The sale of a newsweekly once deemed a promising partnership between mainstream media and an ethnic community could leave Vietnamese in Silicon Valley without an important news source. Some community members believe money from Vietnam is behind the sale.
By Andrew Lam, New America Media
SAN FRANCISCO – Oct 26, 2005 – Unlike some ethnic enclaves, the Vietnamese-American community in Santa Clara county, Calif., does not lack for news in its own language. If anything, the community can access more news than a mainstream population reading in English only.
Three Vietnamese daily newspapers, half a dozen weeklies and several monthly magazines cater to a Vietnamese-American population of 125,000, not to mention radio and television programs and an array of Web sites. The largest of the weeklies, Viet Mercury, was owned by the San Jose Mercury News, which has a bureau in Hanoi and shared its content with its English daily, adding a wealth of original information, in a non-advocacy role, into the mix.
As one longtime Vietnamese reader in San Jose put it recently, “You read the Viet Merc and the San Jose Mercury News for information. You read community papers to know where the community stands on the issues and when to protest.”
That unique mix of editorial missions may be ending, however, as the San Jose Mercury News recently sold its Vietnamese-language weekly. Viet Mercury has reportedly been bought by Jim Nguyen, a former sales employee of the weekly who now heads a group of Vietnamese-American businessmen. Its last issue will be Nov. 11.
In an Oct. 21 press release announcing the sale, San Jose Mercury News Publisher George Riggs said that “buyers from the Vietnamese community” will “continue to serve the Vietnamese-reading community with the No.1-read publication in that language.” The Mercury News simultaneously announced the closure of its nine-year-old Spanish weekly Nuevo Mundo.
Publishing since 1999, Viet Mercury was distributed free and had a circulation of 35,000. It began with great promises in the heyday of dot-com money, and was in the eyes of many media observers a new kind of marriage between mainstream and ethnic press — one perceived to be lucrative, and a trend.
Back then it made sense. The majority of the Vietnamese-Americans in Silicon Valley are still first-generation immigrants. Though most are functional English speakers, many prefer to read in their own language. Many also have achieved financial success, owning real estate and small businesses.
“Santa Clara county’s Vietnamese community is a major market, with an estimated buying power of 1.8 billion,” wrote the Mercury News in 1999 as it launched the Viet Mercury. “Growing in size and buying power, this is a valuable audience for any advertiser.”
That was before dot-com failures and before 9/11. After the high-tech bubble burst and the economy swooned, advertising revenue plummeted. Competition among ethnic media grew fiercer. While other Vietnamese-language newspapers were operating on the cheap, often out of small offices and with part-time employees, Viet Mercury had a large staff under high union rates. With those high production costs, it lost money.
Yet the weekly arguably had much higher professional standards than others in its field. One case in point was the story of Bich Cau Thi Tran, a Vietnamese woman shot dead in her own kitchen by a San Jose policeman on July 13, 2003, as she held a vegetable peeler that resembled a knife. From July 14, 2003, to August 30, 2003, the Mercury News ran 29 stories on the incident, and Viet Mercury published 16. Cali Today, a five-times-a-week paper, produced 12. Seven different reporters covered the Tran case for both the Mercury News and the Viet Mercury, three of whom were Vietnamese-Americans. None of the Vietnamese-owned papers could match such firepower and professional standards.
But such an operation became unsustainable when the economy worsened.
“With Americans, commerce is No. 1,” Nam Nguyen, editor and publisher of Cali Today, whose Vietnamese readership spans the Bay Area as well Sacramento, recently told the Orange County-based Nguoi Viet newspaper. “But with Vietnamese, even if you operate at a loss, you still try to run the paper because your community still needs a voice.”
In a sea of community-based newspapers, however, the Viet Mercury’s voice was unique, defining its role as providing “objective” information. It tended to cover stories “down the middle,” as De Tran, soon-to-be former publisher of the Viet Mercury, once explained. It left the role of advocacy to others.
Nguyen Qui Duc, host of “Pacific Time,” a syndicated weekly radio program on KQED in San Francisco, says he hopes the new owners of the Viet Mercury will maintain the objectivity and balanced reporting that the original owners cultivated. The new paper “can be an advocate of the community — which is the normal role of newspapers in ethnic or minority communities — but it need not abandon quality or fall into the trap of running only articles that don’t raise eyebrows,” Duc says. The Vietnamese community, he says, has matured and will not support anything less.
Quynh Thi, executive editor of Vietnam Daily in San Jose, said that when Viet Mercury first launched she worried about competition, but soon found it operated in a different universe. “We’re a daily, they’re a weekly. Our advertisers are also different, more community-based. Many of the Viet Merc’s are big corporations.”
But she added that the community is very curious about the sale. “What everyone is talking about now is who are these investors? No one seems to have come forward,” she says.
One Vietnamese journalist in San Jose who would only speak anonymously repeated a growing rumor in the community: that “money from Vietnam is behind the sale.” In recent years, various Vietnamese citizens have bought businesses and real estate in California. Jim Nguyen, the journalist noted, had a hand in bringing San Francisco and Ho Chi Minh together as sister cities a few years back. Could he have brought Vietnamese money to the United States to buy media as well?
As of this writing, Jim Nguyen has agreed to a later interview to respond to all the rumors. The community, in the meantime, is watching closely the evolution of the weekly.
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Lam is author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” forthcoming in October from Heyday Books