Baking a new recipe for journalism

You’ve heard of biofuels, but how about a newspaper that runs on tofu?

That’s the groundbreaking experiment being conducted by the Nichi Bei Weekly, a modest, yet historically significant newspaper that serves the Japanese American community in Northern California. On June 2, in San Francisco’s Japantown, the newspaper’s staff and a host of volunteers will stage the “Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival” — an old-fashioned community fundraiser with an “Iron Chef” twist.

Based on a preview event, where I sampled chocolate cake, macaroons and other sweets made by contestants with tofu, the festival will be fun and tasty. For the Nichi Bei, it could mean the difference between life and death.

The Nichi Bei Weekly is a great example of how an ethnic newspaper, radio station or Website can be so important that it becomes a community institution. The news outlet traces its history back to 1899, when businessman Kyutaro Abiko started the Nichi Bei Shimbun to serve the emerging Japanese immigrant community. As the community grew and thrived, so did the newspaper — at least until World War II, when the U.S. government rounded up Japanese Americans and herded them into concentration camps — an action that would be ruled unconstitutional decades later. Restarted after the war as the Nichi Bei Times, the newspaper chronicled the life of the community, from birth-and-death announcements to the lengthy political campaign to persuade the U.S. Congress to compensate World War II internees because their civil rights had been violated.

Fast forward to 2009, when the Nichi Bei Times was forced to shut down. Like many other newspapers, it fell victim to two economic devils: the worst recession to hit the U.S. since the depression and the collapse of the business model supporting newspapers caused by advertisers switching to the Internet.

Here’s where the newspaper’s deep roots in the community made a difference. Realizing that a vital voice would be lost, community leaders rallied, joining forces with some of the staff to resurrect the newspaper as a nonprofit organization called the Nichi Bei Foundation. As the Nichi Bei Foundation, they raised money and got the presses rolling again. Sensing a possible new model for community newspapers, Renaissance Journalism provided a Media Greenhouse grant in 2010 to enable the Nichi Bei Foundation to develop nichibei.org, an online news hub or portal, and examine new business strategies. Since then, a combination of paid and volunteer staff churns out the stories, shoots photographs and designs pages that fill the newspaper and Website.

The operation has been kept alive by a mixed plate of advertising, foundation grants, corporate sponsorships, private donations and special events like the Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival. But it’s still not enough, and now the foundation will have to cut back to a biweekly publication cycle and turn up the fundraising appeals. Not unlike a public TV fundraiser, the festival at the Peace Plaza features the support of major businesses, from California Bank & Trust to Kikkoman (soy sauce, of course); a variety of influential community leaders; and local talent. The May 12 preview that I attended featured Asaki Osato, Japantown’s recently crowned Cherry Blossom Queen, as well as Kendyl Ito, a 17-year-old singer from Sacramento. After sampling the tofu desserts, I got to vote for the ones I thought deserved to compete when the finals are held at the festival on June 2. (My lips are sealed.)

Hiroshi Inomata, Japan’s consul general in San Francisco, praised the Nichi Bei Foundation for carrying on the tradition of covering the Japanese American community, though he acknowledged that it is going through “challenging times.”

The man most identified with this rise-from-the-ashes effort is Kenji G. Taguma, who was the editor of the English language section of the Nichi Bei Times when it shut down. Kind of a one-man dynamo, like his predecessor, newspaper founder Kyutaro Abiko, Taguma is now president of the foundation and publisher of the news operation. At the tofu tasting, he acknowledged and thanked supporters for “giving wings to the movement.”

Jon Funabiki is the executive director of Renaissance Journalism (www.renjournalism.org).

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