By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
On Jan. 20, the day of the Presidential Inauguration, was also the Northwest Asian Weekly’s 35th birthday.
“Wow! How did you do it?” People ask me that question a lot. How did an independent pan-Asian weekly survive that long? Sacrifices, miracles, dedication, and extreme resilience are the key.
The Asian Weekly’s sister paper, the Seattle Chinese Post, published its first issue on Jan. 20, 1982. It wasn’t until 3 a.m. when we finished the paper. Seven hours later, the editor and I went to the print shop to pick up the first issue of the first Chinese-language newspaper in the Pacific Northwest since 1927.
“We did it,” I said triumphantly. Holding the paper in my hand, I had to pinch myself. Other people had attempted to start the first Chinese newspaper in Washington state before, but failed.
Honestly, it was a profitable but weak issue with errors and little content except advertisements. You see, advertisements required fewer words and they filled space nicely.
The truth was, we didn’t have enough time to type stories. Before the invention of Chinese computers, characters were typed manually. Our editor had to train the typesetters to use a bulky and noisy tool imported from Taiwan. The two machines arrived late. My newly hired employees didn’t have enough training on it. However, the grand opening invitation, with the Jan. 20 date, had been sent out to the Chinatown International District (ID) community.
“Sell ads,” said the editor. It was a novelty to have the first Chinese newspaper in the community.
Luckily, people were receptive to spending advertising dollars, and eager to support our venture even though I was a stranger and a nobody in the ID. Many had never advertised for their business.
Separating the papers
A year later, the Northwest Asian Weekly was born. I separated the combined Chinese and English version of the newspaper into two different weekly editions and distribution.
Looking back, I was gutsy and silly, too. In those days, I didn’t realize I was actually expanding the operation without sufficient planning and resources. Perhaps, you can call it my strength. Nothing can hold me back when I decide to do something. What I saw was not a gold mine, but the need to cover the American-born and immigrant Asians in our community. Besides, I thought with the few English articles we already published in the Chinese Post, it shouldn’t be that hard to expand the existing content into a second newspaper. I was not only wrong, but naïve.
The need turned out to be greater for the English edition after the Wah Mee Massacre in 1983, where 13 people were killed in a Chinatown gambling den. The mainstream media and the police needed help. I saw many people picking up our paper, and reading it during lunch in Chinese restaurants. There was no turning back!
In 1992, we changed our name to the Northwest Asian Weekly with the encouragement of the late Ted Yamamura and others. I began to see that hard news was the future. We strive for two newspapers with different content, layout, and approach in reporting and writing — the Chinese Post with mainstream news written in Chinese, and the Asian Weekly with local and national ethnic community news.
I organized events to diversify our sources of revenue in the 1990s. It didn’t give us a lot of profit, but it helped our brand and grew our credibility.
We were probably the first media organization in our state to honor unsung heroes, rising stars, and the movers and shakers in the community. What drives us to do events is the amount of goodwill we generate. The honorees feel empowered, and their families are so excited. We bring the community together. It makes me feel that we are doing something worthwhile, and a means to give back to the community.
A different kind of hardship
The digital revolution has made our life much easier. Digital means speed. Also, it is less costly and labor-intensive. The digital camera cuts at least six steps from print to the finished product — replacing our dark room, special camera, processing film, and developing photos. Instead of delivering the layout flaps on paper like we used to, we can send our files to the printer electronically. Instead of cut and paste, we just click one key on the computer.
We can do stories and advertisements at the last minute. There are often ads that pour in late, like during the Lunar New Year. Quickly, we include them without problems.
The weather can deter us no more from publishing. I recall one freezing winter, my husband had to drive our workers back and forth from their homes to work in the office. Now, my staff can work from all over the world.
On another snowy day, four of us, including my husband and two kids, distributed the paper out in the ID on icy, treacherous roads. To get the paper delivered on time and into the hands of our readers, we made countless sacrifices, and overcame so many obstacles during the past few decades.
Today, we are experiencing a different kind of challenge. The internet is threatening our livelihood.
Fewer want to read print. Many turn to their phone for news. There are fewer advertisers. So far, no print media has found an alternative revenue solution. It’s not only our problem — it’s a global one. The Seattle Times and KOMO-TV, which have a lot more money than us, laid off dozens of journalists. What is more shocking, the Issaquah Press, a solid community paper, founded in 1900 and owned by the Seattle Times, is going to shut down on Feb. 24.
One piece of good news — the Washington Post, under Jeff Bezos’ ownership, has gained readership through online subscriptions and delivering breaking news via new technology. Bezos’ team intends to sell those technologies to other companies. A little paper like ours can’t afford to revolutionize its operation like Bezos.
Many predict that print will die a slow death, and broadcasting is next. Our online presence should be our focus. But online ads are cheap, which will not be enough to sustain us. It doesn’t matter that we have over 200,000 unique visits a month — much bigger than our print circulation. We just give away everything for free.
I am aware of our plight — a business without a future. I am not scared or worried, though. Instead, I feel really awesome about our accomplishments. I have never felt so free and content. We are proud of our record — publishing over 3,600 issues for both papers. Patience is now my virtue, amid uncertainty. I am just happy that we are still publishing.
To focus my energy more on the papers, I ended the Women of Color Empowered lunch last September.
This will also give me more time to travel.
I have to confess that even when I am traveling, I can’t resist working. Often, I would pick up papers and magazines from other countries. I would rip articles and give them to my staff when I return. When the ocean is right before me, waves of inspirations rise, and I would jot down ideas in my notepad. I am still amazed that our papers can make a difference.
We now strive for efficiency. Under our editors’ leadership, both the Asian Weekly and Chinese Post have been able to finish ahead of schedule since the beginning of 2016. We will have more time for our family and ourselves. Health is our priority.
Nowadays, it’s tough to come up with strategies to increase revenue, but we try to keep ourselves lean. I credit this to my people who are smart, skilled, and dedicated to their profession. The word “can’t” is not in our vocabulary.
Our 35th anniversary celebration
Mark your calendar. Saturday, Oct. 21 will be our anniversary dinner at the China Harbor Restaurant.
For those of you who have been to our 10th anniversary dinner (with 850 guests), 15th (with 950 guests), 20th (with 850 guests), 25th (with 800 guests), and 30th (with 1,080 guests), you might be surprised and ask, “Why does the attendance shrink?”
We decided that rather than paying over $125 per person to a mainstream facility, we would give the business back to our community.
We would hate it if the price was the reason that was driving our supporters away. The only option is to go to a Chinese restaurant.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the Seattle Chinese Post and Northwest Asian Weekly through thick and thin, rain or shine. Thank you for 35 amazing years. ■
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.