Newspapers are dead? Tell that to B.C.’s ethnic press

Harbinder Singh Sewak’s Post Group now puts out three weekly newspapers

Newspapers may be an increasingly marginal business, but ethnic papers are proving the exception

Conventional wisdom has it that newspapers are dead, right? Well, somebody forgot to tell B.C.’s ethnic press.

“Mainstream media has always been slow in recognizing the ethnic market,” says Harbinder Singh Sewak, publisher of Post Group Multimedia’s three newspapers—the Asian Pacific Post, South Asian Post and Filipino Post—which together distribute 100,000 copies throughout the Lower Mainland each week. Malaysian-born Sewak launched his first paper, the Southeast Asian Post (later renamed the Asian Pacific Post) in 1993, and by 2001 the Post’s now-signature white newspaper boxes were erected alongside those of the Vancouver Sun and Georgia Straight at street corners throughout the Lower Mainland. Sewak’s achievement has been recognized by contemporaries both here and abroad: in 2003, the Asian Pacific Post won a Jack Webster Award for community reporting, and Sewak won the top media prize at the World Sikh Awards in London in 2013.

While the Post Group papers operate in a post-recession, post-digital world—where ad dollars once reserved for newspapers increasingly go to Google—Sewak notes that an increase in big corporate advertisers has more than offset losses from smaller local accounts: “There has been a decline in the number of ads but not in ad revenue.” And in an age of shuttered papers and wafer-thin margins, that’s nothing to scoff at. Consider a recent PwC report, which estimated that newspaper revenue in Canada would decline 20 per cent between 2013 and 2017. Or the fact that the Abbotsford/Mission Times went under in 2013 and the Kamloops Daily News in 2014—the latter after some 80 years in operation.

Asian Pacific Post: The Numbers

160,000: estimated weekly readership
$70,000: median income of readers
60%: readers in the 32-to-46 age range
55:45: male-to-female reader ratio
89%: readers with a post-secondary education

While the ethnic press isn’t immune to changes in advertising—which remains the dominant source of revenue for most papers—“many of the established [ethnic] newspapers are making money and probably doing better than 10 years ago,” according to Sewak. Meanwhile, readership continues to blossom for ethnic papers as tens of thousands of immigrants move to B.C. each year; by 2017, more than half of all Lower Mainlanders will belong to a visible minority, according to Statistics Canada—something that’s already the case in Richmond, Burnaby, Surrey and Vancouver proper. By far, the Lower Mainland’s top three immigrant source countries are China, India and the Philippines—and Sewak now has a newspaper targeting each community. That’s attractive to major national and multinational advertisers that want to reach those new markets, says Sewak, who notes a “steady increase” in the presence of corporate behemoths like Telus and Proctor and Gamble within his papers’ pages.

Other ethnic media publishers have seen success too. Vinnie Combow, general manager at the 16-person Voice Group of Publications—which puts out two newspapers, two magazines and a “Yellow Pages-style directory” for the local Punjabi community—says his Surrey-based company gets “a lot of corporate advertising, including a lot from automotive.” While the company doesn’t disclose financials, Combow will allow that Voice Group has “been protected from the recession because we are a niche market.” And as Combow sees it, it’s a growing and engaged niche: “People want to know what’s happening in their communities—they like to have [these papers] as a resource to communicate their feelings.”

The success of the ethnic press has also bred a lot of competition. Paul Dhillon, editor of Surrey-based The Link Newspaper, a South Asian publication launched in 1973, estimates there are now as many as a dozen Punjabi-language newspapers in the Lower Mainland alone—many of which, he says, “don’t even have a proper editor and are just scrambled together by a publisher.” While the established papers are doing well, Dhillon thinks that’s not necessarily the case with upstarts. Post Group’s Sewak agrees: “There is a rush of new titles being printed, and they are fast becoming defunct.”

Some of that competition has come from Canada’s biggest newspaper publisher—although it remains to be seen whether Postmedia will have more success than its small counterparts. The owner of the Vancouver Sun and Province launched Taiyangbao, an online Chinese-language version of the Sun, and Vancouver Desi, an English-language website for South Asians, in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Sewak, for one, is skeptical—arguing that Desi lacks community coverage, which he considers key to cracking the ethnic market and attracting and retaining advertisers, many of whom still see value with print.

“While 10 years ago, it was the rage to provide ‘home country news,’ now there is a tilt to publicize local events and stories,” he says. “Today, mainstream advertisers are focusing on communities.”