January 30, 2006

Around the World in 80 Newspapers

Reading Online News is How Minnesota Immigrants Connect with
Home – and Change Living, Voting, and Spending Habits Here

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – When Octavio Ruiz arrives at work every morning he sips a steaming coffee, boots up his computer, and points his cursor to four online newspapers – Le Figaro from France, La Unita from Italy, O Globo from Brazil, and La Jornada from Mexico.

“The information you get from any U.S. paper is pretty limited,” Ruiz says. “By reading papers from other countries you can see the world reflected around you, and you’re not living in one reality.”

Yusuf Yusuf, a Somali-American TV producer, tells a similar story. He flips open his laptop each morning to Hiiraano.com, a Somali Web site that links to 175 Somali news sources and steers a center course through the dizzying convolutions of Somali politics.

Meanwhile, Rongtai Wang, a Minneapolis engineer, starts his day with two newspapers he’s more eager to read than Minnesota papers -- the Wen Hui Bao and Shanghai Hotline, published online from Shanghai. “I read them for Shanghai news and the China real estate and stock prices,” Wang explains. “Those things really affect the lives of my relatives who live there.”

Favored Papers

Far from exceptional cases, Mssrs. Ruiz, Yusuf and Wang are among millions of immigrants in the U.S. whose daily news-reading habits are dramatically changing the U.S. news business and altering the fabric of life in the communities where they live, work, vote, and spend.

With U.S. newspaper readership in steady decline, ethnic newspaper readership is booming – and the favored papers of immigrants are often published not here but in the immigrants’ home countries.

Ethnic media in the U.S. reaches 51 million people – about one-quarter of the adult population – on a regular basis, according to a study released last year by New California Media, a consortium of ethnic media firms.

Most striking, 29 million people, comprising 45 percent of the combined Hispanic, Asian American, Arab American, Native American, and Black American adult population in the U.S, said they prefer to read ethnic media over mainstream media as their main source of daily news.

Breaking Out

Among immigrant groups, Hispanics rated the highest for preferring ethnic media to the mainstream media for news of importance to their communities, with 82 percent relying on Spanish-language Web sites compared to 14 percent who still relied on traditional media. Arab Americans preferred ethnic to mainstream media for their news by a ratio 60 to 30 percent, and Asian Americans by 54 to 41 percent.

"This is a media that has been in the shadows for a long time but now is so big, it's breaking out of its seams," Sandy Close, executive director of New California Media, said when the study was released last June.

“In a global society, how do we communicate with each other?” Close asked. “This is the critical challenge to everyone in communications today, and ethnic media are key to the answer.”

Many of those innovative ways to communicate globally are being pioneered in the homes, workplaces, restaurants and coffee shops of immigrants living in Minnesota.

Take Preethi Hussain, a co-owner with her husband of the Kahler Hotel Gift Shop, across the street from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. A native of Hyderabad, India, she came to the U.S. three years ago to run the shop. But in her heart, she says, she still lives mostly in Hyderabad.

The Classifieds

Throughout the day, the computer screen next to Preethi’s cash register is set to the home page of Deccan.doc, the Web site of the Deccan Chronicle, the largest daily newspaper of Hyderabad, India.

“I don’t want to forget my roots,” she says. “Deccan online is the best way I have to stay connected to my people and to my school friends back home.”

Because she’s so hungry for news from home, Preethi says she reads the Deccan Chronicle more closely in the U.S. than she ever did in India.

“I read everything,” she says. “Not only the local news and what’s going on in Indian politics, but the classifieds, the job vacancies, the obituaries, and the celebrity gossip. If one of my old friends wins some kind of a title, then I can call or e-mail them, say I saw that in the paper. It’s a way to connect.”

The time difference between Rochester and Hyderabad allows Preethi to read the newspaper, which is published online in the very early morning, almost in its entirety before her family and friends in India wake up.

Home Remedies

When they do, they sometimes awake to a phone call or e-mail from Preethi to alert them to an opportunity, such as a job vacancy or apartment availability, that she spotted in the newspaper while they were sleeping.

