"What is this? Is this another wedding?"
Tenderloin Times co-editor Sara Colm stared down at a paragraph written in elegant--and to her, incomprehensible--Laotian script.
The answer--no--was provided by Laotian reporter Chanthanom Ounkeo, and the two women moved on to the next problem, a sentence that was too long.
Juggling stories in a language she doesn't understand is all in a day's work for Colm, as she pieces together the current issue of this unusual inner-city newspaper's Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian sections (in addition to the English-language section).
The Times is the neighborhood paper of the 23,000 elderly poor, Southeast Asian refugees, homeless and mentally ill, drug users and transients who crowd the Tenderloin's cheap and often nasty hotels and apartments. If its heart is the usual "small town" paper blend of gossip, "service," or informational stories, reviews and profiles of neighbors, its soul is the hard-hitting but meticulously researched examinations of perennial Tenderloin problems--homelessness, substandard housing, landlord/tenant problems, the neglect of the mentally ill, the problems of the new immigrants.
It is read in City Hall and in the newsrooms of the city's major media. San Francisco's dailies and TV stations often follow up on Times stories, and the Times will sometimes feed information to them in order to reach a wider audience, and bring action. "In January, there were stories on death on the streets on the front page of the Chronicle and the Examiner, crediting us. It happens all the time," Times co-editor Rob Waters said.
Equally satisfying is the enthusiasm of its readers. "People look in the door all the time to tell us they want something put in the paper," Waters said. "They call here wanting to know how to get on welfare, how to get into the homeless program." Sometimes they even call him at home, a sign of success he could do without.
The Times was first published in August, 1977, as a small, mimeographed sheet put out by the Central City Hospitality House, a nonprofit agency, which is still its publisher. In 1982, Waters, who had helped start a community paper in the Haight Ashbury, was hired as editor and began producing it monthly.
Realizing a Need
Two years ago, a $76,000 grant from the San Francisco Foundation made it possible for the paper to expand into four languages. "A third to half of the neighborhood couldn't read what we were putting out so we saw a real need," Waters explained.
Now the paper--which is distributed free each month in the neighborhood's hotels and apartment buildings, restaurants and bars, small shops and social service agencies--has two full-time editors, Waters and Colm, a half-time associate editor and a part-time staff of three Southeast Asian reporters, an advertising representative and office manager. All of which, Waters said, "adds up to a staff of 4.89 people." A photographer and art director are paid as consultants and volunteers--people from the neighborhood, journalism students--contribute stories and help out with production of the 15,000-circulation paper.
Last month's issue focused on homeless AIDS victims; on the controversial Los Angeles-based religious U.S. Mission organization that recently opened a shelter for the homeless in the Tenderloin; and on ancient Southeast Asian ways of healing. On this month's front page, there are stories on the possible closure of the inner city's only 24-hour emergency clinics, on racial tension in schools and on the bankruptcy of a jewelry manufacturer that employed about 250 Southeast Asians.
Generally, Waters said, "we are exploring the big issues that are always here and never go away. We routinely cover the homeless, and housing--the No. 1 issue here is housing and the lack thereof."
In general, the Times emphasizes service stories for its readers--tenants' rights, how to deal with welfare requirements, how to become a citizen--and "general neighborhood news which is what the paper is about," Waters said. Indeed, what readers say they turn to first are The Tender Side, a gossip column, and In Short, a section of notices and brief stories about the neighborhood.
There are restaurant and film reviews, profiles of local personalities and features on culture and the arts, both Asian and non-Asian--"things to help people disrupted from their lives without much choice," Colm explained.
The last four pages of each issue are given over to news for the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian communities. The Asian reporters write their stories in English so that they can be edited by Colm, who then hands them back for translation.
Colm, who grew up in Taiwan, where her father worked for the State Department, speaks some Chinese, which she acknowledges "is not very helpful." In the beginning, she said, she had to work "incredible hours" of overtime. "The first layout, I had them do everything nicely in columns, and then I discovered that in Cambodian, the vowels go above and below the consonants, and I couldn't cut (the lines) apart." In those early days, the Laotian and Cambodian pages had to be copied by hand, a process that could take as much as eight hours. Now they are done on a computer, while the Vietnamese version is produced on a typewriter.
Colm routinely edits for length; "10 column inches in English can be 20 column inches in Cambodian or Lao," she said. "In Lao, 'Go to the store' can run on for two lines." She also edits for the specific audience. For example, last month's story on Southeast Asian traditional healing methods ran about 90 column inches in English. "A lot of it was background, virtually none of which appeared in the Southeast Asian versions, since people are familiar with it," Colm said.
Cambodian reporter Sopath Pak has lived in San Francisco since 1980. In addition to his work for the Times, he has a temporary job as a shipping and receiving clerk in a clothing firm. In Cambodia he was an elementary school teacher before joining the army. His English is still a little shaky but eventually, he said he "would like to be a writer both in my language and in English." He is married and has three daughters.
Hung Quoc Tran has been working for the paper since January. When he arrived in this country from Vietnam a year ago, he already spoke English well enough to teach English as a Second Language classes at the YMCA.
On the other hand, Laotian reporter Chanthanom Ounkeo said that the only English she knew when she came to this country six years ago was what she had picked up in a refugee camp in Thailand, "things to use on the airplane, like 'Hi, how are you?' " She lived first in Texas, where she went to school to study English for seven months, got a job and continued her schooling at night. Four years ago, she came to San Francisco with her husband, who is organizer of a refugee community program, and three young children.
Ounkeo also works full time for the home-based Head Start Program and does translation work at home. She worries that she is shortchanging her family.
Waters would like to double the size of the Asian section. Money, or rather, the lack of it, is what stops him. The paper's annual budget is $150,000 with funding coming from Hospitality House, the San Francisco Foundation, other smaller grants and donations and advertising.
"I find I spend more and more time fund raising," Waters said. "We are trying to increase our advertising, but this is not an affluent community, so we are never going to get enough to support it in full."
Even with constant money worries, though--he is currently looking for another $5,000 to $8,000 to see the paper through the current fiscal year--Waters said, "This is a very satisfying and exciting place to work. You see results pretty immediately and people tell you what they think.
"You have an opportunity to do something significant in journalism and have a degree of control over your work and have some impact--you are close to the action."