The media melting pot

After leaving behind a distinguished journalism career that spanned nearly four decades, Stephen Franklin is taking on a task of fostering a coalition of Chicago ethnic media outlets to amplify the voices from the diverse communities they serve.

Photo by Joe Gallo

After leaving behind a distinguished journalism career that spanned nearly four decades, Stephen Franklin is taking on a task of fostering a coalition of Chicago ethnic media outlets to amplify the voices from the diverse communities they serve.

On a rainy day in November, as he drove to a meeting of Latino media outlets and community organizations he had organized, Stephen Franklin feared the worst.

“I was terrified. I thought the room would be empty, or if people came, they would be yelling at each other,” said Franklin, a veteran reporter who now works for the Community Media Workshop promoting and nurturing Chicago’s lively ethnic media scene.

There are myriad Latino media outlets and community groups in Chicago, but their relationships have often been characterized by misunderstandings and missed connections. That’s why Franklin had organized the meeting in the first place—and precisely the reason why he worried that it would fail. The results, however, vastly exceeded his expectations.

The auditorium in the National Museum of Mexican Art, where the meeting was held, filled up so much that the museum staff had to keep bringing in more chairs. The three-hour event brimmed with curious, congenial conversation—the journalists honestly wanted to find out how they could better tell the communities’ stories, and the community groups earnestly wanted to learn how to reach the media. The discussion was so vibrant that people didn’t want to leave—museum staff finally had to force them out to close up.

Now Franklin is planning a similar encounter between Polish media and community organizations.

After nearly four decades as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press and other papers covering uprisings in the Middle East and Latin America and labor struggles in the U.S., working with Chicago’s vibrant but often disjointed ethnic media scene is an exciting new challenge for Franklin.

In Chicago, there are at least 400 ethnic media outlets publishing or broadcasting in languages other than English. But like the mainstream media, these outlets have been hard-hit by the recession. Couched in insular communities, many have also been slow to embrace the networking and social media crucial in today’s media landscape.

Hence Franklin’s work. Through his ethnic media project and “Chicago is the World” Web site (www.chicagoistheworld.org), Franklin works tirelessly to help ethnic media professionals connect with each other, their communities, advertisers, power brokers and a burgeoning national network.

Ultimately, Franklin, a Knight International Journalism Fellowship recipient and former finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is trying to foster a coalition of Chicago ethnic media outlets that would share resources, content and ideas akin to existing networks in San Francisco and New York. It’s not always easy—there are language and cultural barriers and often suspicion from tightknit communities that feel politically or socially alienated. It helps that he speaks Spanish, Turkish and Arabic, and dabbles in French and Russian.

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Franklin to discuss his work.

What are the primary challenges right now?

The first challenge is viability—how they survive. The second challenge is content, to improve their skills, especially helping the outlets that have been around for 10 or 20 years to update and get on the Web. They’re short-staffed and underfunded. Ethnic media were financially strapped for years, and it’s become even worse in the recession, as they’ve lost community ads. Survival matters. It’s nice to teach critical issues in writing, but if you don’t have a newspaper … So we talk about how you market, how you get companies like banks and airlines to advertise. When we realized the [U.S. Census Bureau] was going to give money for advertisements, we had meetings to talk about the importance of the census and also how to apply for census ads. Ten to 20 papers got census ads for the first time ever—that $10,000 means a lot.

How does ethnic media differ from mainstream media? Does so-called objectivity and the debate over advocacy journalism play out differently?

Ethnic media have a clear purpose; they are there to help the community. And they do that by getting information out. There’s the same importance on telling stories, but the message is, ‘What’s happening to our community, who’s speaking for us and how are we affected?’ The Chicago Defender has stories on why there are more fires in black neighborhoods, and hunger in the black community. You don’t see that in other papers. The Latino papers tell the stories of the undocumented. Week after week, you see investigative, socially conscious stories.

In the future, does ethnic media play a role in driving an issue like immigration reform?

Clearly. Take a look at the stories we did on the census [from six different ethnic communities]. In all six communities, immigration reform is a critical issue. All six communities have undocumented people. There’s a stereotype that it’s only a Latino issue, but people don’t even know how many undocumented Poles there are, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese.

Are new ethnic outlets still emerging?

I find out about new ones every week. In the last year, there were three new Latino papers. There’s a new Arabic radio station. Two new Pakistani papers. There’s a new Polish 24-hour online news site.

Do you see many other hopeful signs?

We had a census meeting on Devon Avenue with Indian and Pakistani journalists, and at the end they were talking about ‘our neighborhood’ in the collective sense. That really means something. And Radio Arte, [a youth-run Spanish-language radio station in Pilsen], is one of the best in the nation. It trains young Latinos in broadcasting. They have a show about the gay community [‘Homofrecuencia’], which is very innovative. There’s another radio station called Radio Vida Independiente, which focuses on Latino disabled people. How wonderful is that?

What would the coalition of ethnic media outlets look like, and what would the benefits be?

We want immigrants to feel part of the bigger picture, to see what they have in common, to be part of American society and have their voices heard whether they’ve been here two weeks or 20 years. If you come together, you can save money on basic costs, you can attract advertising, you can have common Web pages. A national organization or government agency can come through the coalition, and [through a centralized process] place ads in papers and radio stations. Is it possible to get a black newspaper to run an editorial from Latino media? Those are the kind of questions we’re looking at.

So San Francisco and New York have already done what you are trying to do in Chicago?

I think the potential’s even greater here. But people just need to come together. This is a city with ethnic durability—there’s a 100-year-old Lithuanian newspaper; there are Chinese and Polish newspapers more than 70 years old. This is a city of incredible ethnic diversity. But the tragedy is a city of this diversity hasn’t pulled together yet. It just needs to get started. Once people realize the potential, it won’t stop.

Is a goal to influence those in power, and what will it take to do this?

Most ethnic media doesn’t realize their power. When you have 1.8 million Latinos in Chicago, up to a million Poles, 700,000 Indians and Pakistanis, half a million Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, that’s tremendous power. They can influence elections; they can influence power. When politicians are talking about problems in the schools or violence, they should be meeting with the black and Latino newspapers. That is happening, but not enough. If we make them meet with us like they do in other cities, that’s my goal. My best model is the New York Community Media Alliance. They’ve become so successful, they’ve had to turn down politicians wanting to meet with them. I visited them—I steal ideas from everybody.

What parallels do you see between your old life and your current mission?

Several years ago, I trained journalists in Egypt [for the International Center for Journalists], and I was so enriched, so fulfilled. I realized lawyers support lawyers, doctors support doctors, journalists don’t do enough to support each other. I felt like I had a wonderful career, and it was time to give back. It was a difficult decision, because my career at the Tribune was going great—my stories were really having an impact. 20That’s hard to give up. But I believe deeply that journalists have to help each other, either overseas or at home. My hope is more people will do that.