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Infancy of an empire

Ethnic journals' time to make choices

Upendra Mishra learned his business skills the old-fashioned way. He went broke.

A former Mexico bureau chief for United Press International, Mishra moved to Boston in 1992 and promptly started something called ''Asia Business Journal" aimed at the Indian community in the Boston area, which now numbers over 44,000. (He refers to them as ''Asian Indian," which includes immigrants from India and those born here of Indian heritage.)

We all know that toddlers have more business acumen than journalists, and, sure enough, by June of 1993 his publication was history and the man was in the financial weeds. He bounced back in 1997 with the Mishra Group, now a successful public relations firm targeting real estate, construction and architecture. In 1999, he started a biweekly newspaper called ''India New England" and two years later launched a national biweekly called ''IndUS Business Journal," which he says is the only national business newspaper aimed at Asian Indians.

Both papers are run on a shoestring in a suite of offices deep in the wilds of Waltham. INE has a hiccup of a circulation at 12,000 and IBJ 18,000.

What's salient here is that Mishra has created, at the grand old age of 44, a mouse of an ethnic media empire that just might roar.

Mishra's business plan is as intriguing as his journalism. Circulation of IBJ, which he calls his flagship, is small because he is targeting only Asian Indian business owners and senior executives. He estimates there are 70,000 of them across the country and he wants them all. He also expects to double INE circulation.

Mishra, who was born in India, has only begun to exploit major advertisers. But he's got something to sell. Asian Indians are the fastest growing ethnic group in New England -- up 110 percent to 76,000 from 1990 to 2000. Nationally, according to his figures, their median household income is $64,000, half again as much as the country's average. Over 90 percent of Asian Indian professionals have four-year college degrees, and almost two-thirds of them have advanced degrees.

Seven percent of doctors in America are of Asian Indian descent. Asian Indians own 35 percent of the hotels in the United States and almost 60 percent of convenience stores. They travel a lot.

Big advertisers are finally getting the message. ''It was hard five or six years ago," says Mishra. ''No one listened to us. They were going to mainstream media for ads. Slowly, the advertising is changing. They can't ignore us anymore. As the mainstream media is down, ethnic media is really growing. It is very, very cost-effective for advertisers to reach their market through ethnic media."

Indeed. Ads pour in to his publications from Jaguar, Cadillac, Toyota, Hyatt and Marriott hotels, American Airlines, MetLife. The legal giant formerly named Hale and Dorr has been a solid advertiser. Mercedes Benz bought six full-page ads, prepaid, in 2003.

More telling is the list of elite private schools advertising in INE. In its Education Resource Guide this year, you'll find ads from Middlesex, St. Mark's, Buckingham Browne & Nichols, among many, often with times and dates of school open houses. There are also ads from colleges like Brandeis, Simmons.

The best of INE journalism explores Asian Indian life here beyond the stereotypical truths of driven doctors and engineers. Unlike other Asian Indian papers, says Mishra, INE uses no wire services and avoids stories about India: ''The focus is totally on local content. What happens there is irrelevant to what happens here."

''We want to show how the Indian community can reinvent itself," adds editor Poornima Apte, a former environmental engineer born in India. ''We want to show there are other options." The front of last week's special issue on Diwali, the important Hindu festival of lights, features an Asian Indian graduate of Carnegie Mellon who turned to improv and started his own theater in Boston.

INE ran a piece last fall about the Massachusetts Area South Asian Lambda Association, a gay and lesbian organization, and another last summer on an Asian Indian lesbian couple in Norwood who got married. Apte oversaw a series on the pull of India to Asian Indians here. One part followed a family that moved back. Another looked at a family that stayed, despite layoffs, because its local roots had grown deep. A third followed a family that went back only to return here again.

Along with these enterprise efforts are the less lofty staples that keep an ethnic newspaper afloat. Weddings are big. There's a regular section on Bollywood, the Indian movie industry whose lavish productions remain addictive to many Asian Indians here and simply bizarre to outlanders like me.

Mishra is onto something. Eventually, though, he'll have to decide if he wants to practice distinguished journalism on a regular basis -- and devote more resources to staffing -- or simply make a lot of money. He will then confront the bald reality already faced by the mainstream media: It's damned hard to do both at once.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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