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Essay: A Farewell to KoreAm Journal

The first rule about ethnic indie: expect it to end.
KoreAm Journal first began printing in 1990. Its last issue went out December 2015.
KoreAm Journal first began printing in 1990. Its last issue went out December 2015.Courtesy of Kai Ma

The first rule about ethnic indie: expect it to end. Which is exactly what happened when KoreAm, one of the longest running English-language Korean American-focused magazines, announced its final issue.

Some people paused for a moment, reflecting the way we do on the alarming decline of physical things: records, photographs, another magazine. Others shrugged off the news, a dimple in a sea of holiday clamor, while some of the people around me felt the pang of an Asian-American publication going belly up when there are so little platforms left.

The month the first issue of KoreAm hit the stands, April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into space, and somewhere in Gardena, California, a father-and-son duo was working on a breakthrough of its own: printing 5,000 copies of a newsprint tabloid, a debut issue that devoured their savings and time. Think start-up. Think unforgivable ethnic start-up.

And that was how it started — a family with no publishing experience, developing photos in the darkroom and then hand-delivering Issue One to Korean Angelenos for free.

The founding publishers were already thinking ahead to the next issue, and more precisely, how to pay it off. It’s a story that feels familiar to so many of us first gens, whose parents had also cobbled together the absurd and mundane, and decided, against all odds, to trust it.

The magazine’s role crystallized two years later, our city on fire, when LA erupted into flames for several days in what Koreans would name saigu. KoreAm, flush with new importance, became a forum for Korean Americans to voice their opinions and grievances about the LA Riots — one of the on-going criticisms being how the white mainstream press, much of which sent no Korean-American reporter or speaker to the field, got the story wrong.

"'Hanging on' is cemented in the identities of indie publications, especially now when even the magazines with money aren’t making money."

We addressed this, a lot. Maybe too much? By the time I came to the magazine in 2008, an exasperated friend griped, “How many more times can the LA Riots be a KoreAm cover story?” We moved on. There were huge stories that year alone: Barack Obama was elected president, the U.S. death toll in Iraq surpassed 4,000, South Korea reached baseball gold, and stock markets plunged worldwide. The year before, Korean Americans had faced a different difficult chapter, when the shooter of the Virginia Tech massacre was revealed to be Korean. Again, KoreAm provided a space for Korean Americans to cover the tragedy on our own terms.

This was its role, a task its writers accepted happily: exploring what it meant to be an ethnic indie journalist as the mainstream media failed — and still fails — to cover parts unknown, immigrants and healthcare, domestic violence among Asian Americans, transnational adoption, the gentrification of Asia-towns, the Asian-American vote.

"Hanging on" is cemented in the identities of indie publications, especially now when even the magazines with money aren’t making money. Our print Angel of Death has shown its face for quite some time. KoreAm almost bottomed out the year I arrived. Faced with a grim financial picture, we swallowed 20 percent pay cuts and launched our “Save KoreAm” campaign to avoid the fate of other magazines like Tu Ciudad, the lifestyle mag catered to second-gen Latinos that had folded earlier that summer. KoreAm would’ve been almost 20 years old, more than 200 issues in, and it still would’ve been an exceptional ride. But it kept running, despite its outdated business model and dearth of advertisers (save the K-town dentists that hung tough til the end), a remnant of the '90s renaissance of sorts for Asian-American media.

I also want to tell you about the fun we had, the gift of working with your friends, even though you couldn’t always pay them: photo shoots in the garage, the parties sponsored by Korean alcohol (read: ballrooms of serious Asian glow) and also how working at this magazine quickly became, for me, a reel tape of a motley crew of covers — a sequence of social justice issues married with K-pop stars (who, by the way, really are as shiny and tan as you imagine them to be) and what each of those issues said about Korean America becoming what it has become.

A story like this, it’s a shame it had to end. But that’s what this magazine has always been about: the losses and gains, each issue a result of something passed through, pushed through, and sometimes overcome. In archiving the Korean-American experience, KoreAm had become its own story. And I like to think that even the killjoys and cynics, looking back on the last 25 years, believe these stories will find themselves a new home, somewhere.

Kai Ma is a writer and producer for "Melissa Harris-Perry" on MSNBC. She is a former editor-in-chief of KoreAm.