Alexandra "Sandy" Close is making mainstream media more ethnic and ethnic media more mainstream.
The New Idea
Sandy’s mission is to produce news, information, and communications that have a communal function, connecting audiences not just to people like themselves, but rather to all the “others” in society, and giving us a sense of our shared identity and humanity. Her idea is to leverage the historically overlooked ethnic media sector as an opportunity to integrate minorities into the American public discourse. Concerned about the fragmentation of the media market and mainstream media’s lack of connection to minority audiences, Sandy founded New America Media (NAM), the first and largest national collaboration and advocate of over 3,000 ethnic news outlets. NAM’s vision is to build inclusive communications in a global society. Focusing on minorities, broadly defined to include racial and ethnic minorities, and marginalized groups such as African Americans, immigrants, and incarcerated youths, NAM provides them the support to develop a critical media presence, and then links them to each other and to mainstream media.
By promoting the editorial visibility and economic viability of ethnic media, Sandy is ensuring that diverse voices are represented in American mainstream media. NAM’s already sizable audience base attracts coverage and advertising revenue from mainstream media. And since ethnic media covers issues across the globe, its on-the-ground reporting provides a valuable perspective for both mainstream media outlets and the general public in an increasingly global world. Already, NAM has helped ethnic media move from being isolated and under-appreciated to being integrated into the national conversation, a move that has significant implications for minorities in this country.
A 2007 Seattle Times survey found that Americans overwhelmingly share a concern about so few media companies owning so many TV and radio stations. This issue truly unites people from all political ideologies who are equally concerned about media consolidation and its effect on American democracy. Among those who are most worried, however, are minorities, whose access to and voice within American media is highly inequitable.
Despite the notable progress for racial and ethnic minorities since the 1960s, the voices of minority groups in the media are still limited. One reason for this is the severe under-representation of minorities among broadcast licensees. Not only do owners tend to hire employees who come from their same ethnic group, they also tend to serve those audiences they are most familiar with. Another reason is that since many ethnic media outlets operate on a smaller scale and/or to a lower income audience, they find it very difficult to receive an equitable share of advertising and philanthropic dollars necessary to keep their audience of minorities (approximately 51 million people) adequately informed. As a result, those minorities’ ability to participate fully in American civic dialogue is severely hampered.
As the ethnic minority population in the U.S. grows, there is an increasing need to bridge not only the language barrier but the trust gap that separates public leaders from those they represent, a growing percentage of whom are minorities. And as technology continues to make it cost-effective for minorities to participate in mainstream media (e.g. through the internet, switching from analogue to digital systems, satellite, and so on), there are benefits to be gained by efforts to accurately represent, consolidate, streamline and leverage minority voices in the media.
Sandy has been working for over a decade to overcome ethnic media’s barriers to inclusion. Starting in California when she launched New California Media in 1996 and then going national with New America Media in 2006, Sandy has continuously developed multi-prong strategies to support diverse communities to be better informed, better connected to one another, and better able to influence policymakers.
NAM produces, collects, and disseminates multimedia content and services from and for the ethnic media sector. NAM has incubated hundreds of journalists, authors, filmmakers, communication specialists, and academics who have been recognized as leaders in their fields. They include John Markoff of The New York Times, author-essayist Richard Rodriquez, and Academy Award winner Jessica Yu. The website offers a news wire that streams the work of its own writers and editors in its membership organizations. NAM launched the first “AP”-style news exchange to formalize the inter-ethnic/racial exchanges already occurring, resulting in collaborations such as a Spanish language media advising Persian language media about how to deal with civil liberties challenges under the Patriot Act, and an African American newspaper publisher working with a start-up Hmong magazine to build advertising. NAM has also developed mainstream-ethnic media partnerships that pair journalists from each sector to develop stories that neither could do as effectively alone, such as The New York Times reliance on local “story tellers” embedded in their communities for more of their on-site reporting of Iraq. Due in part to NAM, ethnic media is now the fastest growing media sector, reaching approximately 51 million ethnic American adults.
