With the booming growth of immigrant communities in the Washington area, ethnic newspapers are flourishing, becoming more sophisticated and influential among their readers.
Although an exact count is unavailable, the area has about a dozen Spanish-language publications, three Korean-language dailies, and myriad weeklies and monthlies published in Vietnamese, Chinese, Farsi and other languages, most of which started in the past decade.
When the public was asked for tips during the recent sniper shootings, many Latino residents turned first to the Spanish-language media rather than call the FBI hotline. During the campaign season, candidates rushed to buy ads to reach potential voters. In one case, Christopher Van Hollen Jr. -- the U.S. representative-elect in Maryland's 8th District -- purchased ads in the local Korea Times promising to help prevent war on the Korean peninsula.
But leaders of the publications say public officials, public agencies and other institutions still do not fully recognize their value in the immigrant community and fail to give them sufficient access to report about local events. In a move to improve accountability, publishers of five newspapers in November formed the United Ethnic Publishers Association to lobby government officials for more attention and access.
"We want to be considered like everyone else," said Jesus Sanchez-Canete, editor of La Nacion USA in Arlington and head of the lobbying effort. "We don't want things announced just in The Washington Post or the Washington Times but in our papers as well."
In its coverage of the election, Sanchez-Canete said, his daily Spanish-language newspaper sent out 400 questionnaires to candidates for local and state positions. Only seven responses came back, he said. It is time, Sanchez-Canete and other ethnic newspaper editors say, that officials understand that their readers can no longer be ignored.
In the past decade, the Washington area has become a prime destination for immigrants, with nearly a quarter-million arriving legally from 1990 to 1998, according to a 2001 study by the Brookings Institution. Only New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami are more popular gateways.
In 1970, one in 22 residents was foreign-born, but today the number is about one in six, or 750,000 people. About 42 percent of the Washington area immigrants covered by the Brookings study came from Asia, including the Middle East, compared with 31.5 percent from Latin America and the Caribbean and 16.2 percent from Africa.
According to the 2000 Census, Arlington's foreign-born population grew about 44 percent, nearly four times as fast as the general rate of growth in the county, which was nearly 11 percent. Alexandria's foreign-born population increased about 81 percent, overwhelming the general increase, which was nearly 16 percent.
In both Alexandria and Arlington, about one in three people speaks a language other than English at home, according to census data.
The ethnic publishers say they serve a niche that mainstream newspapers have missed. "It may be small potatoes to other people, but to them [readers], it's very important," said Jing Lee, director of Washington Chinese News in Rockville.
Founders of the new publishers group include representatives from the Korea Daily, Doi Nay (Our Times, a Vietnamese paper in Falls Church), Washington Chinese News, and Express India and India This Week (owned by the same family and based in Langley Park). Advising the group is Patricia Shao, principal at Dragonbridge Inc., a Bethesda advertising and public relations firm that targets the ethnic market.
Those newspapers and most of the others in the region publish only a few thousand copies of each issue and distribute them free at ethnic groceries and restaurants. But with radio stations and the Internet, their reach has extended across the country. Vietnest, a new Web portal based in Silver Spring, links to Vietnamese newspapers in Gaithersburg, Annandale and cities in California.
Nationwide, ethnic media outlets are organizing and spreading their clout. New California Media, a group of 200 publications, holds an annual convention, maintains an extensive Internet site and lobbies government officials on issues such as more space and access for ethnic press at San Francisco City Hall.
Locally, Del.-elect Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-District 18), the first Latino to represent Montgomery in the General Assembly, said ethnic newspapers should be required reading for public officials.
She said officials often talk about connecting with immigrant communities, but if they do not read the newspapers or get someone on their staff to do so, "I don't think there's a real legitimate connection."
When the General Assembly session begins, Gutierrez plans to write a column explaining the lawmaking process for the local Spanish-language papers.
"They're a lifeline to the community," said Gutierrez, whose campaign was backed by several Spanish-language publications. "The main media simply does not address the issues or provide the information that various ethnic groups need to have."
Staying Power Ethnic media outlets often have started as a way for homesick immigrants to keep up with news from their homeland. But now, local news is just as important.
