Publishers and editors reveal how they have been coping and the business strategies they have adopted.
By Parveen Chopra
Founding Editor, The South Asian Times
In 2020, India Abroad, known as the gold standard in ethnic newspapers in America, closed operations after 50 years in circulation.
In 2022 New India Abroad was started by a different team.
That tells you the story of Indian media in America. Down and up. Resilience and renewal. Learning and adapting.
The downturn for all journalism – not just Indian ethnic media – has been caused by the ever-growing digital revolution. The 2008 economic meltdown was bad for the media too. Covid years were worse. Now, social media is the new villain in the journalism story. Many storied newspapers in the US have closed or curtailed operations.
Indian ethnic media has been more vulnerable because of a lack of promoters with deep pockets for sustaining operations and a dearth of committed journalists doing quality work to keep readers engaged. Surprisingly, the big media houses from India have not ventured here.
The need for quality journalism to serve the Indian community is greater than ever. For one, the community is growing – their numbers increased from about 3 million in 2010 to more than 4.5 million as per the 2020 census. Indian Americans make headlines as achievers in the US media and are referred to as a model minority.
But being new immigrants, the community cannot let its guard down. Knowledge is power. It is the job of community media to bring to the notice of their readers issues that need collective action. And, becoming their voice, take their issues to officials and lawmakers concerned. For example, they need to keep hammering the US Congress to resolve the monstrous green card backlog for Indians.
A new, combustible case is Washington state passing a law (now under consideration in California) banning discrimination based on caste, a practice allegedly extended here from India. Some Hindu groups condemned the move as anti-Indian. The community papers should be explaining the implications of the bill and build a consensus – for or against.
Surely, all regions of the US with large Indian populations have community newspapers. But most of them have mainly ended up as aggregators compiling news and features available freely. In contrast, New York-based India Abroad once spawned editions in other diaspora countries and a news agency.
India Abroad, under publisher Gopal Raju, even made press freedom history. They published a story linking megastar Amitabh Bachchan’s brother, Ajitabh Bachchan, to kickbacks in a defense deal. Ajitabh sued in London and won 40,000-pound damages in 1990. Raju fought the enforcement at home. US legacy media including The New York Times filed briefs in Raju’s support. Raju won.
Unfortunately, declining ad revenue while honor-bound to keep printing copies to serve its 20,000+ paid subscribers made the paper a hot potato eventually.
One contemporary of India Abroad was India West, a paper with big circulation on the West Coast. Its aging owners, Bina and Ramesh Murarka, shut it down when Covid struck.
Today, a new opportunity has arisen for the Indian media. With the greater visibility of South Asians in many spheres of American life, it is time to tell their story to the mainstream. But to achieve that you need some gumption and broader vision.
Indian Americans are well-educated and high earners. Rightly leveraged, this market can support a vibrant media.
So, what is blocking that from happening, and what is the way forward? Publishers and editors responded to reveal how they have been coping and the business strategies they have adopted.
Business models in the mix
Sunil Hali, an engineer by profession, entered the media industry in 2000. “It was the year of the Y2K scare, and Indian techies earned a good reputation in the USA. Feeling the story of a developing India was left untold by India Abroad, I started the North American edition of The Indian Express, a trusted name with high integrity,” he recalls.
To compete with India Abroad, Hali distributed his paper free at temples, gurdwaras, and retail stores, setting a trend. In what he calls a “multiplier effect”, he is now aiming to reach the community through different mediums: The Indian Eye print paper and TV, Divya Bhaskar in Gujarati, and Radio Zindagi.
Coping with falling ad revenue
The sharp decline in ad revenue coupled with a rise in paper and printing costs has made the survival of print publications perilous.
Founded in 2008, The South Asian Times continues to print besides mailing an electronic replica (e-paper) to a large list. Under Publisher and Chairman Kamlesh Mehta, its policy to present clean content is a factor in holding a committed class of readers and advertisers to keep it in business. The Asian Era is a sister publication founded by Ginsmon Zacharia.
Mehta’s was the only Indian paper that did not suspend publication even during the pandemic. “We weathered the Covid-19 storm by tightening our belt and thanks to cooperation from our loyal team,” he says. “We served the community further by establishing a helpline to respond to the urgent needs of people.”
