Minneapolis-St. Paul News Coverage of Minority Communities

Chapter 5

Perspectives of Community and Alternative News Media

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is a strong supporter of community and alternative news media. A former reporter with the Star Tribune and founder of two monthly alternative papers, Mayor Rybak spoke at the fact-finding meeting about the role of these news sources in society:

I really think the issue is about understanding that plural voices means more than having one or two from one or two communities. The alternative voices we can add will not only increase our ability to understand different viewpoints, but I think also certainly begin to forward different voices. And that’s terribly important. We’re in a period of telescoping of media, one in which there are fewer and fewer media outlets on a global level. That should be a threat to all of us who consider having diverse opinions important. That should be an especially important topic for what folks here are doing today. 

In 1992, the Minnesota Advisory Committee found that most community news media outlets began for just the reason the mayor said: to offer a different voice. Community news sources were often begun because their founders wanted to correct what they perceived as lack of coverage or inaccurate coverage of their constituencies by mainstream media. The Committee believes that these issues of representation are still important to the community media representatives. However, as some community media have expanded in the Twin Cities, divisions seem to have grown between them and mainstream media. The relationship between the two industries appears to be antagonistic to some degree. Interestingly, these difficulties were most clearly expressed by reporters of color at the mainstream news media outlets.


As was found in the original report, community papers were most often founded because they filled a gap in coverage left by the mainstream media. Mark Anthony Rolo, executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, said, “Why [ethnic media] exists in the first place is because, for The Circle 20 years ago, the Native community was like, ‘Hell, they’re not reporting on us. They’re not covering our community. Maybe we can try doing that.’ Ethnic newspapers, for most of them, came about because the mainstream newspapers were not covering them. So my biggest frustration with the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press was always, ‘why are you the official record and we are not?’” Murali Balaji, a reporter for the Pioneer Press and president of the Asian American Journalists Association in Minnesota, added, “When the ethnic presses were formed, obviously their mission was to cover communities that were underrepresented in print and on television. You didn’t see faces of color on TV. You didn’t see news about communities of color for communities of color in our newspapers. Obviously, they began with the purpose to be community oriented [and] to make sure that everyone was up to speed on what was going on and what issues are important.”

In addition to lack of coverage, some ethnic papers were formed to combat negative portrayals of their community. Al McFarlane, owner of the African American publication Insight News, told the Committee, “Historically, mainstream media have tended to work to marginalize our values, our presence, our existence, our claims, and our needs.” Lorena Duarte, a reporter for La Prensa Minnesota, also felt this history as she described why her father founded the bilingual paper:

My family came to Minnesota when there were very few new Latino immigrants. Many of them had been established for a while. My father saw a great need to demonstrate that Latinos did something other than rob cars and rape and murder little girls, which is what you saw on the major media outlets. That’s all you saw. And so the reason that La Prensa Minnesota was even conceived of is because he just saw a great need to demonstrate the positives in our community, what we do right, and truly articulate our needs. Because our needs are so much more complex than the little blurbs that are kind of thrown out here and there on some radio show or on some TV show for their 30-second spot or small community involvement piece or whatever. So, we needed to articulate our needs and demonstrate what we were doing to rectify those needs.

Community and Alternative Press Today

Not surprisingly, the ethnic press has done well as they have become more established in communities and as the ethnic communities continue to swell in size. For example, La Prensa has grown from a small, eight-page weekly in 1991 to a considerably larger, three-section paper today.[1] Its circulation has increased accordingly. According to Lorena Duarte, “Our circulation has grown. We started off as a monthly newspaper. Now we’re weekly. We used to print 2,000 papers, now our circulation is 15,000 a week.” Other ethnic papers in the Twin Cities have flourished beyond circulation size. For example, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, one of Minneapolis’ African American community newspapers, has attracted two large corporate sponsors, UPS and AT&T.

