Can mainstream US media tap into non-English-speaking audiences?

Photo: Caltech Physics instructor Peter Toma checks tape before feeding it into a computer, which will translate the English words typed on the tape into one of four languages: Russian, French, German, or Spanish. 1957. (Don Brinn, Associated Press)

When the New York Times’ series investigating the nail salon industry, “Unvarnished,” went viral in May, the criminally low wages and health problems suffered by manicurists weren’t the only story. National and international media reported that the Times website published the stories in Korean, Chinese, and Spanish translation—a first for the paper.

Mainstream media organizations have long produced foreign-language editions (the Times launched its Chinese edition in 2012), apps, and special issues to reach broader audiences, but such initiatives are typically separate versions of flagship publications, with their own brands and audiences. Bi- or multilingual publications and media organizations tend to build an identity around their multicultural focus, which separates them from mainstream media.

With “Unvarnished,” however, the translations appeared on the paper’s main English-language site, not a special edition. That’s a model used by other large media organizations—it’s currently Guardian Moscow week, with stories from that city appearing in English and Russian every day—but also by a number of smaller-scale publications recently. It’s an approach that allows publications without foreign-language editions or overseas bureaus to offer translations of individual stories that could reach broader audiences.


Journalists should know more about how complicated the language history in the US has always been, and that there are many ways of producing media in different languages—although it does come with challenges.


“That tendency is part of a growing trend amongst mainstream media, realizing that non- English media audiences present potential avenues for growth,” says Vikki Katz, associate professor at Rutgers University Department of Communication.

To the English-language press, translations may present an opportunity to better serve diverse communities and to tap into new audiences in an increasingly multicultural America and globalized world.

The Korean translation of “Unvarnished” was a top trending story for the Times. And readers based in South Korea were more likely than other readers to be visiting the Times for the first time, according to Elisabeth Goodridge, deputy editor with the Metro desk. “We are overwhelmed by the reaction, and on every single metric we were so pleased.”

And for the Times, there’s more to come. “There’s a growing realization that the next big vista for growth for the Times is outside the United States,” says deputy international editor Lydia Polgreen, who is leading a new initiative to translate more stories for foreign audiences, especially into Spanish and Portuguese. While the Times has published in foreign languages via partners abroad for some time, the internet and social media have allowed them to go directly to readers, Polgreen says. “We have always done translations of particular articles that we think will find a large audience in another language. But now we’re starting to publish several translated articles a day, and doing a lot of testing to figure out how well they do,” Polgreen says. “It’s still very much an experiment, but we’re trying to figure out what the role of translations should be at the Times.”

But looking all the way to China or Mexico may not be the only way to locate new audiences. The nail salon investigation was translated chiefly so that immigrant communities in the US could read it. (The Times wouldn’t reveal what percentage of traffic to the translations came from within the US.) The latest Census data shows that the number of people who speak a language other than English at home is at a historical high. And ethnic media consumption is growing in the US, Katz says. A 2009 study puts the number of Americans who regularly consume ethnic media at almost 60 million, and New America Media’s national ethnic media directory lists over 3,000 ethnic media organizations, of which close to 2,000 are in languages other than English.

Perhaps the increased focus on translations of individual stories is a sign of a new awareness among publishers that non-English speakers are not just the subjects of stories but members of an audience with shared interests. Colleen Cotter, associate professor in media linguistics at Queen Mary University of London, hopes that’s the case. “There’s a monolingual mindset in the US,” she says. “Journalists should know more about how complicated the language history in the US has always been, and that there are many ways of producing media in different languages—although it does come with challenges.”

Those challenges are largely similar, whether stories are translated to reach international audiences or non-English speakers in the US.

First, there’s getting the translation right. On “Unvarnished” the Times made use of its foreign bureaus and native speakers in its US newsroom to produce and check the Chinese and Spanish translations, photo captions, headlines, and social-media text. The Korean translation, a first, proved more challenging. “It is a lot harder to do as a one-off than when you have a system in place for it,” Polgreen says.