As The South Asian Times editor until last year, I expanded its editorial mix to offer a little more than other papers. To news from India and community affairs, I added a couple of pages on US affairs. I also aimed at neutrality, even as other papers tend to tilt right in Indian affairs and left in US affairs.
During Covid, federal, state, and NYC ads came as a godsend for papers on their radar. Now, some publishers grumble that Mayor Eric Adams has not delivered on his promised support to ethnic media. Prof Indrajit Singh Saluja, Editor-Publisher of The Indian Panorama, blames it on a lack of vision by the bureaucracy. He praises, however, CUNY’s Center for Community Media (CCM) for their sustained push for government support for ethnic media. (Disclosure: This article was written under a fellowship from CCM)
When asked, José Bayona, Executive Director of NYC Mayor’s Office of Ethnic & Community Media, stated: “The South Asian community is the second largest community represented in the Citywide Marketing Directory. Many South Asian publications continue to receive advertisements from the City.” He explained the decreasing ad support to the end of pandemic federal funds flowing to the City and contingencies like the migrant crisis.
Should the Indian government support the community media here as it used to once release Air India and tourism ads? Prof Saluja says yes, but “I would prefer to do without it, so as to not be beholden to anybody.”
Sunil Hali wants Indian businesses and organizations in the US to support quality media through advertising which will help them in turn. That support is coming only in a trickle. Big organizations like AAPI (American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin), and GOPIO (Global Organization of People of Indian Origin) send out a steady stream of press releases but balk when asked for paid ads.
The e-paper way
Printing alone can rack up as much as half the cost of a small operation.
Sharanjit Singh Thind was the first to make the shift to an e-paper of his South Asian Insider over a decade ago. He believes investigative stories can break new ground today. Thind also foresaw video becoming the medium of the future. So, he started Josh India Web TV. With YouTube around, who needs a TV channel?
Prof Saluja too saw the light and turned his paper digital in 2018. His single survival strategy: “To stay focused on the local community and generate revenue from community businesses and organizations.”
Asif Ismail had the foresight to start The American Bazaar 11 years ago as a news portal from Washington DC, with business as a special focus. He claims in 2016-17 they were netting a million page views a month. Yet, the ad revenue has not grown commensurately with it to pay for the news staff including an editor. To raise additional funds, they have been doing events.
Asif points out that most Indians here are comfortable with English and are net-savvy to get their daily dose of news from a paper back home such as The Times of India, which gets more traffic from the US compared to all the Indian sites combined here. In contrast, he says, communities such as the Chinese and Koreans patronize papers in their own language.
Immediacy with newsletters
All Indian papers have been weekly tabloids. But today if you cannot tell the news to your readers quickly enough, they will go elsewhere. Bringing people to your website, however, takes some doing. A cost-effective alternative is to send news to their inboxes.
New India Abroad does that by mailing out a daily newsletter to a list of thousands.
They may change their name to India Abroad but will find it hard to live up to the legacy of their namesake.
Rajeev Bhambri, long-time operations head of India Abroad now in CEO role at the new venture, and Sridhar Krishnaswami, a veteran journalist as editor-in-chief, have a strategy to suit the times: “We want to work in the language and medium our readers want.” By medium they mean e-paper, website, as well as print and podcast. Also, posting e-paper on WhatsApp and Facebook community groups, which are sometimes thousands strong. They also have a Hindi edition of New India Abroad.
Hindi is India’s national language, but somehow Hindi papers don’t do well here. Hum Hindustani, started by Jasbir Jay Singh about a decade ago, is now digital only.
Universal News Network (TheUNN.com) was started by the journalist Ajay Ghosh with a business partner. Now they send out a weekly newsletter to a large list. Yet, ads are very few and fresh funding alone can keep the lights on.
Turning publisher, Sunil Adam, former editor of India Abroad, aimed his website American Kahani at GenX and millennials. He has not introduced a paywall because you need to have “enough resources to create content that people will think it is worthy of paying for,” he was quoted as saying in the Atlanta-based Khabar magazine.
Asif Ismail argues that “people will shell out money only for Netflix or Amazon Prime.”
The Juggernaut wants to prove both wrong. Started in 2018 by Snigdha Sur, a Harvard Business School graduate, it has raised $2.2 million as reported by Crunchbase. The subscription is $9.99 monthly and $72 annually. Their USP is in-depth South Asian stories with wider appeal by featuring people and themes familiar to the mainstream such as the latest on actress Priyanka Chopra and the rise and fall of the Hot Yoga guru, Bikram Chaudhury.