As the communities of color grow and the ethnic press becomes larger, new problems have arisen. One of the most serious problems for ethnic papers is garnering corporate advertisements—the primary funding for newspapers. The example of the Spokesman-Recorder having two large corporate sponsors appears to be the exception more than the rule for most community newspapers. Al McFarlane, who also owns McFarlane Media Interests, discussed the issue in detail in the 1992 fact-finding meeting. For him, the argument he made then was still valid today: 

We call Target, we call Cub, we call Rainbow, and we call Walgreens, every major company, all the banks. But there’s basically a boycott of black, Asian, and Latino media, of ethnic media, by major financial institutions. They are boycotting our community; they’re boycotting our businesses. And they do it because they feel they don’t have to [advertise with us]. There’s nobody to answer to because our communities, in their view, are not organized enough to place an expectation or demand. Therefore, we have to do that.

Beyond private business, Mr. McFarlane pointed out that federal and local governments spend a good deal of money on news media advertising. Unfortunately, government advertising in community papers is declining:

Hennepin County and Ramsey County spend tons of money with legal notices. The Airport Commission used to spend a lot of money with all of our papers. They stopped doing it because they felt like it was not an appropriate expenditure of taxpayers’ money to talk to businesses in our community, when there was a white-owned resource that does it. So business as usual is dealing with the white media, white companies, and we always again are marginalized and looked at as extraordinary or extra cost. And they would even tell us when we’d make sales calls, “Well, we’ll put the real ad in the Star Tribune and put a little ad in your paper, telling people to go to the Star Tribune to read the information.” And we said, “Why don’t you put the real ad in our paper? It’s cheaper. Run the big ad in our paper and buy a little ad in the Star Tribune. Tell them at the Star Tribune, if they want the information, go to the Spokesman-Recorder, to Insight, to La Prensa, the Insight News.” Let’s flip this thing upside down, and then we have a beginning of looking at what moves towards parity and equity.

In his presentation to the Minnesota Advisory Committee, Mayor Rybak also addressed the financial aspects of running an alternative or community news media outlet:

I believe that mainstream media can and should do a very good job of representing the diverse communities that we have. But I don’t believe mainstream media can ever do as good a job of that as grassroots media that represents the community, that comes out of the community, and that has a perspective of the community. Because of that, I think part of the work should be about understanding how do we support those institutions. Any of the community papers that we deal with, especially during periods like now, are struggling. So we really need to look at that issue, of how to economically help those publications.

In addition to looking for change from advertisers, McFarlane put some of the responsibility on the communities themselves. In discussing his paper’s relatively new advertising of Rainbow groceries, McFarlane spoke of the need for consumers to pressure advertisers to invest in community papers. As he said, “If our consumers are sufficiently aware, they have the power to call up the owner of Rainbow and say, ‘We’re glad to see your ad in Insight News; why aren’t you advertising in the Spokesman-Recorder? Are you also advertising in La Prensa Minnesota or the Asian-American Press?’ If our people begin to do that, they will respond.” However, it is unclear whether the organization and coordination between communities exist for such actions to occur.

Growing Tensions Between Mainstream and Ethnic Media

The Minnesota Advisory Committee recommended in the 1993 report that mainstream and minority news media outlets work “cooperatively where at all possible.” The community press, besides being a very valuable news source in itself, can also help develop reporters for the larger news media. For example, Brandt Williams, a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and former reporter for Insight News, discussed the advantages he has over other reporters because of his experience with a community newspaper: “For me, being a black reporter, coming from first working on a small community newspaper, I think that gave me an opportunity to make a lot of contacts within the community, which I think has been valuable in how I do things now at public radio.”

Unfortunately, the Committee recommendation for cooperation does not appear to have been followed. In fact, the relation between Twin Cities mainstream news media and its community news media appears quite contentious and this contentiousness may be increasing, ironically, as more people of color are employed in mainstream media. It is difficult to see how these tensions are improving coverage of communities of color. 

According to Maria Douglas Reeve of the Pioneer Press, the differences between the two news sources are so striking that Brandt Williams’ positive experiences will likely not be experienced by others:

As far as I’m concerned, I do not think there is a relationship with ethnic press and mainstream papers. We don’t tend to hire from them. We don’t tend to recruit from them. And to be perfectly frank, sometimes, if you read those stories, we don’t write that way. There is a way that we approach what we do, and it is different from what happens at ethnic or community newspapers. It just is. Have we, in our organizations, tried to form relationships with people at ethnic presses? There’s been effort.