“I know the news first, even before my family knows,” Preethi says.

The Deccan Chronicle’s recipe section is another of her favorites. Often she finds a recipe for an Indian dish she wants to try, copies it down, and walks a few blocks to Rice & Spice, an Indian grocery store in Rochester where she buys ingredients for the dish.

The fact that Mayo Clinic is across the street from her shop notwithstanding, Preethi keeps up on Indian home remedies and health aids by reading the Chronicle. She wants to know the Indian angle on international news, such as how Indian troops are faring in the Iraq War, so she reads the Chronicle for her international news as well.

“I look at the Post-Bulletin [the daily Rochester newspaper] and the Star Tribune [of Minneapolis] only when I am finished with the Deccan Chronicle,” she says. “When the shop is dead with nothing to do.”

Seeking home-country perspective on international news is one of the two reasons why immigrants usually say they prefer foreign news sites. The other is to get news that’s free of what is widely perceived as U.S. government propaganda, uncritically published by the American press.

A Different Reality

“I get a clearer picture of world news and U.S. politics from Chinese Web sites than from U.S. newspapers,” said a Chinese-American, a machine operator, shopping at the China Tribune shop in St. Paul last weekend.

When two protestors were killed by Guatemalan police last March during demonstrations to protest their country’s joining the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), Octavio Ruiz couldn’t find a word about the deaths – or about the deep grassroots opposition to CAFTA throughout Guatemala – published in any American newspaper.

But that opposition was big news in Prensa Libre and other Guatemalan newspapers. As a part of his political lobbying activities, Ruiz showed stories published online in Guatemala to U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht, who opposed CAFTA but didn’t know of the grassroots opposition there until he saw the press accounts Ruiz showed him.

“I used the Internet to justify to him there was a different reality” in Guatemala than was appearing in the U.S. press, Ruiz said.

Not only online newspapers but cell phones – and often cell phones used in combination with Web sites – are also revolutionizing news consumption patterns between the U.S. and foreign countries.

A dramatic cell phone adoption rate in many otherwise poor countries is helping to drive economic growth, and as a side effect is transforming how news is transferred from country to country around the world.

Cell Phones

A recent study in Tanzania showed that 97 percent of people there could access a cell phone, while only 28 percent could access a land line. The same is true in remote villages in many developing nations, where even one person with a cell phone is a vital and much-used community resource.

That translates into directly into benefits also for the denizens of the Starbucks at Riverside Avenue and 26th Avenue in Minneapolis, the city’s Grand Central Station of Somali immigrant kibitzers.

“The #1 source of news from back home is people using their cell phones,” said Kariim Geer, a Somali-American businessman and one of three dozen Somali immigrants on an average Saturday morning at Starbucks recently.

“Everyone in Somalia has cell phones and the Internet is everywhere,” he said. “It’s nothing to call home, talk to two or three friends and relatives, and find out all you need to know about what’s happening.”

Sometimes a Somali patron at the Starbucks dials a 612 number to reach the BBC’s Somali-language broadcasts, and puts the cell phone on “speaker” in the middle of a table as Somalis gather around to listen to news from home.

Old and New

The fact that Somalis are traditionally a nomadic people who exchanged information mainly by talking instead of reading or writing, is feeding into the high-tech communications world in a distinctive way.

Problems arise, of course. If global communication happens in the blink of an eye, that’s how quickly tensions and conflicts can travel, too.

“Sometimes a person will go outside, make a phone call to Somalia, then come back inside and start fighting” with others in the café, Geer said. Tribal conflicts sometimes start in the morning in Mogadishu and continue that evening in Minneapolis, thanks to cell phones and the Internet.

Such problems aside, the passion for global news by America’s ethnic population, which stands now at a historic high of 64 million or about one-fifth the total U.S. population, seems sure to grow.

Preethi Hussain says she now reads Minnesota newspapers regularly for only one thing.

“The weather,” she says.

Copyright @ 2006 The McGill Report
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