Why We Must Value Armenian Diaspora Journalism

If we could all pause for just a moment, we are witnessing two amazing milestones. This year marks 120 years of the Hairenik and the 85th anniversary of the Armenian Weekly. The Hairenik was established here before the Genocide and really pre-dates the US diaspora as we know it. We are excellent at rounded anniversary dates. But seriously, what is the value of remembering? In my view, it is always an opportunity to educate with history and to assess the future. Honor the past and build for the future. One question does come to mind when I think of this incredible legacy. Have you ever failed to truly appreciate something? I guess it happens all the time. It’s called taking things for granted. The institution (or individual) has always been there so we think there’s always tomorrow to offer support, say thanks or do something to strengthen it. It happens tragically in many human relationships. We always tell each other to make that call, that visit or repair something that’s broken. I think journalism or the “press” in the Armenian community may be one of those under-appreciated institutions in our midst.

Journalism by definition is “the activity or writing usually for print and digital mediums or preparing for broadcasts.” I am referring to the print or digital version medium. The common denominator of all types of journalism is service to an audience and written expression. We have had the good fortune in the Armenian diaspora of outstanding journalism led by remarkably dedicated individuals. Through the decades there have been immensely talented people who work long hours, make less money than they would on the “open market” and operate with limited support for one reason—to keep all of us informed, knowledgeable and thinking. This is not something we should take lightly.

When I was very young, the Armenian Weekly was a staple in our home. Long before the emergence of social media, digital mediums and 24 hour news, the print newspaper was a lifeline and the Armenian community was no exception. I would read virtually every column as it was the main mechanism of my ever expanding view of Armenian identity and our diaspora. It was essentially my link to my concept of “global” Armenians. Early in my college years, I had the honor to meet James Tashjian at a community event. For those of you under 50, Mr. Tashjian was the iconic editor of the Weekly during the 50s to the 70s. The paper was where I learned about the Armenian Cause, William Saroyan and Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame. Reading the Weekly (or the Mirror Spectator, Asbarez, Courier or Reporter) kept the Armenian world vivid and real. In 1987, I went to Singapore on business and visited the church that I initially read about in the Weekly. Back in the day, the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) had a page where young Armenians made literary contributions in poetry, news items and opinions. It was a launching point for still the best method of self-expression in my view—writing.

Where would we be without the decades of dedication of the US diaspora press? A lot less informed, a great deal less inspired and our sense of community would be diminished. When you read either news, commentary or research items, your imagination is triggered and new possibilities emerge. Our journalists offer us the gift of functioning beyond the obvious. It is fulfilling for both the contributor and the consumer. Our foundation of papers in the US diaspora has been initially to serve as party organs such as the Asbarez, Hairenik publications and the Mirror Spectator. Independent publications like the Courier, the now defunct Reporter and the USA Armenian Life, have also dotted the landscape. Fortunately , these papers offer much more than editorial commentary. They truly are community-based news vehicles that are focused on educating and informing the public.

Today, technology has significantly changed the landscape of journalism. World conflicts are reported on in “real time.” The abundance of news reporting offers choices and depth not available in the previous generation. Saturation can be overwhelming as too many choices and biases can create confusion. But if we choose, we have the opportunity to be more informed and aware than ever. I say “choose” because it is still your decision on whether you want to be an informed Armenian citizen.

There is also a downside. This technology has also enabled our weaknesses. Thoughtful literary expressions have frequently been replaced with crafting Facebook rants, sending unilateral email “communication” and substituting 144 character limits for “writing.” Reading and literary expression seem to be a constant challenge for a society bent on shortcuts. We seem to always find ways to misuse the intent of the innovation. “Communication” today is really referred to as a series of one-way posts, texts and tweets. Communication used to be a two-way process where you could grasp the essence of human creativity. Likewise writing, a pillar of journalism, is victimized by these less creative methods. Newspapers have either closed or survived based on creative methods of digital offerings and funding. Fortunately, we have the Weekly, and given that reality, we should be thankful not ambivalent.

Earlier, I mentioned that Armenian journalism is sometimes taken for granted. This is unfortunate, and I was a part of the problem. I was using social media as an exclusive form of expression, thinking I was making a contribution. I was confusing self-expression with adding real value. Counting how many “likes” you received on a post is not exactly making a difference. I think social media has a tremendous capability to network and distribute content, but journalism rallies around a collective theme and purpose. It is timeless in its impact. The absence of creative writing, investigative instincts and a sense of literary purpose will limit lasting impact. Instead of open-looped commentary, true journalism desires to have an impact on their audience, believing that an informed community is the best position from which to make progress and sustain itself. We must communicate the difference effectively.

