Chinese folk legend holds that in the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar, the gates of hell open up and the ghosts come out to torment the living. There are all kinds of rituals you can perform to try and keep the darkness at bay, or preventative measures like not letting your kids go out at night and being very careful. I didn’t even realize there was such a thing until my mom and dad, who were in town this summer, said, “Of course you’re having a run of bad luck, it’s ghost month!”
August actually started triumphantly, with an affirming trip to Atlanta where I saw old friends from AAJA and got to talk a little about my dad. Since then, my producers were laid off while we were in the middle of a field shoot, the minivan’s door was ripped off by a Santa Monica Big Blue bus and my spouse narrowly escaped injury and last week I learned a skunk has made a home in the crawlspace under my house! Dealing with him is very tricky since you don’t want him to spray under your house and leave a stink there … FOREVER.
The good news is, we’re almost at the end of the month, and things are supposed to improve once the ghosts go back to their lair. Here’s hoping.
“There’s a story in your voice
both by damage and by choice.
It tells of promises and pleasure,
and a tale of wine and woe,
the uneasy time to come,
and the long way ’round we go to get there.”
—Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams
Note: These are the remarks as originally written, for a speech to public media broadcasters at AAJA’s National Convention in Atlanta. I was drinking Corona from a glass (weird) and feeling like my jolly self when I started talking, but then I surprised myself when I started crying during this speech. Then people in the audience were crying with me, and it ended up being an emotionally cathartic and meaningful time. Thanks to those of you who could make it!
Tonight I’m going to talk about the importance of making sure your voice is heard. But I want to open with a story about my dad, since without him I wouldn’t have MY voice.
It begins in Shanghai with — as you might expect — a young boy.
My dad was five years-old when the Communists defeated China’s ruling democratic government, the Kuomingtang, in the bloody Chinese civil war. So the backdrop of his youth was formed by Mao Zedong’s deadly and costly reforms of China, a famine that killed 30 million people at least, and the absence of his father.
My grandpa was on the other side of the world, in St. Louis, Missouri, where he’d gone to get his graduate degrees on a Chinese-government funded scholarship not long after my dad was born and during the years when China was open to the world. Grandpa never could return to China after he left, since his country’s government had been replaced with a totalitarian situation where no outsiders were allowed in, and no Chinese were allowed out.
My dad grew up with his mom and sister, eventually reaching an age when it was time to go to college. But he only attended for a semester or two before Mao closed all colleges and universities as part of the Cultural Revolution and an effort began to return intellectuals to the fields. This included children of artists and intellectuals and anyone considered bourgeoisie. My father was sent to labor and re-education on a pig farm in Guangdong province.
I don’t really know what he saw there — he doesn’t talk about it. All I know is it was a really horrifying time. And he would get up in the mornings and secretly practice swimming in the freezing streams behind the farm … training to escape.
This labor camp in Guangdong Province was close enough to the free, British Hong Kong that he could feasibly try and escape the camp and defect from the country. Y’all know mainland China and Hong Kong are connected by land, but it was considered too risky to try and cross the land border, with its fencing and guards and all. It was slightly less risky but still highly dangerous to try and get into Hong Kong by sea, by crossing the bay.
Twice he and a few other men made the attempt to defect by raft, in the middle of the night. Twice they were caught, brought back and subjected to beatings and more re-education.
On the third try, he and five others dived into the deep, dirty Shenzhen bay, and swam four kilometers — more than two miles — in the dead of night to Hong Kong, risking being shot or drowning along the way.
My dad recalls seeing the twinkling lights of Hong Kong from that dirty, freezing water as the most emotional moment of his life. It was the moment he saw freedom.
My grandpa, as you recall, was in St Louis this whole time, working his senator, Stuart Symington, to make sure my father could get passage into the United States should this treacherous escape plan actually work. Senator Symington reached out to a New York Senator, Bobby Kennedy, to help my dad if he was able to fly into a New York airport. A few years ago, I saw the letter from Kennedy’s office to my grandfather, saying that my dad would be permitted to enter the US as a refugee, since he was fleeing communist China.
