Ellen Hume's Ethnic Media Mission

Sitting in her cramped and crowded sixth floor office in the Wheatley Building on the UMass Boston campus, Ellen Hume explains the philosophy that drives her these days.

“There are a lot of people working on saving the Boston Globe. But I don’t see a lot of people out there working to save Sampan,” she says, referring to Boston’s bi-lingual Chinese community newspaper.

Hume herself is a big media product, a former Los Angeles Times staffer who also worked as a White House and political reporter for the Wall Street Journal in the 80’s. (During the 1988 presidential campaign, Hume was the subject of a famous display of anti-media animus when a pro-Dan Quayle crowd began jeering the press  -- and her specificially -- at an Indiana rally for the vice-presidential candidate.)

But today, the director of UMass Boston's two-year-old Center on Media and Society is focused on uniting, galvanizing and empowering some of the area’s smallest and most resource-strapped news outlets -- the ethnic press. 

Explaining that people of color make up about 40 percent of the campus population, Hume says, “I has looked at what all the think tanks were doing about the media. [And] when I looked at the landscape and looked at who my students are, it came to me -- ethnic media.”

Working with a handful of volunteers and with the help of a $10,000 planning grant from the Boston Foundation  the center has embarked on several projects.  (“We used up the $10,000 -- everybody’s been working on fumes,” admits Hume.)

The most basic program is the center’s ethnic media data base featuring information on roughly 100 outlets ranging from the Jamaica Plain-based Somali paper RAJO Newsletter to the Lowell-based Cambodia Today paper.

There’s also an effort underway to create a New England regional version of a Pulitzer Prize for ethnic media journalism and plans to try to create an internship program with several local universities that would place students inside ethnic outlets. A more ambitious venture would be the creation of an ethnic media wire service to generate regional community stories that could go national.

At a time of circulation and advertising weakness in the traditional media, ethnic news organizations -- particularly Spanish language ones -- are widely viewed to be rising powers with significant economic potential. That sense was buttressed by a major poll last year, conducted by Bendixen & Associates, that revealed that 45 percent of African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native-American and Arab-American adults preferred ethnic media to the mainstream press and that 51 million American adults were regular consumers of ethnic media.

But even with all that potential upside, getting the disparate elements of the local ethnic press to unify in order to maximinze their clout is no mean feat.

"We're basically trying to exhort these small business come together and form some kind of association or club," Hume says. "Their audience is interested, but the economics for a lot of these organizations is very, very shaky. They don't have reporters and they don't have training and they are trying to stay alive."

And at a time in her career when many established journalists are looking for a cushy landing spot with sweet hours, Hume is working tirelessly to help the ethnic press not only survive, but flourish.

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