Ethnic media was devastated by Covid. Now publishers are struggling to self-fund.

·5 min read

Soon after the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City, Bijay Poudel had to make one of the hardest decisions in his professional life: to stop the print publication of Vishwa Sandesh, a local Nepalese newspaper.

During the shutdown, advertisement revenue dried up, and the shops where the paper was normally distributed were now closed.

While the pandemic has dealt a blow to the entire journalism industry — more than 100 local newsrooms have closed since — it’s been especially tough on small, ethnic news outlets that may not have the resources to stay afloat. Of the four Nepalese newspapers in New York City — Vishwa Sandesh; Everest Times, a biweekly; Khasokhas, a weekly; and Nepalaya, a biweekly — all have been forced to close their print editions and turn entirely digital.

“Seeing only the digital version of the newspaper was painful to me,” Poudel, 48, publisher and editor-in-chief of the weekly paper, told NBC Asian America. “I can’t describe the feeling one gets when they hold a newspaper to read.”

Since its founding in 2007, Vishwa Sandesh, or “the world’s message” in English, grew in popularity for its on-the-ground coverage of the estimated 12,000 Nepalese living in New York City — a community largely ignored by the mainstream press. It also advocated for the community: In 2016, the paper became well-known for organizing a fundraiser for a Nepalese woman in the city named Prasha Tuladhar, who was waiting for a double lung transplant. (Despite a successful transplant, she died in 2019). During the pandemic, the paper has tried to connect readers to critical information through stories on why vaccination against Covid is necessary, and how undocumented residents can find medical help.

“If you are young and mobile-savvy, you can easily get information from anywhere,” Yadab Bastola, a Nepalese community activist, said. “But what about an older generation who might not be technologically sound?”

Veteran journalist Sandy Close, founder of the nonprofit Ethnic Media Services, said print is particularly important in ethnic media.

“If you are in, let’s say anywhere like Little Saigon in Orange County [California] or on the New York subway or in Times Square, if you photograph whoever is reading a newspaper, it’s usually an ethnic paper,” she said. “There is a very real importance of that physical print publication. In a cafe, people will read the newspapers as a social activity, and I think the importance of print runs very deep.”

A year after the shutdown, Vishwa Sandesh resumed its print publication — and was the only Nepalese newspaper in the city to do so — but on a smaller scale. Before the pandemic, Poudel had a press run of 6,000 issues per week; after, it was just 2,000 issues. With the drop in advertisement revenue, Poudel now runs  KharKhare, an online store that sells religious items related to the Nepalese community, to help sustain the paper. “I really don’t know how long I could self-fund the paper,” he said.

Newsrack of Vishwa Sandesh (Anuz Thapa)
Newsrack of Vishwa Sandesh (Anuz Thapa)

It’s also part of a broader trend. Since 2004, the U.S. has lost over 2,100 newspapers. Research suggests that even though digital subscriptions and advertisements have increased, ethnic news outlets have not benefited much, since Facebook and Google eat up about 85% of new digital ad revenue.

The ongoing pandemic has hit the ethnic media the hardest. BKLYNER, Brooklyn’s largest local news media, lost all its local advertising revenue in the first month of the pandemic, despite the site visits peaked.

New York City is home to over 350 community and ethnic media outlets. In 2019, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order requiring all city agencies to spend at least 50% of their print and digital publication advertising in community and ethnic media outlets.

The following year, the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism launched the Advertising Boost Initiative to help print and online outlets get a share of these city agencies’ advertisement budgets, leading to the city placing nearly $10 million worth of advertisement to more than 220 community media outlets in the first year.

Poudel said Vishwa Sandesh has been approached with city ad dollars, but that it’s often still not enough to cover costs for the month.

José Bayona, the new executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Ethnic and Community Media, declined a request for comment, however, he said their new office “will soon have an update on the mission and goals.”

Bikash Raj Neupane, president of the Nepal America Journalists’ Association who also runs the Nepalese news site Himalayakhabar.com, said he appreciates Poudel for continuing his print run.

“I know how difficult it is even to run a news site,” he said. “I have invested in real estate and primary businesses, and that’s how I am funding my online news site and able to pay freelancers.”

But not all publishers are eager to return to print.

“We might publish a yearly issue, but now we have gone fully digital,” said Kishor Panthi, 37, editor-in-chief of Khasokhas, which ended regular print editions in 2020. “We still are getting local advertisements, but the payment is not timely, which is hurting us.”

Kishor Panthi (Kishor Panthi)
Kishor Panthi (Kishor Panthi)

Girish Pokhrel, who started one of the first U.S.-based Nepalese news sites, Nepali Post, thinks going fully digital is the wise economic move.

“I think newspapers are a thing of the past, and ethnic media especially should not be too attached with this,” he said.

Close said ethnic media has become even more important amid the rise of anti-Asian hate and violence.

“This isn’t just about Nepalese having an ability to communicate to their own community through their own media. It’s about Nepalese being part of the larger ecosystem of news so that their community is connected and part of a larger network,” she said. “If communities don’t communicate with each other, you get chasms.”

So what keeps Poudel running the newspaper through all these challenges? “The newspaper is a great way to teach Nepalese language to our kids here in the U.S.,” he said. “I can’t express the feeling when I see people reading my newspapers in a subway or a café.”