BY JENNY KILJIAN
PHOTOS BY VEERO DERKARABETIAN
On a cold winter’s evening in 1908–seven civic-minded Armenian men held a meeting to discuss the need for a newspaper that would serve the growing community in Fresno–California. They named their publication Asbarez–arena in Armenian–intending for their paper to be a forum for the dissemination of news–opinions–and ideology. Aslan Aslanian–Levon Hagopian–Arpaxat Setrakian–Hovaness Kabadayan–Avedis Tufenkjian–Bedros Hagopian–and Abraham Seklemian–the founding fathers of Asbarez–defied social and financial odds in creating the newspaper.
Nearly a century later–Asbarez–now making its home in Los Angeles–continues to overcome historical and journalistic constructs that had dictated such immigrant newspapers would become extinct within the first generation of their existence. It reaches an audience of more than 10,000 people worldwide. The paper has also formed an unprecedented distribution partnership with the Los Angeles Times–through which 20,000 copies of the regional paper will be delivered periodically to homes with an insert of Asbarez.
The birth of Asbarez was witnessed by only seven people. On Friday–February 27–2004–on a weekend where the eyes of the world would be focused on the Academy Awards–450 loyal supporters gathered to celebrate the 95th anniversary of the publication–under the auspices of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Central Committee.
Shortly after seven o’clock in the evening–guests began to arrive at the Bagramian Hall of the Holy Cross Church in Montebello. Without the confines of their assigned dinner tables–the guests enjoyed cocktails and conversation in the foyer. Then just before nine–the lights flickered as though signaling the start of a theatric performance. The doors to the hall opened–and everyone present marveled at the scene inside that–short of having tall golden statues by the stage–would have rivaled the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
Everyone remained standing as Master of Ceremonies–Dr. Manoug Seraydarian invited the Hye Bell Performers to rouse the patriotism of the guests with their renditions of the national anthems of the Republic of Armenia and the United States. While the notes resonated in the room–Seraydarian expressed that the number of people in the hall spoke volumes in terms of the importance of Asbarez. "There are two kinds of people. Those who like to go out–while the other likes to stay home. These two are often married," he quipped. "But both love the literary arts and are present tonight to celebrate this event. I hope that one hundred years from now–Armenia’s will gather together to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of Asbarez."
Archbishop Hovnan Derderian–Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church–echoed these sentimen’s in the message he delivered prior to leading the dinner prayer. "That Asbarez continues to thrive is a reflection of the community it serves," he asserted. "So long as Asbarez survives–so will the Armenian people in the Diaspora."
During dinner–the Cilicia String Quartet offered the works of Vivaldi–while also inspiring guests with their interpretations of Armenian Revolutionary anthems. Images of old issues of Asbarez were shown on the two large movie screens that stood at either end of the hall. Among the clippings–which proved the newspaper has had its finger on the pulse of the community for nearly a century–were a headline announcing the World Trade Center attacks–articles discussing the Armenian genocide–and the first editorial Asbarez published describing the reason the paper came to exist. This collage piqued the interest of guests–who could be overheard talking about the history of Asbarez and other Armenian-American newspapers–while discussing the present condition of the Armenian Diaspora–and various topics of interest such as religion–politics–history–and the arts.
Asbarez received several gifts on the occasion of its 95th anniversary. On hand to mark this milestone was Congressman Adam Schiff–whose 29th District constituency composed a greater portion of the guests at the banquet and boasts more subscribers to the Armenian daily than any other Congressional district in the nation. He praised Asbarez as a vibrant and persistent newspaper that has an incredibly strong connection with the community it serves. "It is extraordinary when you consider how many newspapers go out of business within the first decade that Asbarez has been able to maintain its readership and its bond with the community for ninety-five years," said Schiff–who joked that he reads Asbarez–in the Armenian–and then translates it for the staff at his office. "I see the effect every day as I go throughout the district. People stop me and engage me on issues. They recognize me and ask the pertinent questions because of the fine reporting you do and how well-informed you keep the community."
In his introduction–Raffi Hamparian–Chairman of the Armenian National Committee Western Region board–had praised the Congressman as "not merely a friend of the Armenian community–but also an ally who has stood shoulder to shoulder with us in every battle." On the eve of its anniversary–Rep. Schiff confirmed his appreciation of the Armenian American community by presenting Asbarez with a special certificate detailing his congratulatory remarks that were entered into the official United States Congressional Record.
"In the last three decades–Asbarez has become a bilingual daily newspaper–becoming the voice of the Armenian American community from libraries to newsrooms," Schiff noted to his colleagues during the 108th session of Congress one day earlier. "It is my distinct honor to recognize Asbarez’s invaluable service to the constituency of the 29th Congressional District. Over the years–Asbarez has truly succeeded in becoming a trusted information and community source."
What guests did not know–however–was the amount of work that goes into publishing a newspaper every day (except–as Seraydarian noted–on Sunday and Monday). Guests were captivated by the video presentation in which they were introduced to just some of the 50 editorial–advertising–and circulation staff of Asbarez.
Another important link in the connection between the Diaspora and the homeland is the Armenian Consulate in Los Angeles. It is not only a means for making traveling between the nations easier–but also represents the endurance of the Armenian American community in Southern California. In the five months since settling in Los Angeles–according to Consul General Gagik Giragosian–the partnership between Asbarez and its television counterpart Horizon has been of great significance to him. "On behalf of the Consulate–I’d like to congratulate Asbarez for continuing to bring the Diaspora closer together with Armenia by establishing a bond based on common news and culture," said Giragosian. "We congratulate the editorial staff who fights to not only remain a strong newspaper but also to have the Armenian genocide recognized."