Likewise, Murali Balaji articulated what he saw as clear differences in the two news sources’ approach as journalists:

I do think there’s somewhat of an adversarial relationship [between mainstream and community media]. We in the mainstream media sometimes trivialize what the smaller newspapers do. It’s not newsworthy, or the alternative newspapers tend to take on more of an anti-establishment feel. It’s perfectly okay to be critical; however, one thing that we don’t do as [mainstream] journalists is just look to bring people down. So in that sense, the mainstream and the community and alternative newspapers have different philosophies and a different dynamic in terms of approaching the news. [So], there has been somewhat of an adversarial relationship between the ethnic presses and the mainstream media, especially when it comes to journalists of color who work at the mainstream organizations.

According to Mr. Balaji, journalists of color employed with mainstream news media feel squeezed by the pressure of being one of a few people of color in their newsrooms. They are pressured to be representatives of communities of color within the papers, and, ironically, the same communities that they are supposed to represent see them as outsiders. For Mr. Balaji, the latter feelings are most expressed when he recruits people of color to work at mainstream press:

We’re holding the mantle of peace for our professional organizations, but one of the most difficult things for the Asian American Journalists Association nationally has been to recruit the ethnic press. There are so many ethnic newspapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul representing the Asian American community. We have made a concerted effort, in recent months only, however, to really be aggressive. I made it a point when I was elected president that we go out to the community and we start talking to people. Many ethnic newspaper journalists don’t even know that our organizations exist to help. But in the past it was just like, “Oh, they’re sellouts. They don’t want to represent their community.” I’ve got to say, unfortunately, that we do have a burden to bear. I cover city politics, but in the newsroom I all of a sudden became the expert on South Asian affairs. I am a Hindu, but after September 11 people were asking me questions about Islam. Unfortunately, there are so few [people of color] nationally at big newspapers or big media organizations in general that we do have to at times act as spokespeople for our communities. And it’s just like a double pressure. Here are our peers in the mainstream media saying, “Oh, we need you guys to step up and speak out about these issues,” and then we have our peers in the ethnic media who say, “You guys are sellouts. Get lost.” So again, I can’t emphasize enough the fact that I think, over the years, it’s developed into an adversarial relationship, and it shouldn’t have to be that way.

Despite these apparent tensions, most panelists from community and alternative newspapers expressed a willingness to work with the larger, mainstream press. The possibility of improving overall news coverage as a result of a productive relationship is great. However, for the possibilities to be explored, yet alone reached, dialogue must first take place. 

Dialogue has begun among the communities themselves. Disparate community papers have created a group called AHANA, which stands for African, Hispanic, Asian, Native American. As Al McFarlane, owner of Insight News, told the Committee, “it’s a public policy collaboration where we try to get our people talking to each other and talking to the world and using technology to do that.” This consortium holds great promise if it can continue to foster strong ties between communities and begin to interact with the mainstream press. Nghi Huynh, owner and publisher of the Asian-American Press, stressed this potential in his presentation at the fact-finding meeting:

My suggestion is that we have to create more dialogue between the mass media and the ethnic media. The more meetings we have and the more chances we have to work together, the more detail we can get into and the better we can help to do the job. Secondly, if they claim that not enough minorities are qualified for jobs [at the mainstream press], we can have a media-training center. We would like to recruit, and we would like to support [their efforts to diversify the newsrooms]. Also, the minority media organization, our consortium group, can provide assistance to mainstream media if they don’t understand aspects of the community. For example, if they don’t know how to market with the minority community, the McFarlane Interest Group, representing the minority consortium, can do the marketing. Or if they say, not enough people are qualified for the job or are meeting the requirements, we can have a committee to deal with the training. So, our group is trying to prepare so that we can fulfill their needs. However, we do not have enough resources to make it happen. They have to provide us some resources for us to do the job.

[1] Mario Duarte, publisher, La Prensa de Minnesota, interview, Dec. 6, 2001.