When Dereje Desta came to the D.C. area in August 2001, he discovered two things: It was home to the largest population of people from his home country of Ethiopia, and they did not have a newspaper.
With 20 years of journalism and newspaper reporting experience from his home country, he decided to start his own paper, Zethiopia. The paper is produced from his office in Fairfax, Va., where there is also a large and growing Ethiopian community.
Desta said he began by talking to people around the community to find out what was going on and distributing his newspapers in local shops, churches and grocery stores.
“The population is so big and diverse,” Desta said of the Ethiopian community.
Ten years later, the newspaper is going strong and has expanded from print to a multimedia company based in D.C. But while mainstream media is all abuzz about digital content and keeping the Web site fresh, Desta says the digital product is important, but the print product is vital.
“There are significant numbers [of Ethiopians] who can access the Internet,” Desta said. “But not all of our community uses the Internet.”
Zethiopia is a bimonthly newspaper printed in Amharic and English that provides relevant news to the Ethiopian community. Desta said he focuses on local issues as well as things going on back home that the people want to know about.
“We work hard to provide information they need,” Desta said. “We cover every issue without any interests.”
Desta said that journalists are much more regulated in Ethiopia, but a journalist in America is free.
“Can’t compare,” he said, taking a long pause. “Two different things.”
Desta also sees distance between his own community and the mainstream. Though they occupy the same areas, like the popular U Street Corridor where the block of Ninth and U streets is designated “Little Ethiopia,” he said there is a disconnect between the communities.
Desta found there is much interest in ethnic communities, how they do business and how to build stronger communities. But when it comes to news coverage, they are only covered a handful of times a year.
Recently, Desta contributed to WAMU’s “9th and U” project, part of their Global Perspective program, as a means of giving an accurate representation of the community.
Too often, Desta said, he finds his people identified in a negative light, like in headlines involving crime — Ethiopian robber,” for example.
Desta said he will continue to do his part building partnerships with media organizations outside of his community and keeping his people informed.
“Just because you see that in the mainstream community, that’s not how we all are,” Desta said.