How New Canadian Media is giving voice to immigrants’ untold stories
Screengrab of New Canadian Media’s website.
By Allison Griner
Allison Griner is a freelance journalist and a 2013-2014 fellow with the International Reporting Program. Follow her on Twitter through @alligriner.
The 2015 U.K. general election was well underway, and across the pond in Canada, George Abraham couldn’t help but observe how much coverage the immigration debate was receiving.
Prime Minister David Cameron was calling for his Conservative party to diversify. An anti-immigration party was gaining steam. And through it all, Abraham heard themes that seemed familiar to him: “how immigrants are not integrating, how they feel like they’re being separated from the rest of society, and how they feel disenfranchised.”
Those were the same issues he was noticing as founder and director of New Canadian Media, an online publication dedicated to showcasing “immigrant perspectives.”
The news coming out of the U.K. made Abraham all the more resolute in his mission. “I’m not really in the business of trying to change society in a great sense,” Abraham said in a phone interview with ivoh. “But I think there’s a point of view missing. If journalism is about giving voice to the voiceless, then that’s what I’m doing.”
Abraham, an immigrant himself, did not come to Canada in hopes of founding a media company. Hardly. He was just hoping to land a job worthy of his talents.
Abraham left behind a lively journalism career back home in India. He had reported from the streets of Mumbai, spent time abroad as an editor in the Middle East, and was awarded the prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.
But in 2002, when Abraham arrived in Canada, he had trouble finding a job. It came as a shock to the veteran journalist.
Canada was a land of immigrants, after all. The national census agency Statistics Canada reports that 6,775,800 Canadians — roughly 20 percent of the total population — are foreign-born. Abraham, however, felt he needed to reinvent himself to fit in at Canadian newsrooms.
“Either you were going to chase fire trucks, or you were going to be an editorial writer who had a fairly broad canvas. And I was neither,” he said. “I found that if I had to truly pursue my passion, I’d have to set out to do something myself.”
That was a tall order for someone who considered himself “more of an employee than an employer.” But the idea of launching his own journalism outlet flourished in his mind.
“The chasm between ethnic and mainstream, it’s huge. it’s huge. There’s a very wide gap, and the reason why ethnic journalism remains the way it is, and why mainstream journalism does what it does is to me the pattern now. There’s a bridge to cross.”
There was something lacking in existing media coverage from Canadian news titans like The Globe and Mail or The Toronto Star, Abraham said. His news startup, devoted to immigrant voices, would have the advantage of a “lived experience.”
Issues like immigration, racism, and international affairs would not be abstract concepts to his writers. Rather, his staff would have intimate, first-hand knowledge from their very own lives to draw from. “With all those issues, no matter how sensitive you are, you cannot borrow lived experience,” Abraham said.
So in 2011, he and a group of friends created the framework for what would eventually become New Canadian Media.
Representing, as its slogan asserts, the “pulse of immigrant Canada” can be a fraught proposition, though. Abraham said he has encountered friendly skepticism about featuring exclusively “immigrant perspectives.”
“I mean, yes, people have politely asked me, ‘Are you typing and slicing-and-dicing people even further? Are you siloing people? Are you creating more ghettos?'” he said. But he points to New Canadian Media’s diverse viewpoints and its alliances with mainstream media as proof that the site is not a “new silo.”
“Judge me by my product,” Abraham tells skeptics. He added, “I think most people have seen we have a bridge, a crossover publication, and we’re not necessarily building a new ghetto.”
New Canadian Media’s contributors often defy the conventional notion of what it means to be an “immigrant,” too. Abraham said he doesn’t get “hung up” on questions of lexicon. Expatriates, second-generation Canadians, aboriginal writers, and immigrants new and old have all written for New Canadian Media.
“It’s a whole breadth of perspectives,” he said. “If there’s one thing I’m extremely proud of, even in our young age, it is the diversity of people.” Abraham estimates that New Canadian Media has worked with more than 200 contributors.
Abraham doesn’t want New Canadian Media to be consumed by immigrant audiences alone. He wants his website to have mass appeal, for the wider Canadian public. But he faces an uphill battle with marketers, who can be skeptical of the site’s mainstream prospects. They sometimes label publications like his as “mongrel publications,” since they defy easy categorization.
Those marketers “want that neat, packaged, bow-wrapped audience. Whereas mine is very, very different,” Abraham said. Funding can therefore be a struggle. Seed money came from grants, and the website also relies on crowdfunding and advertisement for money. Soon, Abraham hopes to launch a syndication service, to increase New Canadian Media’s reach.
But Abraham is convinced his publication is already having a positive influence on the media landscape. He believes that, by sharing everyday immigrants’ perspectives, his website is helping to combat corrosive stereotypes that tie immigrants to crime and corruption.
“There is a lot of negativity around immigration, when you think about what we read in the media,” Abraham said. “When was the last time you read about an immigrant having done something good in society?”
New Canadian Media also helps aspiring journalists find a foothold in the profession — which can be hard for immigrants, many of whom face language barriers. One testimonial in particular left Abraham with a profound sense of his website’s impact.
Abraham remembers exactly where he was when he received the message. He was sitting on his couch, flipping through emails, when suddenly a new one popped up.
It was from a journalist in New Canadian Media’s mentorship program. New Canadian Media, the journalist wrote, was the difference between falling into depression and having the confidence to apply for English-language journalism jobs.
“I began reading it, and that word ‘depression’ just it me,” Abraham said. He sympathized with the feelings of frustration — of wanting to participate in the media dialogue, but never finding an outlet. He saw his younger self in the writer’s words. Abraham had come full circle.
“When he articulated that, and the way he put it, that really touched me,” Abraham said. “And I said, ‘You know what? Even if [New Canadian Media] never makes money, it is still a worthwhile endeavor.'”