By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
In September 1981, when I dreamed of starting a newspaper, I was a mother with a baby and toddler. Most people called me nuts, thinking a woman should put her family first and ambition second. In addition, it would be a risky venture.
Yet four months later, the first Chinese newspaper in the Pacific Northwest was born. Little did I know that my publishing career would last for 30 years.
Jan. 20 marked the 30th anniversary of the Northwest Asian Weekly and Seattle Chinese Post.
Today, no one says I am insane. I have actually opened doors for Asian American leaders and many businesses, including nine other Chinese media. Despite economic woes, our newspapers have thrived during tough times. We might not have been rewarded financially, but our reputation in the community and news industry has risen to new heights. The fact that we have existed for 30 years exceeded everyone’s expectations, including mine.
Being the first is always a challenge. There are no role models to emulate. Critics can’t compare us to anyone else.
The skepticism I received at the beginning motivated me.
“Who’s really behind the paper?” one asked, suspecting that the paper was a front for me to further my political interests — to support either Taiwan or China.
If not politics, some suspected that I had other hidden agendas. But gee, I wasn’t smart or wealthy enough to think of using a newspaper (known for low profit margins) to cover my ploy if I had one. It might not be costly to start a newspaper now (due to easy desktop publishing), but it was then.
“Who are you?” some wondered. I was a stranger coming into the community to start a newspaper, instantly arousing suspicion.
“Do you have enough money to sustain it? How long will you last?” Many predicted that I would fail in six months, and some gave me a year.
The question people never asked aloud was shouldn’t a woman think of her family first and ambition second? Would she be tough enough to handle crises?
Today, such questions are irrelevant. No one doubts our motives for running quality newspapers. We have proven that we are fair and strive to cover a wide range of issues.
Decisions that can kill
For 30 years, we have made many good decisions as well as bad mistakes.
In the beginning, we wondered, should we go weekly or bi-weekly? Should we continue to have Chinese and English editions? Should we have a paid or free paper?
Later, we wondered, should we be for-profit or nonprofit? Should we accept a gigantic $1 million web printing machine that Valco Press offered us for free, so we could do the printing ourselves? Should we go color when Colors Magazine, a now defunct full-color publication, published so beautifully in 2002 and we were in black and white? Should we go metro-size or remain a smaller tabloid?
I have to confess, how we responded to each of these questions was based a lot on guts and intuition, less on facts. I struggled each time during the process. In the end, I have no regrets.
Ultimately, we decided upon a paid subscription for the Chinese Post and free distribution for the Northwest Asian Weekly. We could get away with charging a fee for the Chinese Post because we were the first local Chinese paper.
When we separated the Chinese Post and its English edition into two newspapers after a year, subscribers protested. They were used to getting a free English edition along within the paid Chinese Post. (Several subscribers had non-Asian spouses and American-born Chinese kids.)
Then the Wah Mee Massacre hit the community in 1983. English-speaking readers, such as American-born Asians, expected us to cover the news in English. Overnight, we were bombarded with requests for all kinds of information about the immigrant community. Without any choice, we had to make the new English edition work. Soon, we evolved into an essential voice and a bridge between the mainstream and our community.
A decade later, we made another crucial decision when some Japanese American friends suggested we change our name. The Seattle Chinese Post’s English edition was changed to Northwest Asian Weekly. Unexpectedly, American-born Chinese roared disapprovingly. They felt they had lost a part of the community that belonged to them. In reality, if the Northwest Asian Weekly hadn’t take on a bigger community and role, it would have died a long time ago.
The Chinese community was not a big enough market to support the English paper.
In 1988, we bought a piece of property, Kokusai Theater. We hesitated to build an office because we didn’t have enough money.
In the late 1990s, several community newspapers emerged, following a new trend: full color. I witnessed quite a few community publications that went under; color press was expensive at that time. Instead, I used money that would have been spent on color printing as a down payment for our building. Our building was completed in 2002.
We waited to go full color until 2005, when the technology had improved and color printing had become fast, easy, and affordable. We were grateful to our readers who never abandoned us, even though we were a black-and-white publication for more than two decades.
No, I didn’t have the passion to own a printing company, which requires a lot of maintenance. It was flattering that Valco offered the old press to no other customer except us. My relative’s Vietnamese friend, who owns a web press in California, is now suffering from debt and insufficient business, as printing is on the decline. Publishing two newspapers has always been my commitment. With more time, I would devote my skills and knowledge to helping the community in projects, teaching, speaking, and writing. (end)
Part II next week: Breaking into the business.
Assunta Ng can be reached at email@example.com.