By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Thirty-four years of running a newspaper and learning how to turn struggles into miracles
Will newspapers last?
Bill Gates said no to a group of features editors in 1994 at the Edgewater Inn (now called the Edgewater Hotel).
“I will give you guys 12 to 15 years,” said Gates, who was keynote speaker for an editors conference. For the past two decades, print newspapers have been dying all over the U.S. and overseas.
The thought of which is next is an ever-present one. As the haunting trend continues, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association sent us good news recently: Newspapers are actually rebounding. In November 2015, newspapers saw a 16 percent gain in ad spending in the previous month, the biggest gain in half a year, according to Media Life Magazine.
However, that particular rebound didn’t make our own struggles lighter. Every week, I still feel like I’m raising a sunken ship, fighting merciless ocean currents to get our papers published.
But nobody pays much mind to these difficulties because the Northwest Asian Weekly, the only English weekly for the Asian community, has been appearing on stands for 34 years —never having missed an issue. My friends say, “You have done a good job in holding up the papers.”
While riding out the storm, it’s astonishing that my staff and I haven’t lost an inch of passion, nor have we lost our commitment to the community. I build, build, and build the company and community simultaneously — continuing to give back and still having fun while doing so!
Perhaps I am a bit quixotic! Or perhaps not?
One of my competitors has said, “I like your paper better than ours.” Wow! That unexpected acknowledgement and sincere compliment delight me with gratitude and exhilaration.
Every Thursday morning (publishing day), I read the Asian Weekly and its sister paper, the Seattle Chinese Post, inside and out with joy and pride. The end products reveal how much heart, sweat, and tears we pour in each week, how much we devote ourselves to the community.
People ask, “What’s your five-year plan?” Or “Who will take over?” My response is silence — because I don’t have a clue.
Print is ‘nonprofit’?
“Did you read that the Philadelphia Inquirer was sold to a nonprofit?” said a guy sitting next to me at a meeting at the Seattle Westin Hotel.
“I thought newspapers have been ‘nonprofit’ for the last decade,” jeered another fellow nearby.
The Inquirer, which was worth over $500 million in 2006, has shrunk to barely $50 million. Compared to the Inquirer’s revenue shrinkage, the Northwest Asian Weekly is not yet in dire straits! We might not be growing in revenue, but we pay our employees on time. No one has to worry about his or her next paycheck. Some competitors don’t pay family members for working, out of financial difficulty. I do. The last thing I want to do is to exploit my own son. I’d rather cut my own pay.
One area we refuse to cut down is the number of pages in both papers. (Chinese Post has been 32 pages each week and the Asian Weekly 16.) We could have chosen to cover fewer stories. We could have fewer color pages printed. We won’t do it, though. If I, as publisher, ‘reject’ the product, how could we expect readers to pick it up?
Yes, getting advertising is harder. Labor and distribution costs are up. Fortunately, despite hurdles, a new phenomenon has emerged in the past few years.
The challenge is: Asian Weekly has no sales team. We don’t even have one full-time sales representative. This is different from many ethnic and mainstream media, which have more salespersons than editorial staffmembers.
However, after our 30th anniversary, I noticed that potential advertisers approach us more and more.
Some are our fans, some strangers, and others are corporations, including successful national Asian American advertising companies. (Thank God. It must’ve been our reward for three decades of toil.)
“Are you buying ads from the Asian Weekly?” Al Sugiyama once asked a nonprofit’s director. Al suggested the director buy at least $1,000 worth of ads each year. If every Asian nonprofit organization only spends $500 a year in advertising with us, we would be in good shape!
Al’s point is, the community needs the Asian Weekly as a voice, and it shouldn’t take the Asian Weekly for granted. Al’s words touched me deeply. Ethnic media need more Als. Another group that I have to give thanks to is Uwajimaya, who has been advertising with us for the entire 35 years. What a wonderful record! There are so many who have supported us, and we’d like to thank all our fans out there.
Frequently, our weeks begin with nightmares —no dynamic news stories for the front page and only a few advertisements on hand. The challenge is always: How do we cook up 16 pages of exciting news and interesting information?
What goes on behind every Asian Weekly issue are stories unto themselves! These are stories about how, from start to finish, we shape the impossible and make it possible, make it beyond anyone’s imagination!
Take last December. Why do we think we had so many Top 10 issues and listicles? We were facing an uphill battle — no news and no ads — coinciding with our editor’s departure. To fill pages, one alternative is to have writers pad stories, have editors dig up extraneous content and photos to fill pages. But I object to publishing long and boring stories. Today, readers don’t have time to read irrelevant articles. They want information connected to their lives.
So we milked every year-end angle we could think of — Top 10 empowering articles in everything, from Asian Pacific American (APA) celebrities to athletes to achievements. And we did it for not just two, but four consecutive weeks. What APAs have accomplished is incredible!
Every Tuesday and Wednesday right before we go to press, it seems “luck just falls from the sky” as one of my staffmembers said. Someone who has not stepped foot in our office for a decade suddenly knocked on our door, delivering ads. Someone who was not our supporter showed up, giving us business. My jaw dropped instantly. I was puzzled. What have we done to win them over?
When we have no ads, we create opportunities. Rather than sell products (like the New York Times), we do events! It might sound silly to other media, being an event-organizing engine, but we enjoy them, and all we need are good ideas.
Although events are not 100 percent profitable, it’s fun to meet people and to bring the community together. It also generates story ideas. Serendipitously, potential advertisers show up. Spotlighting unsung heroes at our events is a win-win for both the honorees and the Asian Weekly. The events have grown over the years, yet I am still astonished to see some lobby for an Asian Weekly award.
In addition to being generally short staffed, the Asian Weekly has had a new editor every year since 2010 for obvious reasons — they are overworked and underpaid. It’s been difficult, but I am proud of those who have good jobs now because of the training they received at the Asian Weekly. Former editor Charles Lam, for one, is now working in digital media for NBC in New York.
Thank God Chinese Post staff members have been with us for decades. Watching my staff grow is satisfying. I remember some came to the United States with language barriers and no skills. But they have learned and have transformed the company. My own people inspire me every day. To survive, our team has to be multi-skilled. We are generalists, not specialists. And that’s how Asian Weekly lives to be 34!
We might not have tomorrow, but what we have is the present. Every issue is a gift no matter how close the guillotine is. If you readers have ideas for a more successful formula for ethnic media, please let us know. (end)
Assunta Ng can be reached at email@example.com.