Jin Hong Park's previous newspaper assignment was reporting on the economy in Seoul. Two years ago, he moved to Ellicott City. Park transferred to Howard County when the Washington edition of the Korea Daily decided to expand from its Fairfax County base, where more than 28,000 Korean Americans live, to the Maryland suburbs.
These days, putting out information is technically and financially easier.
With computers and easy-to-learn layout programs, some newspapers can be just a one-man operation in a basement office. Others have the backing of overseas media conglomerates.
Besides the Korea Daily, the parent companies of the Washington region's two other major Korean-language newspapers -- the Korea Times and Chosun Daily -- operate publications in South Korea with audited daily circulations of 2 million or more. (The Korea Daily is owned by Joong Ang Ilbo, which has a partnership with The Washington Post Co. to publish Newsweek in South Korea and to reprint Post stories in the local edition.)
Some newspapers, such as the Chinese-language Epoch Times and Washington Chinese News -- both with newsrooms in Rockville -- are part of U.S.-based companies that publish different editions in other major cities.
The last time ethnic media flourished was after the turn of the century, when Europeans immigrated to America in large numbers, according to experts who study foreign-language publications.
But as those immigrants assimilated, those papers disappeared. This time, the ethnic newspapers have staying power, said Sandra Ball-Rokeach, a communications professor at the University of Southern California.
"There's a better platform now for older immigrant groups to maintain a dual identity," she said. "Dual identity is more useful than it used to be. It can help your career if you can handle the language and stay on top of what's happening in your country of origin. . . . It's all part of whatever globalization means."
New Ways to Reach Out One of the biggest challenges for ethnic newspapers may be within their own communities, rather than across the globe.
Typically, most ethnic newspapers are heavy with ads and stick to good news about scholarship winners or useful tips on how to get a driver's license. Sensitive topics such as domestic violence, for example, are rarely discussed among Vietnamese immigrants, much less in a newspaper article.
But this fall, Mach Song (Life Line), run by a Falls Church-based social services agency, published a lengthy column about how battered women should seek help.
Five women called the agency, citing the story as the reason, according to Kim Viet Ngo, the domestic violence coordinator for Boat People SOS. One woman, from West Virginia, had been sent the story by a friend. But Ngo said that sometimes community members call her a home-wrecker because she has counseled women and referred them to shelters.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "People need to get help. The story told them how to get help. Other Vietnamese newspapers, if they talk about it [domestic violence] they talk about it very generally."
In California, Vietnamese newspapers have done stories about gambling addicts, abortion and homosexuality.
Nguyen Dinh Thang, the director of Boat People SOS and the publisher of Mach Song, said that the community's needs are changing and that the media has to keep up.
Boat People SOS previously had used grant money to buy ads on social issues in Vietnamese newspapers, but decided that starting a publication of its own last summer would be more effective. Nguyen said more than 8,000 copies were distributed monthly at the agency's offices in Falls Church, Hyattsville and the District.
"Our mission is to build the community, to empower the community members," Nguyen said. "We would like to break the silence on critical issues on the community. . . . If you choose to ignore it, they don't go away. We have to transmit the information."
Some editors hope the second generation will be part of the outreach.
Because many children of immigrants cannot read their parents' language, several pages in Mach Song are in English. The Chinese-language Epoch Times started a few English pages this summer, and other Asian and Latino publishers say they have similar plans.
The approach is similar to how some publishers transitioned Jewish newspapers from Yiddish to English as residents became established in the United States, but wanted to keep reading news about their specific community.
Nor is the move to English that much different from the decision by mainstream newspapers to print a few stories in Spanish. It's part of the same goal that the bigger newspapers have: Get more readers.
"We want them to know what's happening in a language that they're familiar with," said Ray Hwang, president of Washington Chinese News, whose teenage daughter is more at ease with English than Chinese.
"If they have that newspaper in English, the younger generation will at least take a look -- or be asked to take a look by their parents."
The other readers of the English pages will be non-Chinese, Hwang hopes. "Of course, we want to outreach to the main society. But we also want to be outreached by government," he said. "We want people to know that the Chinese newspaper can work as a bridge."
Two large pieces of Chinese calligraphy hang in his small Rockville newsroom. One says, "Voice for the Chinese Community." The other stands for "Washington."