Watching the media landscape change, publisher Vandana Kumar transitioned India Currents in 2019 from a 32-year-old monthly magazine to a fully digital, nonprofit entity. Their mission is to tell critical and investigative stories for and about the diaspora in Silicon Valley.
The success of non-profit journalism, Vandana argues, is measured by the impact you create with your stories in the community, not by the number of stories you post.
India Currents saw growth in 2022. It received a $100,000 grant from the State of California. They also scored with NewsMatch – a program by the Institute of Nonprofit News, which matches up to $20,000 in your own fundraising campaign in a year.
When I started ALotusInTheMud.com earlier this year as a wellness and spirituality web magazine, I also took the not-for-profit route. Aimed at all communities, not just Indian, the Lotus site is run by American Center for Wellness & Spirituality, a 501-c-3 corporation registered in New York.
If you can’t beat them, join them.
Pritpal Kaur is a next-gen media entrepreneur. She pushes Preetnama, a newspaper in Punjabi and English, and does video interviews and talk shows – all on social media. “People access everything on their smartphones. Who has the time to sit in front of the ‘dabba’ (TV box)!” she smirks.
In the final analysis
Running a media company requires commitment. “Promoters should take it seriously and not as a social calling card,” comments Sunil Hali.
As for ad revenue, not all is lost. Neeta Bhasin, President of ASB Communications, says she tells her clients that print may not be effective anymore, but advertise with the papers nonetheless to reach thousands of their database consolidated from digital presence and social media.
She cites a survey conducted by the Asian American Advertising Federation in 2016 which found that a large majority of Asian Americans, Indian Americans in particular, are heavy Facebook and YouTube users.
Lalit K. Jha, Chief US Correspondent of PTI (Press Trust of India) news agency, sums up the current scenario, “The Indian media in the US is passing through an evolutionary phase. It has challenges, but that comes with opportunities as well.”
The TV Scene
Steadily losing viewers and ad revenue, South Asian TV channels are also struggling.
TV Asia was the first channel for the Indian community available coast to coast in America in 1993. Under businessman H.R. Shah since 1997, the information and entertainment network headquartered in Edison, NJ, offers programming in Hindi, English, and Gujarati. Their website claims they reach half a million households each month across North America. They won’t admit it, but business is suffering.
Shah, honored with a Padma Shri by the Indian government, has embarked on a more ambitious project – World on App. They plan to package several Indian channels in various languages offering news, movies, sports, and religious content, as well as VOD (video on demand) of events. The premium package currently available in North America includes TV Asia and costs $3.50 a month.
ITV Gold claims to be the first 24×7 Indian cable TV channel in the US. It was started from New York in 1985 by Dr. Banad N. Viswanath, a cardiologist. Dr Sudhir Parikh, who has a network of asthma and allergy clinics in New Jersey and New York, acquired ITV Gold in 2018. His Parikh Worldwide Media also owns DesiTalk, News India Times, and Gujarat Times.
Dr Parikh says he is always willing to put in his own money and has recently built a $1 million TV studio in Edison, NJ. ITV Gold now shows programming from Doordarshan, the public broadcast network under the Indian government. They are also available on Sling.
“Media for me is philanthropy, not business,” Dr Parikh, a Padma Shri awardee, asserts. “It has to be supported so our children and grandchildren continue to have a bonding with Mother India.” He contends that media, particularly ethnic media, is not an easy business to be in unless you have deep pockets.
Another channel to make a mark is Jus Punjabi, started by Penny Sandhu in 2007. It is on several cable TV platforms and DTH (direct-to-home) as part of the South Asian package.
For Indian TV channels, a major source of revenue has been satellite platforms, which charge subscribers a fee. But for some years now, cable has been hemorrhaging customers. And when did you last see somebody get a DISH installed on their rooftop? Sling, from DISH, is online.
Shomik Chaudhury, an old hand in ad sales, faults community channels for lacking in the finesse of entertainment channels from India, whose viewership is many times more. Channels like Zee and Sony present glitzy family dramas and reality TV shows created in India and are choc-a-block with commercials.
This story was produced as part of the Small Business Reporting Fellowship, organized by the Center for Community Media and funded by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.