By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
When you wake up after a dream, the dream fades away because it wasn’t real.
I dreamt of starting the first Chinese newspaper in the Pacific Northwest in October 1981. I woke up after 40 years, and it still exists because it wasn’t a fantasy. (Our 40th anniversary is Jan. 20, 2022.)
Some say the newspaper is able to continue due to hard work, grit, and a great team. We all know that, don’t we!? We are still here because I have always listened to the needs of our readers and community. And I put those concerns into reality.
When too many American-born Chinese moaned about their inability to read Chinese, I started an English edition, which later turned into the Northwest Asian Weekly. It was challenging for a small company to publish two newspapers at the beginning, and it still is.
There wasn’t that much going on in the community four decades ago to fill the pages. The easy way was to print every other week. But my team members insisted and persevered to keep two newspapers publishing week after week without fail. The community has grown not only in size, it has evolved politically, socially, and economically, and sometimes, there is so much happening, we don’t have enough manpower to cover it all.
When major news breaks, like the Wah Mee Massacre in 1983, Donnie Chin’s murder in 2015, and the unexpected win of Donald Trump in 2016, we almost couldn’t deal with the heartbreaking news. We had to step back a moment before we could face reality.
Over the years, we have learned how to balance our issues every week, ask for help from different sources, and fill it with timely news and photos. Behind every issue, we have poured our heart and soul to make it not just a good issue, but a meaningful one for our community.
The need to give back
After a few years, we noticed there was a need to fundraise for many community projects.
When the Chinese community organized to raise money for the Kin On Nursing Home, we decided to help. We raised over $40,000 through two dinners in celebration of our 10th anniversary. There was another proud moment when we raised $8,700 for the United Way of King County through a musical show, “The Westside Story,” produced by the Northwest Asian American Theater. And we also paid for the whole performance. I loved the fact that we were supporting both a charity and the arts. These ideas are similar to what we did in 2021 when we organized a virtual event to honor health care workers and reward all the honorees with grocery store and restaurant gift certificates. We always try to kill two birds with one stone.
Soon, we launched the nonprofit arm of the newspapers, Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation. Since then, we have supported countless organizations and causes. One of those causes is in education. The Foundation has raised money for many high school and college scholarships in addition to five scholarship endowments, including four for the University of Washington: The Business School, College of Education, Department of Communication, and School of Public Affairs.
The need to empower
Years ago, a Jewish friend was surprised that his Asian American friend running for office got his photo and story on the Asian Weekly’s front page.
“It’s not that easy to get our photo and story on the front page of our community paper simply by running for office,” he said.
To us, it’s painless and straightforward.
Our mission is to empower the community. Running for office takes courage, sacrifice, and commitment. People who place themselves in vulnerable positions deserve a lot of credit.
We want to do our part to support Asian Americans to go into politics and be part of the team and process in decision making and legislation, as well as all levels of government. To have our voice at the table is crucial. People who are willing to lift our community through the political process, will have our back. And covering their stories and featuring them prominently in the Asian Weekly is the least we can do.
When our papers were first launched in the 1980s, there were few Asian elected officials, including King County Council member Ruby Chow, Judge Warren Chan, Judge Liem Tuai, then Rep. Gary Locke, Rep. Art Wang, and Seattle City Council member Dolores Sibonga.
In contrast to the present, more than 40 Asian Americans were elected and appointed at all levels of government in 2021 in Western Washington. You can call it progress. After the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, it has become a demonstration of “Asian Americans’ consciousness and fearlessness to fix the system and protect ourselves.”
As we celebrated the victories of many Asian American candidates in the general election, it lifted the Asian Weekly up when delivering positive news. Good news was and is much needed not only during COVID, but in normal times as well. Newspapers should be a tool for inspiration. Telling positive stories can inspire us to help and better each other’s lives or spark action to lift our community and city. Don’t forget we are as much journalists as human beings. We want to see good things happen in our community and fighting to get our qualified and moderate candidates to break the glass ceiling remains a high priority.
And our prayer has been answered. The victory of Bruce Harrell, Seattle’s first Asian American mayor in 152 years and second Black mayor since 1990, has empowered both the Asian and Black communities. His election also put Seattle in the national spotlight with the other two newly-elected mayors of Asian American descent in Boston and Cincinnati.
The Asian Weekly can make a lot of noise even though we are a tiny paper. While I hate the label of activists for the paper, we are unapologetic when advocating for our people and community. And we are unafraid to denounce Asian and non-Asian politicians who have not served our community well.
