By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Last year, I thought that Northwest Asian Weekly wouldn’t survive to see its 39th anniversary on Jan. 20, which also happens to be President-elect Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day. Some say I was smart to exploit a historical date for our inauguration issue. Nonsense. Thirty-nine years ago, I was just a naive and dumb journalist with zero experience running a newspaper. Toiling day and night, I was trying to rush the finished copy to the printer at 3 a.m.
The sole motivation to launch the Seattle Chinese Post, the first Chinese newspaper in the Pacific Northwest since 1927, was to stop community rumors and gossip—currently known as fake news. What I wanted was to provide the immigrant community facts and meaningful stories about the community. When too many American-born Chinese complained they couldn’t read Chinese, I finally said, “You win!” The Northwest Asian Weekly was born in 1983.
To survive the pandemic, we turned the clock back—something we haven’t done for two decades. I was ashamed at first. But if both publications can survive longer, it’s smart business. Cutting the Northwest Asian Weekly from 16 to 12 pages, and its sister paper Seattle Chinese Post from 28 to 24, and then 20 pages, were critical in saving money. What choice did we have when we lost more than half of our advertisers!
2020 was a challenging year, but was it the worst year in our 39-year history?
It’s the year of triumph and traumas, simultaneously. Toshiko Hasegawa, executive director of Washington State Commission on Asian American Affairs, was chosen to introduce presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren to an audience of 7,000 at the Seattle Center last February.
I was so proud that a young Asian American and female got the honor, and even happy to learn why she was picked. She said it was because of the Asian Weekly. What? We are just a tiny paper! I blogged that Hasegawa was the best Asian speaker of the year out of dozens of community events I attended. “I am sure that’s the reason,” Hasegawa said.
And there were many high points for us during the year, especially when we published three to four strong and hard news stories on our front page, including timely stories.
Reader Irene Mano who reads the Asian Weekly online, sent us a card last August.
“I really look forward every week to reading your comprehensive coverage of the whole Asian community locally, nationally, and internationally. Your articles and editorial are the most current and relevant among all the weekly publications I received.” Thank you Irene for your encouragement.
Despite adversities and hurdles related to social distancing, we never missed a single issue. My people worked very hard to ensure we have a quality issue every week, print and online, in both publications.
But reading the high number of infections and deaths every week was torture. And there was nothing we could do. We were in lockdown much of the year, and there’s nowhere we could go. The uncertainty, hopelessness, and desperation were killing us every day, while we struggled to do our job.
Still, 2020 wasn’t the worst year. The hardships we experienced in 2020 were different from the challenges in our first decade of operation. In the old days, I was an indecisive and inexperienced leader. It could also be the pressures of juggling a career while raising my young kids. But last year, I acted fast to implement changes, so we could prevent the consequence of a sinking ship.
There was hope, although we were slow to recognize that plenty of positive things did happen in the second half of 2020. As I reflected on New Year’s Eve, it was an amazing year! We made it through because of miracles and luck. Usually, we only realize how fortunate we were when everything is over.
The complexity, timing, and severity of the health crisis had created countless possibilities for us. Had the U.S. declared the country in a pandemic before Lunar New Year last February, the Asian Weekly would have lost all the New Year’s advertisements. That income helped us to stay afloat during our hardest months from March to May.
The COVID paradox
COVID destroyed and also rescued us. 2020 was the census year. With the virus spreading full steam, the census kept delaying its count and ethnic communities pushed the government not to undercount communities of color. Every time the count deadline was extended, we received advertisements. The advertisers liked our census stories. Seven organizations gave us ads, our lifeblood. Those were juicy accounts. The census campaign, which was supposed to end in May, extended all the way to September.
Compared to the 2010 Census, last year’s census had a much bigger budget to target people of color, thanks to the hard work of Asian community leaders and agencies who supported us, including the City of Seattle, TW Wang, Chinese Information & Service Center, and Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation Development Authority.
Zoom and COVID
Zoom made it easier for Asian Weekly’s online events coverage. It makes it easy for our freelance writers to say yes to our assignments. Because Zoom events are taped, writers can attend them on their own schedule in their own home. Before, covering a live event was time-consuming and costly due to travel expenses. And freelancers get paid little.
Zoom screenshots are ridiculously boring and predictable. Does anybody have ideas on how to make Zoom photos more exciting???
COVID inspires and quells
COVID inspires many story ideas, not just for my blog, but news coverage for much of 2020. It’s no surprise that we have increased many health stories and also received health advertisements. Adapting to COVID, working from home, and the impact of COVID in our community were all essential topics.
Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that it eliminates our special issues, such as travel, food, and live events. I miss writing travel stories. It cancels Asian Weekly’s annual events, such as our annual dinner, Entrepreneur of the Year luncheon, and the upcoming Lunar New Year Costumes contest and parade.
Those events not only provided us income and business for restaurants, which hosted our events, but it gave us fun, story tips, human interactions, and networking opportunities for all the guests. Many attendees just loved our events as there was so much energy in the room and opportunities to meet new friends.
Why 2021 will be hard
The news of the COVID vaccine will help with many of our challenges. But the storm is far from over for us in the media business.
This coming Lunar New Year will have a serious impact on Asian Weekly.
Already, several organizations, including Bellevue Square, have announced their celebrations will be virtual. Without live events, companies will slash their advertising budgets.
The pandemic has closed down many Asian restaurants, the bulk of our advertisers. It’s a chain reaction. When the community doesn’t do well, the Asian Weekly suffers. Many businesses have advertised for the sake of supporting an ethnic community paper in the past. With COVID, how can they support us when their fate is uncertain? Even when these businesses reopen, they might not have the money to advertise as it might take them a long time to recover. The other worry is, they will turn to social media instead of paid advertisements.
Without the census, health, election, and Lunar New Year ads, we have to seek many new supporters who see the value of preserving a community voice. Last year, we did receive some small grants and a loan. None of them are guaranteed for another year though.
If you say I don’t sound optimistic about 2021, I am just being honest about our new harsh reality. Hope is not a strategy, as many entrepreneurs said before. But it’s not just the Asian Weekly, the whole media business is in trouble—it has been for a long time. The pandemic hastens our fall.
But then, miracles could strike again in 2021—perhaps, in a weird manner—when we least expect it. And with your support, leads, and encouragement, we may be able to unlock the most difficult puzzle and create another miraculous year.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.