By the time my 6’2” dad made it to the state, he weighed just 135 pounds.
To me, the story of my family’s relationship with America is a love story. Immigrants don’t hate America — they love what this country stands for. The very idea of it inspired so many of them to leave the only homes they’d ever known, often at great peril, to find a safe harbor and a new home.
And now, some of these people, or their children (like me), or their children’s children, have the great opportunity and responsibility to tell this country’s story through our work. But that does not mean suppressing our own truths. Our voices contain multiple stories.
It is important that, for the reporting we do, for the brands we represent, and for our own mental health — we don’t stop being children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves when we’re covering the news.
Because at its core, journalism tells us how other people live, and helps us to imagine living like them. Having immigrant stories so close to us strengthens our work, because we can cover these stories with a layered perspective, with humanity, and with ears that are open to the truth of how other people are living.
Lomi Kriel, the Houston Chronicle reporter who broke the family separation policy, long before it burst into the national news, says the number one thing that makes her good at covering immigration… is that she is an immigrant.
There is real deliberation and combat right now over what kind of country this is — who gets to live in it and who gets to speak up about how it’s being run. Who has power, who frames that power, whose voices matter. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but I just want to affirm that your voice matters.
Your voices especially matter in the face of newsroom power structures that are still so lacking in the diversity we talk about at conferences like these. Even as I got more career experience, I had trouble getting over the hump of thinking that my voice was somehow “less than,” because as a child in St. Louis and Dallas suburbs, I was almost always the only Asian person in my classes or in my activities. That kind of environment can make you internalize a notion that white is default and your otherness is something to be ashamed of.
Things are changing, in so many places! I look around at my daughters’ preschool and elementary schools in LA. They are, first of all, Spanish and Mandarin immersion schools, which tells you a lot, and second, the classes look like the UN of little humans. White and brown and black and all the other shades in between. It’s America! My generation’s old baggage about being “the only one” is increasingly irrelevant in Gen Z’s multicultural, pluralistic world.
That’s the world we have to reflect in our news coverage or else we’re failing to tell the truth.
The truth is what fighting for representation is about. Creating more diverse journalism isn’t about slotting people of color into the newsrooms we have, it’s about transforming the newsrooms we have — our institutions, our culture, and our storytelling — because it gets at the heart of what journalism is: telling the full truth of a story.
We aren’t serving our communities as well as we could be when we aren’t represented or representing by making our voices heard.
Whatever it took for you or your ancestors to get here, we have literal skin in the game now. And it enhances our coverage because you know what it is to be of America but also questioned about your Americanness. You know what it’s like to have a foot in a different culture.
Shrug off this notion that somehow your skin in the game makes you less objective — it makes your coverage more FULL. We can’t be truly helpful to our communities until you know what it’s like to need help. That makes those of you who have real, lived-in experience of immigration so valuable in covering the negotiation of America’s identity right now.
So stake your claim in your newsrooms, speak your voice in your communities, tell stories of people’s lived experiences and do it with compassion. Until we can have discussions about how crucial your voices are, in all our newsrooms, and move it toward meaningful action, we aren’t doing enough.
We are more alike than we are unalike, as Maya Angelou famously said, and our charge as journalists is to not let one another forget it.
And since he figured so much into my remarks here, and has played such a role in making me who I am, I’ll close with an update on my dad’s story. I’m happy to say that it isn’t finished.
My dad is alive and well and thriving. He has four grandchildren. He has a titanium hip but continues to love gardening, something he’s been into since I was old enough to form memories. He gets so excited when hummingbirds come to feed at the bird feeder in his garden. He loves watching his vegetables sprout — everything he plants somehow survives. Seriously, he threw an avocado pit into my compost one time and a full on avocado tree the length of my arm sprouted out of my compost bin.