As an ethnic media association, NAM has professionalized and developed the ethnic media sector. For example, to improve ethnic media’s capacity to cover politics and policy, Sandy pioneered the hosting of newsmaker briefings and debates with elected officials and political candidates. NAM also organizes events that provide direct access to decision-makers in the government, business, and academic and foundation/nonprofit worlds. To promote ethnic media’s visibility and credibility, NAM developed the first multilingual awards programs, and holds conferences and national expositions. NAM sponsors professional development seminars, workshops, and fellowships to build editorial capacity. NAM also created the only National Directory on Ethnic Media with over 2,200 listings. To facilitate a growing investment by journalism schools in the ethnic media sector, Sandy is building strategic partnerships with journalism schools at universities with strong multiracial student bodies to replicate NAM’s model for growing local and regional associations around the country. Two years ago, only one school in California had ethnic media courses—now over eighteen schools around the country include such courses in their curriculum.
Sandy pioneered a new method of soliciting the direct voice of excluded communities into the public discourse. NAM launched multilingual and cell phone polls to challenge what mainstream media took as “public opinion,” which often excludes non-English speakers and ethnic minorities. Now it is considered to be an indispensable vehicle for giving voice and national visibility to otherwise invisible communities. These polls are validated by all major media polling units, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.
To promote the economic viability of ethnic media, NAM provides multicultural, multilingual marketing services to facilitate advertisers reaching under-targeted but large consumer markets. Through its “one buy-one bill” service, advertisers have an easy and efficient means to place ads in ethnic media publications reaching millions of consumers and voters in dozens of ethnic communities. NAM also helps advertisers develop their message for each individual ethnic community by providing focus groups and roundtable discussion with ethnic-media leaders. NAM has channeled over $13M in advertising to ethnic media from HUD, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Flex Your Power, The California Endowment, California’s Administrative Office of the Courts, and Kaiser Permanente.
To foster the next generation of inclusive media leaders, Sandy launched innovative youth media programs. She founded Youth Outlook, a collaboration of writers and young people, and co-founded The Beat Within, a weekly newsletter of writing and art by incarcerated youth. These youth development programs produce peer-to-peer youth media and intergenerational dialogue through ethnic and mainstream media.
Today, Sandy sees expanding ethnic media’s online presence as one of the biggest challenges. NAM is building online infrastructure to connect different regions and facilitate access to online advertising revenue. By developing an online hub of ethnic media outlets, NAM helps generate advertising interest that will support ethnic media outlets in their quest to bridge the digital divide.
Sandy began to pursue her vision of a diverse, integrated media after she received a BA from the University of California-Berkeley in 1964. She then moved to Hong Kong, where she worked as the China Editor for the Far Eastern Economic Review while the U.S. escalated its involvement in Vietnam. Upon her return to the U.S., she founded The Flatlands newspaper, a raw voice of the inner-city communities of Oakland, CA. In 1974, she became the Executive Director of the nonprofit Pacific News Service (PNS), co-founded by Orville Schell and Franz Schurmann to offer alternative analysis of the Vietnam War to mainstream media. With Schurmann still in the background, Sandy adeptly shifted PNS’s alternative analytic lens from Southeast Asia to America, helping to develop PNS into one of the most diverse sources of voices and analytical ideas in the U.S. news media.
In 1991, while still at PNS, Sandy founded Youth Outlook, a collaboration of writers and young people. Then, in 1995, at the age of fifty-three, Sandy received a five-year MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for building PNS into a news service dedicated to diversifying the public forum. The award was catalytic. In 1996, with the funds and the legitimacy of the MacArthur award, Sandy was able to launch and lead two initiatives at PNS that gradually transformed her view of how journalism could create inclusive communications: The Beat Within and New California Media (later renamed New America Media). Due to the breadth and scope of NAM’s work, for all practical purposes it functions as an independent entity.
Sandy has received numerous awards, including the 2006 Purpose Prize Fellowship. NAM was also included in a Ford Foundation five-year initiative to build greater diversity in the news media, one of only four major national “public service media” organizations selected. Sandy also co-produced the film “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” which won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Sandy lives with her husband who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and takes care of her father who is in his nineties. Due to her age, she is easing herself out of NAM’s leadership while ensuring that there will be exceptional people in place to carry on the mission by 2010. Sandy intends to spend more time as a journalist and develop more partnerships between ethnic and mainstream media to cover joint issues.