On the verdant, manicured grounds of 24 Sussex Drive, Jagdish Grewal was something of an outsider. Last month, he was at the journalists’ garden party the prime minister hosts annually at his residence. In the sea of mainstream reporters, he was the only member of the Punjabi press at the event.
Mr. Grewal is the editor of the Canadian Punjabi Post, Canada’s first Punjabi-language daily, with a distribution of 25,000, and he sees himself on the same level as mainstream reporters. And increasingly, the people he writes about agree.
Brampton’s South Asian media, long dismissed as merely outlets that brought news from “back home” to immigrants, has evolved dramatically in the past decade. Now, these papers and broadcasters cover many local issues, have become major community influences and even score better access to politicians than their mainstream counterparts on occasion.
“Before, it was just like the news from Punjab. Now if you pick up my paper, you will hardly see any headlines from Punjab. They’re all from the federal government, federal politics, federal policy changes,” Mr. Grewal says.
The operations of the Punjabi Post and many of its competitors have become sophisticated enough that last month, the City of Brampton hired a “specialty media monitor” whose duties involve clipping stories of interest from the city’s ethnic newspapers (most of which are South Asian) and responding to requests from ethnic media. One qualification for the job is fluency in Punjabi.
The city is following the lead of former federal immigration minister Jason Kenney. Last November, the Canadian Press obtained documents that showed his department spent nearly $750,000 over three years monitoring ethnic media. Mr. Kenney said it was “the most important reading” he did in the morning.
Yudhvir Jaswal, host of the South Asian Pulse radio show, hasn’t connected with Mr. Kenney’s replacement, Chris Alexander, yet but said local Conservative party members in the South Asian community have told him they’re working to get Mr. Alexander on Mr. Jaswal’s show.
“As a politician, you want to get your message out to the voters in these ridings as much as possible,” says April Lindgren, an associate professor at Ryerson University and director of its Journalism Research Centre. “If there are language issues you need to surmount or if you want to show that you are engaged with that community and listening to its concerns and voices, ethnic media are an apt vehicle.”
That desire has let South Asian journalists score sit-downs with a range of politicians who might not respond to the requests of mainstream publications. “We have more access to them and the other thing is they’re not afraid to talk to us,” Mr. Grewal says.
On Mr. Grewal’s office wall is a framed photo of him posing beside Stephen Harper and another beside Brampton mayor Susan Fennell. There’s another of him in the midst of a fireside chat with former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty. Last November, he was among a small contingent of reporters who travelled with Stephen Harper to India. He chatted with the prime minister over samosas in the cabin during the flight. This spring, he hosted Mr. Kenney on his radio program for an hour of heated questions on policy.
Mr. Jaswal has interviewed the likes of Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney, John Baird, Michael Ignatieff and Dalton McGuinty on his radio program since he started it in 2007. “On my radio show I would rarely bring anybody from Punjab. Rarely. We have access to [Indian politicians] – we can bring them – and people will listen,” he says. However, “I think we would rather discuss issues that are related with Canadians here.”
A recent broadcast delved into Canada’s municipal infrastructure deficit at length before switching over to a discussion on so-called honour killings. Mr. Jaswal says he spends six to eight hours a day studying a mix of mainstream media from Canada and South Asia to prepare for his show.
In the coming weeks, Sami Dhillon, a Brampton broadcaster, will learn whether his pitch to get mandatory carriage of his proposed Punjabi-language TV station – the Canadian Punjabi Network – will be approved by the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission. The programming schedule he developed includes a show about truck driving (a field dominated by South Asians in the 905 region), news programming and an hour-long talk show about women’s issues.
Based on records from the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada , there are 75 South Asian newspapers and more than 55 radio and TV productions in the GTA, though the quality and staffing of them varies widely.
Ms. Lindgren says the continued stream of South Asian immigration to the GTA ensures that readership, viewership and listenership will stay steady. However, Mr. Jaswal says that reaching first-generation Canadians isn’t enough. His goal is to reach the rest of the community as well. This is why he publishes his weekly paper, Midweek, in English and why he sprinkles English – sometimes in the middle of a sentence in Punjabi or Hindi – into broadcasts of his radio show.
“Especially when we talk about community in Canada issues in English, then they start relating to this. Because they’ve read about it in mainstream (media),” he says.
Like their mainstream counterparts, Mr. Grewal and Mr. Jaswal face competition for shrinking ad dollars from other media – some much less legitimate than their own. Many reprint news cribbed from online sources and charge small fees for ads, sometimes just $5 or $10, says Thomas Saras, the president and CEO of the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada. “I believe they are destroying the market,” he says. The South Asian Observer reprinted verbatim a RBC press release about a poll the bank conducted on newcomers’ financial knowledge on the front page of its paper earlier this month. That same week, a Can-India news story about the new ePassport included an interview with Citizenship and Immigration Parliamentary Secretary Rick Dykstra as well as most of the verbatim press release. Almost all the content in the July 5 edition of The Asian Connections newspaper was pulled from CBC’s website.
And for all their growth in distribution and credibility, even some of the more respected publications still have a way to go in terms of separation of advertising and editorial departments.
“Ethnic media give more time for whoever gives them advertisements,” says Jagmohan Sahota, a well-known political player in Brampton who has worked on multiple Liberal campaigns.
Ms. Lindgren analyzed the Punjabi Post’s coverage of the 2011 federal election, and found most of the political advertising in the paper was from the Conservative Party. She said she did not see any “overt bias.” She did note, however, that the prime minister and other members of the Conservative party appeared in the most photographs and were often mentioned first in a story.
Because his paper is free, Mr. Grewal says there’s only one hand that feeds the Punjabi Post and he isn’t yet ready to bite it.
“[Advertising] is where we get the revenue from and we cannot go against the people who are giving us the revenue,” Mr. Grewal said. “We are not at that point yet.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story failed to mention the Can-India news story about the new ePassport included an interview with Citizenship and Immigration Parliamentary Secretary Rick Dykstra as well as most of the verbatim press release.