Without those resources, translations can be harder than they may seem. In May, The Intercept published a Spanish excerpt alongside its two-part investigation into the disappearance of 43 Mexican students last year. While journalists in other countries have translated Intercept stories before, this was the first time the publication had handled the process itself, says editor-in-chief Betsy Reed.

“Because of the complexity of the subject and our desire to retain control of the presentation, we wanted to do the translation ourselves. We thought it would probably have a bigger impact in Mexico than in the US so we wanted to be beneficiaries of that impact and to be the ones actually publishing it,” Reed says.

The Intercept focused on an excerpt that they believed would be the most newsworthy to a Mexican audience, while much of the English version provided context for a US audience. But translating the excerpt into Spanish proved more complicated than anticipated. A first draft underwent several edits after a Mexican journalist helped the staff realize that the text should be adapted more substantially for a Mexican audience.

The Intercept sent the story out to Spanish-language media in the US, but it got the most attention after it was picked up by the Mexican publication La Jornada.

“Not that many read it on our site, but the exposure through La Jornada was big. It was getting tweeted a lot and got a lot of social media attention in Mexico,” Reed says.

Despite the complicated process, Reed says she doesn’t regret doing the translation. But is it worth the time and trouble if the story finds it readership on another site?

Many publishers are motivated by impact and attention—as was the case for The California Sunday Magazine, whose December 2014 story about the 43 Mexican students was published in Spanish translation and inspired The Intercept’s translation.

“The idea was to try and reach as wide as possible an audience, and one that had been affected by the horror in Iguala,” says senior editor Kit Rachlis. California Sunday used a Mexican translator who had worked with the story’s reporter, and a bilingual proofreader. The experience was simple and straightforward, Rachlis says.

Unsurprisingly, the English version did better than its Spanish counterpart, but according to John Gibler, the reporter, the Spanish version was also picked up by other outlets, and circulated on social media. “People who would come out to a march to support the parents of the disappeared students had read the piece,” Gibler says. “I took that to be a measure of the piece’s impact.”

Publications who aim to reach non-English speaking readers in the US, too, face the challenge of attracting new audiences to an unfamiliar site. “Just putting up excellent content in a foreign language does not mean it reaches that population,” says Daniela Gerson, director of the Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. High-quality bilingual publications have sometimes only reached audiences in one language, says Gerson, who edits Alhambra Source, an academic project turned hyperlocal site that produces local news in several languages to a community that previously had no unified news source. To get that project off the ground, the team reached new audiences through local ethnic media, Gerson says, an approach with clear advantages.

When Rochester Democrat and Chronicle published an investigation into the local school district’s treatment of Latino students, reporter Justin Murphy produced the Spanish translations himself, and appeared on a Spanish radio show where he spoke to callers. Chronicle executive editor Karen Magnuson believes the paper reached new readers through its Spanish translation, which garnered 765 pageviews, while the main story in English was viewed 4,677 times.

That kind of connection with local foreign-language media can pay off. Gerson and other experts on minority media suggest that mainstream and ethnic publications form even stronger links, or even partnerships: Ethnic media has the trust of its audience, and its staff, who often translate or summarize English-language news stories in their native language, has the language skills and cultural insights necessary to ensure an adequate translation.

Such partnerships might also provide an opportunity to monitor and stay engaged in the conversation. While “Unvarnished” was being praised in the English-language media, a counter-narrative emerged in Korean papers, which reported on salon owners who felt misrepresented by the series. The New York Times has the resources to keep up with foreign-language press and social media, but smaller publications might miss opportunities for follow-up stories and engagement.

Michael Parks, professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, agrees, but cautions that collaborations with ethnic media can be complicated. Language and cultural differences can lead to difficulties collaborating, he says. “You’ve got to find the right partner and be aware of how that operation works, but also what baggage they bring. Chinese-language publications could have different ideologies,” for example.

While big organizations like the New York Times can most easily afford to systematically translate stories, further experiments by smaller publications could lead to more cost-effective methods—and maybe even to new ways of thinking about story reach and audiences. As Vikki Katz puts it: “In a media landscape that is increasingly fragmented and niche, the mainstream media is realizing that there’s no clear mainstream anymore.”

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Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.