Earlier this year, I received a message from some members of the editorial staff of the Weekly asking if I would be interested in writing a community opinion column. I was initially a bit overwhelmed. Could I actually do this? What could I do to help? I have experience in public speaking, but that’s not the same as writing. When considering this unexpected invitation, I began to think about the importance of the Weekly and how it has impacted all our lives. If I had ideas to share and was motivated with a pure heart, then maybe it becomes more of a responsibility. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute, not just to an important institution such as the Weekly, but to an important discipline of substance. It is my hope to encourage others to step forward and contribute content for the benefit of the greater community. 

What can we do to make it better? Actually there are several things that each of us can do to improve the strength of our Armenian journalism in the diaspora. The first one is simple and personal. We need to truly embrace the importance of this institution. Perhaps the easier way to illustrate that is to consider the impact of its absence from our lives and community. In our hectic lives, this is probably one that we haven’t thought about, but would regret if it were gone. The print version has multiple purposes. Many of us find the digital platform more convenient. Perhaps true, but remember that the print version is a revenue source for the newspaper, and the digital version is free. Major newspapers have almost all transitioned to a fee structure for their digital version. The Weekly and others have chosen not to do that. Let’s respect that decision and contribute financially to the print offering with a subscription and/or donation (currently the 120th anniversary of the Hairenik Press and 85th of the Weekly). Giving a subscription as a gift is also an opportunity to open new windows for those we care about. Parents and grandparents can continue their legacy by giving literary content to their children—the gift of knowledge and being informed. I have found that having printed material on our coffee table encourages family and guests to read something they may not have considered.

When we write, we dream…

Another equally important action has many branches. It concerns the content of the paper. Our papers do not have the luxury of a cadre of compensated reporters or contributors. They have always relied on the literary contributions from volunteer members of the global community. Starting at the core of the issue, we need to encourage our youth to write. They are growing up in a “shortcut” world which encourages an environment of constant, but somewhat forgettable offerings. We can rebuild this value on writing as a form of self-expression and self-esteem building within the Armenian community by offering opportunities to “publish” their thoughts. A more structured approach in Sunday Schools and youth organizations would appeal to talented individuals to contribute content and establish a framework for the future. I would specifically ask the AYF to establish a content contributing effort to the Weekly on a regular basis. Also, how about a major internship awarded to journalism or creative writing students? I have been very impressed with the depth of thinking with our youth. Let’s get those ideas on paper. Worried about the quality? I was told by a wonderful friend a few years back that the best way to write is simply to start writing and let the creativity in your soul emerge. Editing is a secondary process.

Writing can be an incredible development tool for a young person and lead to great expectations. When we write, we dream, and when we dream, our full capabilities emerge.

Isn’t it possible that encouraging our youth (and others) to develop writing skills will replenish an important core skill for our community? Another suggestion is to make our journalism a bidirectional process by writing letters to the editor or participating in the online comments, which could potentially be included in the printed Weekly’s “Khosq” section. The feedback is a calibration point for the contributors and an important aspect of why we publish material. There has been some discussion about holding a major panel discussion publicly on the state of diaspora Armenian journalism (in addition to the one that was recently held in New York City). Stay tuned on that one.

I was told many years ago by a friend of my grandfather’s that being an informed and educated Armenian is the best way to help your people. It was one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received, and I have tried to pass it on to others. Connecting to, supporting and contributing to Armenian journalism is one way to prepare yourselves and sustain that capability. We must avoid the shallow depth of becoming a “functionally illiterate” community where our institutions merely exist, but the low level of knowledge renders us to survivor status. Investing in our journalism provides a simple mechanism to becoming and maintaining a level of community functionality that sustains growth. Please consider some of these suggestions. And happy birthday to the Hairenik.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

1 Comment

  1. Another inspiring column Stepan. Too many times I’ve not liked what I’ve read and not much different from a restaurant that served something not so good, I didn’t go back to eat there again. Reading your series of articles, I look at this publication differently. After all, everything on any menu isn’t necessarily for everyone, but I definitely will be buying into your suggestion for celebrating the Weekly’s birthday. Panos.

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