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Where newspapers thrive: Orange County's Little Saigon

In a dimly lighted warehouse at the end of an alleyway in Orange County's Little Saigon, five reporters sat side by side on mismatched chairs, talking on telephones and typing away on their keyboards. There was no air conditioning, and two large fans provided little relief from the muggy air.

This was the temporary home of Viet Herald Daily News, the newest paper to hit the stands in this ethnic enclave. At a time when most U.S. newspapers are struggling to survive, Vietnamese-language news media here are flourishing.

There are four other dailies and numerous weeklies and magazines to serve the county's roughly 150,000 Vietnamese Americans. There are also several Vietnamese television broadcasting substations, as well as Little Saigon Radio (KVNR-AM 1480) and Radio Bolsa and VNCR, which share time on KALI-FM (106.3).

"Of course, there is still room in the Vietnamese community for another newspaper!" said Dzung Do, managing editor and co-founder of Viet Herald. "People want more."

Last week, Viet Herald's 15 staffers moved to a permanent office on Moran Street, a Westminster cul-de-sac where three other dailies in Little Saigon are lined up. Their new offices are squeezed between Viet Bao Daily News and Vien Dong Daily News. It's a sort of Vietnamese version of Fleet Street.

All five Vietnamese-language papers are small -- the largest, Nguoi Viet Daily News, has a circulation of 18,000 and a staff of 50. But the reach of Little Saigon's press can be seen every morning in the local coffee shops and markets that line the streets of Westminster and Garden Grove.

On a recent morning, Jimmy Thanh Kim Vu sipped Vietnamese iced coffee at a banh mi sandwich shop in Garden Grove as he flipped through the pages of Nguoi Viet and chatted with several friends. The group traded copies of all five Vietnamese dailies. (The fifth paper is Saigon Nho.)

"I have to read Vietnamese papers to know what is going on in Vietnam," said Vu, 71.

A day earlier, Vu said, he read a front-page exclusive in Nguoi Viet about the fight to reclaim from the government the Tam Toa Catholic Church in central Vietnam. The paper's reporters interviewed a priest in Vietnam for the story, giving local readers a closer look at what was happening overseas.

"I think of us as a connector," said Anh Do, vice president of Nguoi Viet. "The coverage is very intimate."

It is precisely this kind of news coverage that is responsible for the success of Vietnamese-language papers and other media targeted at certain immigrant groups, said Jeffrey Brody, a journalism professor at Cal State Fullerton.

"Basically, the ethnic press is a niche press," Brody said. "It gives the community exactly what it needs, in terms of news of its homeland and news of the community itself. You can't get that from TV or magazines from the mainstream press."

But even more than a common language and stories about the homeland, the Vietnamese American press is popular because of the unique experience of refugees who fled their country after it fell under communist rule in 1975.

"They came from a country without freedom of the press," Brody said, "and now they are seizing the opportunity."

After the fall of Saigon, thousands of refugees settled in Westminster, where they found cheap rent, plentiful jobs, good weather and a growing enclave of Vietnamese refugees not far from the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, where many were resettled. One was Yen Ngoc Do, a former Vietnamese journalist.

News from their homeland was scant. So in 1978, Do took $4,000 of his savings to start Nguoi Viet, which means "Vietnamese people." It began as a four-page weekly published out of his Garden Grove garage with the help of his wife and young children, including Anh Do.

In addition to news from Vietnam, the paper featured stories about life in the United States, how to get a driver's license and apply for home loans, and what to expect when attending a PTA meeting.

Nguoi Viet eventually grew to become the largest Vietnamese-language newspaper in the country. Its website also attracts readers in Vietnamese communities around the world, including Australia, France and Vietnam itself. A few years ago, the paper launched a weekly English section aimed at young readers.

But Vietnamese newspapers are not immune from the weak economy. Advertising revenue at Nguoi Viet and other publications is down. Still, they continue to turn a profit because of their loyal readership and shoestring budgets.

This is largely the reason the founders of Viet Herald decided to start it up. Its first issue debuted July 4, with about 12,000 copies.

Viet Herald's editors also felt that readers wanted coverage of some "hot-button issues" that other newspapers are afraid to touch, said Dzung Do, who left Nguoi Viet to start Viet Herald.

"For example, some political issues in the community, some papers might like this candidate and not the other. We don't care," he said. "We cover both."

"Those other newspapers have been in the community for so long, they want to play it safe," said Ha Bich Bui, Viet Herald's editor in chief, who is also a popular personality on Little Saigon Radio.

"It may be that we are taking a risk. The community is more or less conservative. Those of us who are in jour- nalism have to struggle with that."

In this staunchly anti-communist enclave, pushing the boundaries of journalism has gotten newspapers in hot water.

Last year, Nguoi Viet ran a photo of a foot spa painted the colors of the South Vietnamese flag, which sparked a round of protests by those who believed the photo was offensive and was sympathetic to communism.

The newspaper quickly apologized to protesters, fired two top editors and offered refunds for the offending issue, but the protests continued. Nguoi Viet then filed a lawsuit, and a jury ruled that the protesters were liable for trespassing and causing a nuisance, finally ending the 18-month demonstrations.

Since then, Nguoi Viet hired back one of the fired editors, Hao-Nhien Vu.

The other fired editor, Anh Vu, is a co-founder of Viet Herald. Anh Vu and others liked the sound of "Herald," a traditional name established by newspapers at the turn of the 20th century.

On a recent morning, Viet Herald Managing Editor Dzung Do and a reporter chuckled as they leafed through the pages of their competitors.

"I think other newspapers should appreciate what we are doing," Do said. "Our presence makes them better. Now you have more newspapers, more news and more competition, so we have to all better ourselves."

my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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