle with English, should be able to find the news and information they need to live and work in local ethnocultural media. Local news can introduce them to places they haven’t yet visited, to people they may never meet, to a political system they are unfamiliar with, and to the norms and mores of their new land.

To do this, however, ethnocultural news organizations need to actually publish information on local people, places and events. And therein is the problem because many of them carry very little local news at all. When I set out to examine local news content in ethnocultural newspapers as part of my ongoing  Local News Research Project at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, numerous publications were rejected as research subjects because they carried little or no local content.

The reasons for this are obvious – local news is much more expensive to gather, readers are more likely to spot errors that cause headaches, and the web is full of easy-to-access homeland news.

We eventually looked in detail at the content of four local newspapers, and found a wide variation in commitment to local news. While the weekly Russian Express devoted 39 per cent of its news items to local coverage compared to just five per cent to news from Russia, the three other newspapers paid much more attention to homeland news relative to local events. Twenty-six per cent of the stories and photos in Canadian Punjabi Post focused on local news versus 43 per cent that relayed news from home; 16 per cent of the news in the Korea Times Daily was local compared to 48 per cent from Korea; and eight per cent of news items in the Chinese-language publication Ming Pao dealt with Toronto-area matters compared to 52 per cent that reported on China.

Readers do want news from their countries of origin and that should included in local ethnocultural publications, but increasingly they will turn to the Internet for up-to-date information of that sort. What won’t be so readily available is news in Punjabi, Korean, Russian or written Chinese about the latest crisis involving Mayor Rob Ford, a proposed property tax increase, crime rates or the bike lane debate. Providing this sort of information gives ethnocultural media a competitive edge and paints a portrait of the GTA for readers that helps them understand how safe the city is, the cost of home ownership, and what their work colleagues mean when they go on about the “war on cars” or the need for everyone to share the road.

Boosting the profile of local news can be done at relatively low cost in some cases. A newspaper, for instance, could just put more of its existing local news content on the front page. The editor could invite an accountant from the community to write a piece on filing income tax returns in the run up to the April 30 deadline, a move that would provide essential information and encourage audience engagement.

Reporters could also rethink their approach to stories by “localizing” the news to reflect their publication’s audience. Is city council proposing a property tax hike? Ask readers from the paper’s target audience what they think, talk to senior citizens from the community who own homes about how this might affect them, or provide examples of how much the tax increase amounts to for houses in the newspaper’s circulation area.

Cities represent the first level of engagement for newcomers – they are where people look for their first jobs, find their first apartments, send their kids to school. Over time, they buy houses, start businesses and eventually vote. Ethnocultural newspapers that make a point of telling readers the stories they need to know about local life serve their communities, remain relevant and improve their odds of survival.

April Lindgren is an associate professor at the Ryerson University School of Journalism and leads the Local News Research Project. For more information on her research, go to