Learning this week that New America Media was shutting down was like hearing about a death in the family.
For 20 years, New America Media has nurtured journalists for ethnic media outlets and helped make the concerns of America’s ethnic communities part of the national conversation. The Center for Health Journalism has been privileged to have NAM’s founder and executive director, Sandy Close, on our board since our founding 13 years ago, and we have benefitted greatly from her wisdom and vision.
Sandy is a force of nature, full of ideas and insights, yet so humble that she never mentions her MacArthur Foundation “genius award” or her Oscar. For me, she’s someone who is always in motion, rumpled, hurried and cheerful — carrying a book bag with papers spilling out, each representing a project or the next step in her rich creative life.
As a student at UC Berkeley in the ’80s, I felt enlightened and inspired by reading the articles coming out of the Pacific News Service shop (the parent organization behind New America Media, which also will be shuttered). They were like nothing I had read before, with bylines from new thinkers on race and place and politics such as Richard Rodriguez, Nell Bernstein, Peter Dale Scott and so many others.
On our board, Sandy has been a passionate voice for inclusion of journalists from ethnic media. Since 2004, we have welcomed numerous talented staff members from New America Media — Viji Sundarum, Paul Kleyman, Ngoc Nguyen, Anna Challet, Jenny Manrique and Anthony Advincula, among others — into our Fellowships, as well as countless reporters for ethnic media outlets around the country whom Sandy and her staff encouraged to apply.
Journalists from ethnic and mainstream media outlets operate in silos and too rarely interact in their professional lives. We made it a priority to bring reporters from these different worlds together in our Fellowships, which begin with intensive professional development programs for five days, a literal and figurative fellowship experience that participants tell us sets the stage for future collaborations. Sandy was one of the biggest cheerleaders for these efforts, always urging us to do more.
One of our most memorable ethnic media collaborative Fellowship projects resulted from a partnership between Jacob Simas, then a NAM producer, an Allie Hostler of the Two Rivers Tribune, an outlet on the Hoopa Reservation. The project, which brought together a Native American journalism who grew up in Hoopa country and a reporter learning about her world, documented how the meth epidemic was ravaging reservation life — as well as efforts to turn things around. Jacob’s video and Allie’s stories brought different perspectives together and provided an intimate look at painful truths that would not have been captured otherwise.
Recognizing that ethnic media journalists have often been shut out of the major prizes of journalism because they publish in languages other than English, Sandy started a separate awards competition for ethnic media and found backers to support it.
Sandy also has served since its inception as a judge for our Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, which underwrites reporting projects on underserved communities. She is smart, relentless in her advocacy of the projects she believes in and unwilling to accept mediocrity. She always wants to choose projects that provide a unique frame on health and community life and is quick to dismiss a story if she has seen it before. Given her wide-ranging reading, she could always spot an original idea.
One of New America Media’s most important contributions has been to help ethnic media outlets unite across ethnic lines and see themselves as the key storytellers chronicling the growing diversification of the United States. Every day, NAM’s landing page features curated news stories from ethnic media outlets across the country, providing insights into the lives of communities that are rarely written about in the mainstream media.
On November 1, for example, the day NAM’s closure was announced, NAM’s landing page included a story from AsAmNews.com about a hate crime at a Chinese cemetery in Queens; a story from the Washington Informer, which caters to African Americans, about President Trump’s criticism of Rep. Frederica Wilson, an African American member of Congress from Florida; a story from the Louisiana Weekly, which reports on African Americans, about the slaying of an African American police officer; a story from Inquirer.net, which serves a Filipino audience, about the vandalism of a Filipino shopping center in Stockton, California; and links to some of the in-depth projects on aging issues produced for both ethnic and media outlets across the country in connection with one of NAM’s fellowships.
The reasons behind NAM’s closing are complex. “We’ve always aspired to do more than our resources allowed,” Sandy said in a statement. “We grew too fast and were reluctant to cut off programs after their funding expired. We reached a point where we were not sustainable, as currently constituted.”
The unfortunate truth is that the ethnic media outlets that New America Media championed are being buffeted by the same forces that threaten the future of mainstream media outlets, including declining circulations and advertising revenues.
The Pew Research Center reported in August that many black-oriented newspapers have seen a slow decline in circulation in recent years, and that circulation declined by at least 11 percent for each of the three daily Hispanic newspapers that reported 2016 data, and by 5 percent for the top 20 Hispanic weekly and semiweekly newspapers. Recently, News from Indian Country, arguably the leading outlet featuring investigative and explanatory journalism on issues important to Native Americans, ceased publishing.
This trend makes it incumbent upon journalism institutions, our own Center for Health Journalism included, to continue to make diversity a central element of our work.
We thank Sandy and her team for the many ways they have made journalism stronger and hope our colleagues will join us in looking for ways to continue that legacy.