Farewell to Asian Pop

Jeff Yang

Ouch.

Long time friend of the blog, Jeff Yang, has just lost his far reaching and influential column, Asian Pop. He writes in today’s farewell post:

So this is it, I guess: The final installment of “Asian Pop.” After nearly eight years beneath the masthead, the Gatekeepers have decided that “the economics of our business have changed in a way that doesn’t support online-only columns.” (And maybe not offline ones either: These are parlous times for the news biz.) [...]

As you might guess from its title, Asian Pop began with a focus on Asian media and entertainment, treating “Asianness” as something alien to the American experience, and “pop” as a reflection of passing fancies and ephemeral trends.

Over time, however, with the encouragement of three successive terrific editors, the column moved beyond those original boundaries, transforming Asianness from a spectacle into a perspective, and making “pop” shorthand not for popular but for populi.

Last week, I accompanied Doris Truong to drop Jeff off at the airport, one his way to a retreat to go walk up a mountain and think about things. Knowing Jeff, he will come back bursting with excitement and ready to embark on a bunch of new projects. But this decision by the powers that be to kill his column (and all other online-only long form columns) is heralding more bad business to come. I’ve been engaged in journalism work for the last two years, ever since Poynter made the decision to make me a Sense Making Fellow. In many ways, I’ve had a front seat to watching the freefall of legacy media. Diversity was one of the first values on the chopping block as expendable.

As the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported earlier this year:

[W]hile the study showed a slight increase in newsroom employees overall (from 41,500 in 2009 to 41,600 in 2010), the number of employees of color was actually down half-a-percent, making 2010 the third consecutive year that the percentage of minority journalists declined, explained MediaBistro. The total number of journalists of color declined from 5,500 in 2009 to 5,300 in 2010.

“At a time when the U.S. Census shows that minorities are 36 percent of the U.S. population, newsrooms are going in the opposite direction. This is an accuracy and credibility issue for our newsrooms,” said Milton Coleman, ASNE president, in a statement.

What’s more, 441 newspapers that were part of the ASNE survey reported no full-time minorities whatsoever — a number that has been increasing since 2006.

Broadcast isn’t much better:

Out of 815 executive producers, assignment managers, managing editors, assistant news directors, news directors and general managers at the ABC, CBS, Cox, FOX, Gannett, Hearst Argyle, Media General, Meredith, NBC and Tribune stations 713 (87.9%) are White, 64 (7.8%) are African American, 24 (3%) are Hispanic/Latino, 13 (1.6%) are Asian and only 1 is Native American. The management teams at 82 of the stations are all White.

“It is disheartening in 2010 that four of the media companies in the report have no African American news directors and so many of the companies have no black news director in some of the most diverse cities in America,” said NABJ President Kathy Y. Times. “It’s time for African American viewers to reconsider their support of media companies that do not appreciate or make diversity a priority.”

NABJ first began conducting its annual census as a way of encouraging broadcasters to commit to hiring more people of color for editorial positions. Still, the association believes true progress cannot be made unless the companies fully commit to developing talent who can then be promoted from within.

And digital media is following in the same path. I’ll write a bit more on this later, but it is amazing that at a time when ethnic media is rebounding, we still aren’t receiving anywhere close to to the resources and support that a moderately funded unit in a larger media organization enjoys. And Jeff’s column ending makes me uneasy in another way – specifically, the AOL Way. If you aren’t familiar, Media Beat breaks it down:

Business Insider has published a leaked copy of what it said is AOL’s new “master plan,” a presentation outlining the company’s goals and processes for the next few months. What comes across is an intense focus on numbers. And hey, that makes sense for a business document, but there is something both beautiful and scary about the way AOL is trying to streamline its entire “content generation” process (or, as I like to call it, “writing and editing”) for maximum profitability.

So what are AOL’s goals? Basically, to turn every blog post into a serious moneymaker. Specifically, by the end of March, AOL aims to increase the total number of articles published each month from 31,500 to 40,000, and to grow the median number of pageviews per article from 1,500 to 7,000. Meanwhile, the average cost of creating an article should fall from $99 to $84, and the profit margin on each article should increase from 35 percent to 50 percent.

When deciding what topic to cover, the AOL Way apparently involves weighing issues like traffic potential, revenue/profit, turnaround time, and editorial quality. Again, these are considerations that any for-profit publication is probably weighing, but what’s impressive is how specific AOL’s guidelines are — for example, there’s a “Demand Tool” that might, for example, predict that an article will earn $500, so under AOL’s guidelines a website can spend up to $250 for that piece of content.

The document also mentions a new “SEO Checker” that is supposed to be used on virtually all of AOL’s content, giving writers and editors guidelines on how to customize their articles to show up prominently in search engines.

Choire Sicha, of the Awl, termed it “spam labor camps,” but I fear that’s kind of optimistic. And it’s having ripple effects. While most mainstream media outlets expressed disdain at AOL’s policies, my editor friends have told me they are facing the same considerations. Budgets are slashed, so a few celeb/marquee writers are making tons of money while most pieces are paying between $100 – 300. In addition, original content that is reported, far reaching, or establishes a framework has been devalued – if consumers are voting with their pageviews, most people just want entertainment and op-eds. So the focus on quality is shifting – it’s no longer a necessity, it’s more like a luxury. So not only are there less opportunities for newsmakers of color to get in the game, there are far less opportunities to distinguish one’s self and one’s work. And take it from someone on the entrepreneurial/indie media track – it ain’t sweet over here. Back then I wrote:

All the VCs stressed that they were there to invest in profit making ventures. They want to get in and get out, and many of them were looking for a sale price of at least three times the amount of the initial investment. So remember, they are going for high growth in industries like telecoms, health care, and entertainment media.

What I didn’t share at the time was that one of the VCs looked me in the eye, and asked me if I was going to keep wasting this platform on social justice or get serious about making money.

There is a lot of talent out there – and when Jeff gets back, in a week or so, I’m sure you’ll hear more from him on Asian American media. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is a harbinger of a new media age – and it isn’t gonna be pretty.

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  • PatrickInBeijing

    I have been reading Asian Pop for what seems like forever!!!  (I used to live in SF).  Bummer, bummer, bummer.  I wish Jeff the best in all of his future endeavors.

    @Latoya:disqus, thanks for pointing out the loss of diversity in the so-called “new media”.  It is easy for those of us who are casual consumers to not notice this, and it is important.  It is a scary trend.  I am sure that there are folks fighting against this.  Please keep us informed as the struggle continues.  Another reason, we are glad Racialicious is here! 

    No more Asian Pop!!  WAHHHHH!