Celebrating 130 years, this NJ Hungarian weekly has endured wars and pandemics — and is thriving

For 130 years, Amerikai Népszava has survived the test of time: World War I and II, the Holocaust, the Great Depression and global pandemics that ravaged humanity.

But none of that prepared the New Jersey-based Hungarian-language weekly for the challenge of preserving and sustaining its niche audience: Hungarian immigrants. In recent decades, Hungarian immigration in the United has dramatically decreased, meaning the publication’s audience base has dwindled. Second and third-generation Hungarian Americans also tend to speak English as their primary language.

And as the number of Hungarian readers shrink, so do the revenue opportunities for a publication that relies largely on community ads.

“The publication has been a source for news and history unlike any other,” said Laszlo Bartus, publisher and editor-in-chief of Amerikai Népszava. “In order to survive, however, it needs to broaden its audiences. The only way to do that is to adapt to an all-digital world without sacrificing the editorial ideals in which the newspaper’s founders had built upon.”

Bartus, who was a correspondent for various Hungarian news outlets for nearly 15 years, acquired Amerikai Népszava in 2006.

For years, the former owner of Amerikai Népszava looked for a successor who could continue the legacy and operation of the publication. After Bartus immigrated to the United States in 2003 and later knew he was going to stay for good, the previous owner decided Bartus was “the right person to pass the baton to.”

In 2019, Amerikai Népszava ended its print edition and shifted completely to digital — a move aimed at expanding its audience base. This way, the publication could stay relevant in the digital age, sustain its operations, and keep its identity as the flagship publication of the Hungarian community.

“I have to contend with the reality that the publication’s audiences have changed — demographically and geographically,” said Bartus, a long-time political journalist and author of seven books on topics related to Hungarian affairs.

Many Hungarian immigrants who came to the U.S. decades ago have now retired and moved back to Hungary, he said. Others have stayed in the U.S., but maintain strong family ties in Hungary. And in between, he noted, are U.S.-born Hungarian Americans.

“Knowing what kind of ‘Hungarian’ our readers are and where they are gives us the perspective on what news content to provide. That means that we need to report on news and information about Hungary and the United States.”

One of America’s oldest publications

Founded in 1891 by Hungarian immigrants, Amerikai Népszava — formerly known as the American Hungarian Népszava Szabadsag — is among the country’s oldest news sources in continuous publication.

The current newspaper resulted from the merger of two Hungarian newspapers: Szabadsag, a social democratic newspaper for the Hungarian working-class audiences, and the Amerikai Magyar Népszava, which had readers who were mostly Hungarian liberal intellectuals.

Szabadsag was established during the 1800s in Cleveland, Ohio, at the height of the first wave of Hungarian immigration to the United States. The newspaper served as the life link to newly arrived immigrants who were looking for jobs and better housing in the Cleveland area.

Between 1870 and 1920 an estimated 1,078,974 Hungarians immigrated to the United States, many attracted by the prospects of economic opportunities. At the same time, the U.S. was in need of immigrant workers to maintain and expand its industries.

The Amerikai Magyar Népszava, on the other hand, was founded in New York. It was a response to the second wave of Hungarian immigration in the mid-1950s. Most of these immigrants during this period arrived and settled in New York City.

“In 1942, right in the middle of World War II, the two Hungarian newspapers were combined,” Bartus said. The resulting publication was based in New York.

“Eventually, many Hungarian immigrants also moved to Florida and New Jersey. It was primarily because housing was more affordable in those states. They built churches, clubs, heritage centers and museums. And this is how the newspaper found its way to New Jersey.”

New digital transformation

Still, within a few years of moving the publication online, Bartus has managed to navigate its editorial challenges.

Amerikai Népszava now covers not only Hungarian news but also American politics. The publication had only a few thousand readers a decade ago but now has a significant online presence, followed by and subscribed to by readers in both Hungary and the United States.

“We now get up to 50,000 online visits a day — and it’s fascinating that they are from every corner of Hungary and America,” Bartus said. “Because of our expanded reach, we have been able to maintain an outsize impact.”

By collaborating with other organizations, like the Center for Cooperative Media, Bartus also noted that some of the news organization’s stories have been translated into English, catering to second and third-generation Hungarians who prefer to get their news in English.

“One thing I have learned: digital is borderless, so it is the answer to shrinking audiences that most in-language ethnic media outlets are facing today,” Bartus said.

Additional excerpts from our interview with Laszlo Bartus:

Is your audience primarily in New Jersey?
Yes, most of our U.S. readers are in New Jersey. But we have Hungarian readers from southern states, particularly Florida, and across the country.

Talk about your content strategy. How would you describe your approach to gathering news?
Our content strategy follows two ways: First, we make sure to provide our readers news and information about Hungary. And second, we provide them about American Hungarian’s life. These two strategies are equal.

We have correspondents to get information about Hungary, and we use American news agencies to get information about issues that directly relate to Hungarian Americans, such as immigration, social security and real estate.

Who are your usual sources?
I have many years of experience as a journalist in Hungary, so community leaders know me — and that helps a lot getting the right source.

Before I immigrated to the United States and acquired Amerikai Népszava. I was a correspondent for various Hungarian newspapers, radio and independent news agencies. Fortunately, I have maintained my relationships with them, so now we sometimes exchange news content and sources.

How does your outlet relate to any “mainstream” outlets that cover your community?
We have readers who also follow mainstream media outlets, and we have readers who just strictly read our newspaper. But, in order to satisfy these two needs, we cover both mainstream and community issues at the same time.

How would you describe your digital presence?
The only way to keep this historical Hungarian newspaper alive is through digital. Because the Internet is borderless, our stories can go a long way, even beyond our own community.

Now we are not only just an ethnic media outlet in the United States, but we are also an online media outlet in Hungary and many parts of the world.

Is a digital presence important for reaching your audience? Why?
Yes, because more and more people are now using the Internet, even with the older generation.

The world has accelerated, and only online media can cope with the world that is changing so fast. The need for online presence is getting bigger and bigger.

What do you wish mainstream media knew about your outlet or your audience? Or, what’s the biggest misconception, if any?
The biggest misconception is when somebody assumes that ethnic media, like Amerikai Nepszava, has a different type of journalism.

Whether you read an ethnic media publication or mainstream, you have the same goal in mind: to be informed. And ethnic media outlets play a major role in informing their audiences.

In the last few years, have you seen a growth in audience or a decline in audience?
I have seen a major decline, and this is why I shifted to digital. Most of our readers who subscribed to our printed edition were old; many are long dead and others have moved back to Hungary.

What are the one or two things that would help your outlet most right now?
Foundations can support us. I know that foundations play a big role in acquiring media freedom in many countries.

It would also be helpful if the Center for Cooperative Media or other nonprofit news organizations could lead an initiative to attract major advertisers for ethnic media outlets.

What is your outlook for 2022?
I can see that more Hungarian audiences will be more engaged online and on social media. We will do our best to provide access to our readers through our digital platforms.

NOTE: All photos, screenshots, and archival files were provided by Laszlo Bartus of Amerikai Népszava.

Oni Advincula is the ethnic media program coordinator at the Center for Cooperative Media. Contact him at oni.advincula@gmail.com or advinculaa@montclair.edu.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.