I live in Southern California now, which feels like I’m in a semi-permanent state of vacation. I have already consumed a green juice from a juicebot, taken the ubiquitous electric scooters of West LA for a ride, taken a Megaformer class (Pilates on steroids) and gotten an excellent tan. Next I need some Botox and I will be all settled in! (Just kidding about the Botox, I spoke to my Korean dermatologist about that — since Seoul is the plastic surgery capital of the world, natch — and he said do not start fillers too early because they won’t work when you need them later.)
We live in West LA so the beach is a ten minute walk from here. And you can just go, anytime. Because the girls are not in school yet, feeling sand between our toes and splashing around in the Pacific is something that we do almost every day.
I am very happy to have graham crackers back in my life, as I didn’t realize how much I missed them until they returned to me. I write this as I eat Salt & Straw ice cream from the Venice location, using honey lavender ice cream as a vector for graham crackers.
Five days after we landed in LA I left for Houston, where the Asian American Journalists Association gathered for its annual convention and I promptly caught the rare August cold. After I parked it for seven hours at a Lupe Tortilla the first night so that I could see various friends who came by and eat flour tortillas and queso for the entire duration, I lost my voice the first morning there and found myself hopelessly jet-lagged the entire time. But the reunions were rad! Not just AAJA pals but also my old Texas buddies, some of whom hosted a little happy hour for me on Thursday and we caught up and gossiped and talked politics just like the good ol’ days. On Friday my lawyer friend Brian arranged for me to see the Astros from his firm’s seats behind home plate and let me just say, those seats were adequate. The best part was the buffet before and during the game for season ticket holders, which consisted of meat, a side of meat and some more meat. Plus all-you-can-eat ice cream and candy! Fireworks every Friday meant I got an all American show after the Astros fell (again) to the Mariners.
Just back from a really fun and satisfying time in New York for this year’s Asian American Journalists Association annual convention. I’ve been part of AAJA since I was in 10th grade, thanks to a reporter for The Dallas Morning News who called to interview me about a student council project, I think. Whatever it was, I mentioned after the interview I wanted to be a journalist one day and she immediately encouraged me to join the organization. Since then, AAJA has been responsible for making connections that have shaped my life.
In 2002, AAJA hosted its national convention in Dallas, and that’s where I met Sudeep, who became my best friend and is responsible for introducing me to my husband Stiles. Stiles is not Asian-American by blood but often identifies with my peeps, so he joined AAJA in 2008 and has since been a much more involved member than me. He consistently reminds me to renew my membership, he has attended more AAJA conventions than I have in recent years, and he speaks on more AAJA panels than I do. He trumped me in New York, speaking on three panels to my one. I’m so proud of him!
This year, the programming really kicked things up a notch with fab workshops and thoughtful panelists. I loved seeing writer (and Twitter user) Jay Caspian Kang totally go anti-Twitter at a conference where social media networking was predictably de rigeur. Kang called Twitter a “circle jerk” and said he thinks less of people who tweet all day, saying it undermines your seriousness as a writer. That argument is for a whole different post — bottom line, exposure to unexpected points of view makes these confabs more interesting.
I regret not getting to spend more time with old friends, since that’s what is always so great about attending the annual AAJA confab. It feels like family. But I was a little time and resource constrained because of my actual family. The traveling baby, Eva, came with us (she’s a journalism convention pro now). She got to try some halal truck food, visit FAO Schwarz, have lunch with my old friend Tim, get overwhelmed by the lights and the tourists in Times Square, go shopping on Fifth Ave and take lots of her usual naps. She also enjoyed exploring the hotel room and goofing off, as you can see.
3:56pm: Here we are at the Digital Reporting Tools and Techniques panel, helmed by the esteemed Olivia Ma of YouTube, Jennifer 8 Lee of the Knight News Challenge and David Sarno and Jon Healey of the LA Times.
3:57pm: We’re talking about free tools available in the cloud. Scribd is getting a lot of conversation right now – Lee, who used to be with the NYTimes, says Scribd is interested in partnering with news orgs so they’ll let you customize your Scribd browser. “Even though it’s being powered by Scribd, it’s your brand all the time.”
