Like so many immigrants, Seva Rodnyansky and his family were both running from and toward something when they came to the United States from St. Petersburg in 1993. As Jews, they were fleeing religious persecution in a country that, even after the fall of communism, was not very friendly to them. But they were also looking for greater economic prosperity, the perennial immigrant quest for the American dream.
Rodnyansky, 22, moved here at the age of seven and has always felt proud of his Russian heritage. He speaks, reads, and writes Russian better than many of the other young Russian émigrés he knows, and wants his children someday to be able to say the same.
But that pride hasn’t translated into a connection to the country or the current events taking place there.
A sample of some of the ethnic media Chicago has to offer

A sample of some of the ethnic media Chicago has to offer

“It’s not what I’m interested in,” he said. “It’s not what young people are interested in.”

While Rodnyansky’s grandparents, who also live in the U.S., read Novoye Russkoye Slovo, a Russian-American newspaper that is published weekly, he would rather read the Wall Street Journal.

Rodnyansky is representative of a wider trend among young immigrants and American-born children of immigrants. Despite an array of ethnic media across the country – one industry veteran estimates that there are over 300 ethnic media outlets in Chicago alone, at least 100 of which are active and vibrant – they are failing to attract young readers.

While their parents and grandparents still look to ethnic newspapers and television stations for updates on their home country, Rodnyansky and others would sooner turn to the internet and mainstream American media, if they care to find news from ‘back home’ at all.

“A mission that’s greater”: the ethnic media landscape

Ethnic media emerged “to serve the needs of minority populations that are either rendered invisible in the mainstream media or are represented in a negative, stereotypical manner,” said Dr. Zeny Sarabia-Panol, a professor of journalism at Middle Tennessee State University, at a conference on ethnicity and media in 2006.

Much of the information in media targeted toward immigrants isn’t about developments back home but rather about the processes and procedures of being an American – for instance, renting property, buying a car, banking, becoming a citizen, or deadlines for school enrollment, said Michael P. Smith, executive director of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University. It thus makes sense that young people, who may be more adaptable to new environments, are not as reliant on ethnic media.

“If you’re new to the country and don’t speak the language, you’re more likely to use media that is in your own language,” Smith said.

Consuming radio, television and newspapers in one’s native language is important as first generation immigrants begin to assimilate to American culture. These media also have “a mission that’s greater than just making profit,” Smith said. They strive to create connections, both within an immigrant community and between that community and their home country.

“[For] ethnic news media, because they’re connected to the community, economic success is not as important as serving the community,” said Steve Franklin, who works as the ethnic news media project director for Community Media Workshop, which connects nonprofit organizations around Chicago with media outlets.

In a difficult economy, ethnic media’s unique mission sustains them. But survival is not easy, Franklin said.

“[Ethnic media outlets] are in serious crisis,” he said. “Like sharks, the bigger ethnic news media eat the smaller news media’s advertising dollars.”

Still, Franklin said, “they will cut everything before they stop serving the community.”

Mercedez Fernandez, a reporter for Hoy, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language daily newspaper, said it provides an important function for the Latino community.

Hoy is expanding, she said, reaching half a million Latinos daily, and is one of the few products of the Tribune Co. making, not losing, revenue. With their use of technology, a new, Red Eye-like design, and job listings that target young professionals, Hoy has tried to lure in the younger generation.

But the newspaper mainly attracts first-generation Latinos and has struggled to engage younger readers or even to employ young reporters. Although older reporters can speak, read and write Spanish at a high level, young reporters usually lack key skills in at least one of these areas.

“If you get younger people they would always make mistakes in the language,” she said. “What’s going to happen next?”

For youth, a new direction in media consumption

Hoy is not even the newspaper on the breakfast table in Fernandez’s household. Fernandez doesn’t bring Hoy home, as her three children get their news from television, online or mainstream sources.

“If they have to pick up a newspaper or any publication on the street, they would pick the Sun Times, the Tribune, the Red Eye – everything in English,” she said. “They grew up here.”

Language barriers often pose a problem for younger immigrants in connecting with ethnic media, especially for those who may feel more comfortable in English than their native tongue.

