How a small Korean newsroom in New Jersey finds a way to serve the community and thrive
This is the first in the series of profile stories on ethnic media in New Jersey, produced by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and supported by funding from Democracy Fund and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
Phillip Sungyong Han is a veteran journalist.
He worked for a Korean-language radio station in the past, reporting and producing his own program. He was once a television talk show host, interviewing celebrities and famous people. And he led an active newsroom, assigning stories about politics, government, business and almost every news beat that matters to the Korean community in New Jersey and New York.
But in 2014, Han lost his job as a news director for a Korean American television company based in Fort Lee, N.J., when it had to shut down because of financial hardship. That was also during that time when many U.S. newsrooms began to shrink and suffer from steep job losses.
After experiencing the lows of his career in the media, Han felt he needed to change his day job. It seemed to be no longer pragmatic, he said, to return to journalism.
For a year he mainly focused on his family, trying to figure out what was best for his career. To get some income and help make ends meet, he dabbled in reporting for a few months.
But then an unexpected opportunity knocked on the door, as the publisher of Miju News (Korean Business Journal) asked him to lead its New Jersey/New York news bureau. Miju News, a for-profit news organization, was first established in 2011 to serve the Korean community in the Washington, D.C., area.
“I asked myself, ‘is the newspaper business even sustainable?’ I just want to make sure I was doing the right thing,” said Han, who has a degree in Persian and Spanish. With the closure of his previous employer’s business, compounded by the news about layoffs in the mainstream newsrooms, Han admitted that he became more concerned about the future of media.
Miju News publisher Yong Il Kim—who was the former CEO of the largest Korean-language newspaper in the United States, The Korea Daily— presented all the numbers including circulation, readership, revenue, Korean immigrant population in New Jersey and New York, and the newspaper’s potential outlook. Han knew he had to follow his instinct.
From the perspective of the Korean community, Han also knew he was not yet ready to walk away from his noble, even inspiring, reporting job to serve as a link to the growing Korean immigrant population in the Garden State. Working on a shoe-string budget, he said, his “contribution to the community through his work at the newspaper has far outweighed its financial reward.”
Today, with seven full-time reporters (five of them are based in the headquarters in Fairfax, Va.) and five freelancers, Han said that Miju News has been thriving by focusing on what many hemorrhaging mainstream news outlets cannot do: Miju News sticks to its unique audience, takes advantage of its language skills and culturally-nuanced knowledge about the community, and practices advocacy journalism.
“When Mr. Kim told me about this business model, I believed in everything that he said,” said Han, who was born in Seoul, immigrated to the United States in 2004 and, five years later, became a U.S. citizen. “I also believe that the population of Koreans in New Jersey and New York continues to grow. If we continue to report and publish stories that respond to their needs, and amplify their voices, we will surely remain in the business.”
According to the latest U.S. Census data, there are 104,842 Koreans living in New Jersey. More than 60 percent of the state’s Korean population resides in Bergen County. In 2010, the top five municipalities with a substantial Korean population included four in Bergen County: Palisade Park (10,115), Fort Lee (8,318), Ridgefield (2,385), Leonia (2,369); and one in Hudson County: Jersey City (2,308).
While Koreans in New Jersey and New York are considerably new immigrants, about 62 percent of Korean immigrants in the United States arrived before 2000.
“The circulation of Miju News has grown tremendously since the newspaper opened its New Jersey/New York news operation in 2015. Now, we have more than 30,000 print circulation each week, and we have nearly 55,000 readers online,” Han said.
Miju News, he noted, covers the economy, finance, real estate, health and food industry. Yet, every success of the newspaper has been no accident, Han said, adding that it comes with real hard work and sacrifice.
Miju News is a weekly publication. Han said editors make sure all stories are ready by Wednesday and the print edition hits the newsstands—mostly at Korean restaurants, markets and grocery stores, such as H-Mart—across New Jersey and New York on Friday morning.
“I wake up every day at 6 am to make sure everything is covered. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of work,” Han said. “But I don’t want [local] journalism, especially for Koreans in the United States, to go extinct. It’s really fulfilling when my stories truly help my community.”
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.