4:04pm: Comic Sans should be banned from Powerpoint. WORD!
4:06pm: Use Listorious to found a connected network of people who are interested in or write about a specific topic. If you follow these groups, it’s another kind of heat map about what communities say about certain topics, says Soren.
4:07pm: When a keyword is meaningful to you or relatively unique, you can use Twitter alerts (which sort of works like Google News Alerts) to get updates on “Particularly useful for discrete events you are covering for a limited time period. You wouldn’t want to follow “music”, but maybe you would follow “MGMT”.”
4:09pm: And the Powerpoint crashes just before the YouTube maven begins talking about her tools. She goes on anyway, introducing YouTube Direct, and YouTube Moderator, which “are meant to help news organizations engage with their audiences.” Trivia: YouTube staff doesn’t use the term ‘citizen journalism’ and prefers ‘citizen reporter,’ since “journalists” are professionals or have specific training/experience. “Citizen Reporters” can document, provide real value in terms of showing what’s happening, even if they can’t put it in a broader context. Example: Kayaking in the Street during Nashville Flooding
4:14pm: YouTube’s been partnering with various news organizations to help them engage their communities and get the community involved. PBS’ ‘Video Your Vote”, CNN’s YouTube Presidential Debate. YouTube Direct is partnering with ABC7 in the Bay Area, inviting audience to upload video of stories happening in their communities. They’re starting to see momentum in getting the community to show their stories and getting them told. Editors and producers get a moderation panel to review the submissions and approve it for their own page.
4:16pm: YouTube Moderator is a product that lets news orgs crowdsource, host video of newsmakers, and then let audiences rank questions or the responses up or down. (This is totally new to me, I have no idea how it works yet but I want to find out.)
4:19pm: Now the panelists are talking about how awesome the ProPublica data crowdsourcing has been. I second that. “Every journalist should have a peopledex, that you can consult, so if you start building it now, you can recall it for many different purposes,” said Sarno.
4:21pm: Jennifer 8 Lee’s turn to talk. Her “five tools to remember” for digital future: Ushahidi, Kickstarter, Tableau, DocumentCloud, and DavisWiki, which is the most successful local wiki in the country, if not the world. One out of every seven people in Davis, California uses DavisWiki. You can find lost pets, do I need a roomate. (DAVIS WIKI IS A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF THE FUTURE OF CONTEXT. See earlier post.)
4:24pm: “Communities, when given the right tools and the right platforms, can inform themselves,” said Lee. Knight’s given the Davis people a tool called “localwiki”, to help other communities get this platform and start using it.
Ushahidi: A crowd-sourced mapping platform that came out of Kenya, where people were reporting their rapes and other violence. Got a lot of publicity in Haiti, in which needs for water or medical help were getting mapped on Ushahidi. Free, open-source. WashPo used it for #snowmaggedon last year.
4:27pm: Ascendancy of raw material as a form of real journalism. WikiLeaks, for example. The threat to journalism is not big brother, but little brother. The threat is that the individuals that surround us can report really well. So use tools like Document Cloud, to give people access.
4:28pm: You could do a six month investigation about use of force in schools, or you can show them a 30 second video of a teacher beating a kid in a school. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a video’s worth 10,000 words.
4:30pm: The reporting process is becoming public. Instead of hoarding information and dropping a massive investigation, we now report it out one part at a time, let people weigh in and help inform or shape the next chapter, then report the next part. It’s a journey. (I love the quest narrative.)
4:32pm: “Governments are all excited about opening up their data, or putting data sets online, but raw data is actually really ugly,” said Lee. Where it becomes valuable is when it’s visualized. When you can play with it or see it in various ways, that’s where it becomes interesting.
4:36pm: “Ask your audiences more for their participation. The more news orgs value that, more of the audience will feel ownership,” said Ma. Use computers to build a human network. The more you use your human/social network, the more likely your sources are likely to come to you.
4:43pm: Lee, to a questioner- Are you asking, what are the other problems that need to be solved, in the suckiness of the current news organization? One of the things we’re really interested in at Knight right now is how publishers can effectively use Facebook. The other thing we’re interested in in is mobile.