Maral Habeshian–the English section editor of the Asbarez–relocated from Washington–DC to Los Angeles to head the English section of the newspaper. As the first female editor of Asbarez–Habeshian conveyed her great pride at being a representative of the venerable paper. Armenia’s–she said–have had a dual existence; their bodies are in the Diaspora–while their thoughts are in the homeland. While most ethnic newspapers in the United States may have folded–Habeshian noted that each new wave of immigran’s helped the Asbarez to sustain itself for another decade and maintain the physical link between those individual and the Armenia nation–its history and culture–its retreats and advances–politically and otherwise. "The Asbarez has covered everything that the Armenian nation and the Diaspora have been through for the past 95 years. It has been there every step of the way reflecting the hopes of parents–grandparents–and great-grandparents for each successive generation–and has kept individuals fully engaged in the developmen’s of a nation and of a people," she said. In terms of the newspaper’s value as a political party organ–Habeshian defended its journalistic integrity and value–reminding guests that–though they may have different political ideologies–Armenia’s are connected by their love of the homeland. "As an ARF paper–we are exactly that? you know exactly what you’re getting–and you can take us at face value. Simply put–there is no hidden agenda–only the agenda of being in the service of our nation."
Editor Vatche Proodian assumed his position at the newspaper in 2001. Among his many duties is the responsibility to inform readers of current events in Armenia–the United States–and abroad–and to consistently promote the ideology of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and its sister organizations. "Asbarez is a victory for the ARF to whom the medium is a humble servant–and also to its readers with whom it shares a symbiotic relationship," he expressed. "As readers find meaning in its pages–the paper finds its meaning and serves its purpose through its readership."
Proodian described to guests a comment made by Ted Turner during a speech he gave to a group of Associated Press reporters in Atlanta–Georgia. Turner told his audience that he had wagered twenty years ago that newspapers would not survive more than another decade. The media mogul then admitted he had obviously been proven incorrect.
"Not only was Turner mistaken," said the proud editor–"but he might never have left himself vulnerable to making the mistake had he known of Asbarez." Proodian also heralded the website of Asbarez that will include an Armenian section–following a full-scale upgrade.
In its 95 years–many people toiled long hours to produce Asbarez–and leading the charge were its editors. Proodian invited to the stage Serge Samoniantz–John Kossakian–Vahik Gourjian–Seno Pakradouni–Sarkis Ghazarian–Ara Khachadourian–and Edward Meguerdichian–who was the linotypist during the years the paper was published in Fresno. Together with its two present-day leaders–they each cut a piece of the book-shaped confection–created by the renowned bakers at Sarkis Pastry in Glendale.
Following the editorial reunion–Garbis Der Yeghiayan presented Asbarez with the Saint Mesrob Mashdots plaque–which the Masdots College in Glendale awards for "Excellence in Journalism."
For 95 years–Asbarez has been the organ for the ARF–who is the parent organization of the Armenian Youth Federation and Shant Student Association–and whose sister organizations include the Armenian National Committee–Armenian Relief Society–Armenian Educational Foundation–Hamazkayin Cultural Organization–and Armenian General Athletic Union. Members of these civic and cultural organizations not only honored Asbarez at the banquet–but continue to build the foundation of its readers and contributors.
ARF Central Committee member Hovig Saliba reminded guests that throughout the history of the Diaspora–the ARF has been an integral part of the community with its sister schools–church–and cultural center. He spoke of the day in 1890 when Cristapor Mikaelian–Simon Zavarian–and Rosdom Zorian formed the ARF. He noted the significance of the pen placed in the party’s emblem–along with a sword and a shovel against the backdrop of the ARF flag. The sword symbolized the military battles that were waged to secure Armenia’s independence; the shovel denoted the commitment of the Armenian people to their land; and the pen recognized the importance of the written word and how–in some instances–the pen could be mightier than even the sword. The establishment of Asbarez in 1908–according to Saliba–realized the intrinsic need for the party to have a powerful written medium. Now–on its 95th anniversary–Saliba expressed that the paper still faces the same reality–to continue the struggle of maintaining the Armenian identity in the Diaspora. "In its pages–you will still find an unwavering ideological commitment. In celebrating its near-centennial anniversary–Asbarez has opened the doors to a new century of service to the community," said Saliba.
Towards the end of the evening–a few youngsters dressed as early 20th century paperboys went table to table selling the first issue of Asbarez that was reprinted especially for this event. Although it was asked that guests purchase the copies for their original rate of $.05–all of the guests contributed at least a dollar–joking about the change in consumer price index and inflation.
Some of the most generous patrons were the journalists from fellow Armenian-American newspapers based in Glendale–including Nor Hayastan editor Vahan Jansezian–Armenian Life Weekly editor Apo Jabarian–Armenian Observer editor Osheen Keshishian–and Nor Or editorial staff member Kevork Keushkerian. Through its Los Angeles Times distribution partnership–Asbarez has elevated the visibility of Armenian-American newspapers and deepened the appreciation for ethnic press among the journalistic population. Several representatives of the Los Angeles Times were also on-hand in a true display of partnership.
The evening’s festivities culminated with the prayer and remarks of Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian–Prelate of the Western United States. "With pride and joy I participate with you in celebrating the historic 95th anniversary of Asbarez," he noted. "I am certain that all of those present tonight–along with the thousands of readers–will make Asbarez a new and strong forum that will make the community–and the paper itself–exist for 100 more years."