John Decarvalho, who moved to the U.S. from Brazil at the age of eight, considers himself very aware of Brazilian politics. But with his Portuguese weaker than it once was, Decarvalho turns to American media for most of his news.

“I can go to the New York Times and understand everything, but to go through O Globo would take twice the time,” he said, referring to a major Brazilian newspaper. “Maybe subconsciously that’s a factor.”

Decarvalho’s mother, on the other hand, reads O Globo online every day, keeps up with Brazilian blogs, and watches a Brazilian news channel every night. Decarvalho will sit down with his mom to watch to the eight o’clock news, but it can feel like an effort, he said.

At the dinner table

So where are younger immigrants getting their news? For many, news from the home country comes from family conversations.

Tal Stzainer, 22, who moved from Israel with his family when he was in third grade, remembers Israeli politics being a key topic while growing up.

“I’m picturing my parents talking about Israel, and it happens to be at the dinner table,” Stzainer said.

The same is true even for young immigrants who are involved in the ethnic media.

Aneta Olszynska, a reporter and copy editor for Kurier Codzienny, a Chicago-based Polish daily, who moved to the U.S. four years ago, said she still relies on her grandparents in her hometown of Mońki, Poland, as a source of Polish news.

“That is the case with everybody, I think,” she said.

Olszynska sees a discernable gap in how invested the older and younger generations of Polish immigrants are in news from the home country. Polish news is a “huge topic” for the older generation, the people who lived through communism and, often, fought in resistance movements and had to flee to the United States, she said.

The younger generation doesn’t have the same history of political involvement.

“I think a lot of people don’t care or don’t want to,” she said of younger Polish-Americans. “And it’s a shame.”

The younger generation may feel emotionally distant because of the physical separation from Poland.

“You live here, in this country, so you feel that things that are going on in this country are more important because they directly or indirectly impact you as opposed to what’s going on in Poland,” she said.

Similarly, Sztainer feels connected more to the events going on around him. Growing up in both Israel and the States has blurred his sense of belonging and also changed his news priorities.

“I think there was a certain point when I started counting, ‘How much more Israeli am I than American?’” he said. “And it was a big deal when I turned 16 and I was half and half, and to know that every year after that I would be more American than Israeli.”

As he has become ‘more American,’ Sztainer has turned more to American news sources, even for updates on Israel. There was a time when, the website of one of Israel’s leading newspapers, was among his bookmarked pages. Now, Sztainer finds himself less often actively searching for news on Israel, reading news from the New York Times instead.

“I definitely give it more attention than I give other news, but I don’t ask myself, ‘Oh, what’s going on in Israel today?’” he said.

Like Sztainer, Decarvalho has also gradually become drawn more to American current events.

“I’m just more interested in what the New York Times has to say,” Decarvalho said. “It pertains to my life more. I read the other [Brazilian] publication because it’s what I should read. [But] it’s not my immediate reaction; it doesn’t come naturally.”

Engaging the next generation

As young people shy away from ethnic media, the future of immigrant activism stands to change. In the past, ethnic news media have had an incredible influence on immigrant communities and activism, Franklin said.

“For the Latino community, it is the life-blood of the community,” he said. “Three years ago, were it not for Latino radio stations, you would not have had mass immigrant marches.”

But second generation immigrants, usually more comfortable and assimilated than their parents, don’t connect to each other or to their home countries through ethnic media.

“I don’t think the right way to reach Arab-Americans is to single them out and treat them like Arab-Americans,” said Ray Hanania, an Arab-American journalist in Chicago. “If you really want to get the spirit of the Arab community, turn on mainstream media. They’re watching the same programs that everyone else is watching.”

At the same time, mainstream outlets are not satisfying the needs of younger immigrants.

Decarvalho said he finds the BBC and other networks are more comprehensive than American media, and therefore more reliable for news about Brazil.

“Here, six o’clock news sucks,” he said. “It’s [about] dogs running away.”

Second-generation immigrants continue to reinforce their desire for news from their home countries, and their dissatisfaction with the media options currently available. If mainstream American news outlets want to keep their young ethnic audiences, they’ll need to work harder to bring them the news they are looking for, and bring the world outside America’s borders closer.