OK that’s all for this panel. I hope I didn’t miss anything huge.
Create Content with Value, Cause It’s Competitive Out There
The success of Politico (which started with 30 employees and is now nearing 200), is based on the premise, “What if we did a paper with only interesting stories?” The changing habits of consuming news (less loyalty to the major papers, brands) has been a benefit.
“Traffic is one of the attributes we consider, we don’t even tell our reporters our traffic because we dont want them to value that above our audience. We’re not there to serve a mass audience,” said Allen. “Think about ‘if i didnt write this story, or made this video, would I read it?” It’s amazing how many things in our news orgs dont meet that test. Before you invest time producing something, would someone email this, blog about it, would i book segment based on this? If you’re hitting a couple of those, you’re breaking through and creating value for your audience.”
Yahoo’s thinking about original content as well. It’s aiming to change the content they provide. “Yahoo is traditionally a good aggregator, but if all we’re doing is distributing great partner content, then we’ll be replaced,” said Morgan. The company’s web strategy is moving more toward reporting for the audience and not just hosting the audience. A lot of people can do commodity information – score of the game, who won the election – what do you add to that? What is the unique content you provide.
“Everyone can do their job on a laptop, which means anyone else can too. If we can’t do it shorter and sooner, someone else will and should. That’s the great part about the way people consume news now, it’s almost completely a meritocracy. it used to be if you were the Miami Herald, LA Times, you had a guaranteed audience. We don’t have guaranteed time with the audience anymore,” said Allen.
It’s Not All About the Pageviews Remarkable ideas are remarked on, remarkable content moves up. It’s wrong for traditional companies to think, how can I move up in search rankings instead of, what can i do to make irresistible content?
When we get too obsessed with what people want to know, are we shortchanging them on what they NEED to know? There’s little interest in non-US news in the US, but the world’s more connected than ever. Will there still be outlets to provide the important stuff that the audience isn’t naturally hungry for?
“In the foundation world, we get grant applications that say, our web traffic is this, this number of Twitter followers, etc… What are web metrics that matter? What does that really mean?”
If you’re a reporter you should not be thinking about SEO first, but still, everyone in the newsroom should have general understanding of core principles that allow something to be elevated. CNN chooses slugs very carefully, Daily beast used tags in URLs, etc.
If you’re starting something, you’re a lot better off to start in niche because you have a more obvious revenue stream. You have a specific audience to target, i.e. Politico’s focus is on serving Washington insiders.
The two major considerations of Politico as they head into the future:
1.) Sideways traffic, and how to maximize it. (Audiences don’t go to homepages as much as specific story pages, much of the readership consumes content without typing in politico.com)
2.) Fewer people with desktops/laptops – how to move to mobile.
Generally, part of our task is to think about the holes being created at the same time all this exciting change is happening. “When there’s a news gap, it’s very significant. The newspaper has been the closest thing we have had to a community forum, and when that goes away, what replaces it?
Is the frame we have for local news still appropriate for the digital age? How do we carry it over to the web, when people are going to their own places for news?” said Bracken.
Local news is an area most ripe for innovation.. using tools already available is empowering. But news experiments won’t fill all holes. If Brooklyn was reported with just blogs and Twitter, there would be huge gaps in its portrayal. How do we dig deeper?
“If youve arrived at a winning model, enjoy it because it’s already changed.” -Yahoo!’s Dave Morgan
Why does this guy have a star on the walk of fame, and other burning questions, coming up this week.
I’ve returned to California for the first time in a long time for the national Asian American Journalists Association convention. We Asians (and Stiles) will be convening here through Saturday, getting some quality training in and talking about the future of news, which is one of my all-time favorite topics besides chili cheese dogs, Mad Men and Harry Whittington. Come back for some #newsfuture posts and assorted photos. I’ve unintentionally engaged in a Twitter war to tweet the shizz out of this conference, so my blog will be an extension of the 140 character updates.