Developing journalists and other talents
Three years ago, I visited the New York Times office. A former Seattleite who now works for the New York Times, Laura Chang, said I gave her her first break in journalism by publishing her story. She was kind enough to acknowledge my contribution. I would not have considered it as our accomplishment years ago. It made me realize that when we say yes to interns or give jobs to inexperienced young people when they first walk into our office, we are offering them priceless training not only in skills, but confidence, human relations, and organization development.
The teens who had worked for me are now managers and aspiring leaders in many professions with new employers. From six to 30 years, six young immigrant women had stayed with me. Although they are not young anymore, their knowledge and skills have now excelled beyond my expectations in digital skills, layout, translating, writing and editing, and their smart sense in news and business. Some could hardly speak English when they first joined. Now, their English proficiency is so great that they read and comprehend English news thoroughly or deal with English-speaking clients without any problems. Representing us, one even gave a short English speech without notes in front of 50-plus people. Wow! It just makes me cry with joy whenever I think of their remarkable journey with our newspapers.
Many of my former Asian Weekly editors have also made me proud. One is a Microsoft book editor, one works for NBC, and one owns her own business in writing, design, illustrating, and editing. One of our former freelance writers has already published four books. Several Chinese Post writers have also published many books on their own.
When the pandemic struck, it did kill quite a few newspapers. It didn’t kill us, even though I thought it might.
March 2020 was so terrible that a few close friends were telling us it’s time to fold. I took the time to prepare myself mentally to exit. Yet what happened in May changed the fate of both newspapers. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement happened because of George Floyd’s unjust murder by police. The whole Chinatown-International District was boarded up after the destruction by splinter groups who took advantage of BLM protests. As we got the front-row seat to witness history, we were preoccupied to cover story after story. When our community is in troubled waters, we should stand by our community, not quit. Abandoning the community in times of crises, reveals cowardice. A miracle unfolded every week, and then it was multiplied into mini miracles. There were several news-breaking stories, as well as business opportunities throughout 2020, spreading to 2021.
Then the game changed in July 2021. The Asian Weekly was bouncing back, but not the Chinese Post. At least one paper thrived and supported the other. This reversed the trend in which Chinese Post was the main breadmaker for years. It matters little as we are one company. And we were able to resume our “lucky red envelope” (year-end bonus) tradition for every employee and writer last December, just like in 2019 and before. They have earned it, and we were so glad that we could do it.
We are grateful to the Washington State Department of Health, which approached us to apply for grants in early 2021, and had agreed to give us complete editorial independence.
We did a series of COVID-related stories and received positive feedback. And we were excited about our published interview with Vin Gupta by Mahlon Meyer. Gupta is a smart and articulate MSNBC commentator. I am a Gupta fan.
Serendipity has been our 2021 passage. All my family members have been vaccinated and boosted. I felt calmer and more relaxed. It’s fun to dine outside with friends and family. And a couple of my team members even took vacations. One took as many as 15 trips in a year.
Unexpectedly, we won the Real Change newspaper “editorial excellence” award, and 27 journalism awards from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association. I remember when the awards were announced last October virtually, I couldn’t keep up writing the names of our writers down on my notepad. What my editor, Ruth Bayang, and writers had achieved in their craft amidst deadlines is simply amazing. And my son John Liu coordinated two events with Zoom Master John Chen in honoring over 50 health care workers in early 2021 and Unity in Voices for the Asian and Black communities last September.
It resulted in much goodwill for the Asian Weekly, even though we didn’t receive much monetary rewards. But our purpose is to do the right thing. It is important to show our appreciation for the frontline workers. And to promote understanding and build trust between the Asian and Black communities is now more essential than ever in the context of the BLM movement and anti-Asian hate crimes. Whether you like it or not, we need one another to fight institutionalized racism.
It’s getting harder and harder for community newspapers to survive. Since 2004, the U.S. has lost almost 1,800 newspapers, including non-daily and daily publications, and vanishing readership with decreasing circulation from 122 million to 73 million in 2018, according to “The Expanding News Desert” by Penelope Muse Abernathy/UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. Then in 2020, the print and digital circulation of weekday newspapers was 24.3 million. In three years, it had decreased another 32%.
It is apparent that our future looks bleak and the past six years have been increasingly challenging. What keeps us going all these years is I have known at the beginning that it wouldn’t be an easy path. Before our papers, the news industry was already tough. Four out of five newspapers failed in the U.S. then. The Chinese community has a saying, “If you want to ruin someone, tell him to start a newspaper.”
We were in trouble then and are still not quite out of the woods. When we have experienced the most difficult times, something always meanders our way to give us a hand. Is it our guardian angel? Destiny? Or the good deeds we did for the past four decades, now flowing back to us in possibilities and fortunes during adversities. I have no explanation. Do you?
Yet, I am certain of one thing: If you have a dream, you can create it to make it happen. It’s never too late.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.