Farewell To My Right-Hand Woman

Trying to hike and conduct interview, with Haeryun, the last time I was eight months preggo.

The toughest thing about being a reporter in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is that functionally, you’re a child. I work without a key tool for reporting — the ability to communicate. That makes my interpreter and assistants in Korea and Japan as important and arguably MORE important than me to tell compelling stories.

Out on the streets of Seoul with Haeryun during the anti-Park protests.

For the past two years (almost to the day), Haeryun has been my right-hand woman. On her first day, when I had only been off the plane from the US for about 10 hours, the US Ambassador to Seoul was stabbed in the face. So there was no easing into the job. Korea news has essentially been non-stop since then. (Perhaps you’ve read about the missile tests, lethal poisoning deaths and impeachments on my patch lately.) To put together coherent pieces for air, not only does Haeryun do critical backgrounding and research, she also broaches sources and lines up interviews and concurrently translates them as I conduct interviews, she also works on her own when I’m traveling and goes out in the field when I can’t.

She acts as my Korean-speaking proxy, making the important human connections with sources that allow us to tell stories for our English-speaking audiences. On top of that, Haeryun also makes sure things run: That our driver Mr. Kim always picks me up at the airport on time, and that our office water delivery comes reliably and that our Foreign Correspondents Club dues are paid, etc etc.

Haeryun is a woman of many talents, here she’s running audio for a video project during a crazy facial procedure.

This week, Haeryun starts a new journalism adventure! She is going to the site Korea Expose, where she will be an editor and help oversee their staff of hungry writers who are diving into stories about Korean society and culture. We are all really excited to see what they will do there.

But that means she is bidding farewell to NPR’s Seoul bureau, the foreign post which she was instrumental in helping found. Together we have binge-eaten in front of thousands of strangers, crashed a Korean wedding, gotten lost on Jeju Island with the worst navigation device ever issued, witnessed the sorry state of caged, endangered bears, consoled grieving moms, followed alongside Korea’s marching single moms, covered way too many missile tests to count and spent way too many hours at the Seoul Immigration Office to make sure I could legally stay in this bureaucracy-loving country.

Always a good sport, she gets dragged into my noraebang (karaoke) sessions.

She is also my friend (one of my closest Korean ones, at that), shares my endless appetite (so she’s always a reliable eating partner) and has always been there for my entire family. So we will continue to hang and see each other, of course. But it’s the end of a chapter, so I wanted to make sure to give her a little blogpost tribute to say goodbye and thank you.

And a funny footnote: Despite all our time together, I still can’t pronounce her name right. This scene from Sisters pretty much sums up me and Haeryun, anytime I try to say her name:

Anyway… None of the Korea stories would have been shaped and told without you, Haeryun! We love you and will miss you.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The Most Memorable Stories I Got To Tell In 2016

“Being a journalist … it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories, edit the tape. I mean, it beats working.” -The late, great David Carr

Sake from paper cups on the Shinkansen with my mom, photog and fixer, in February.

Nostalgia is probably my favorite emotion, even though it’s not an emotion. I love it so much that it is a blog category here, and I also feel pre-nostalgia, or what the Japanese call 物の哀れ, mono no aware, a longing for the present — missing a moment even before it’s even gone. (I think this might explain why I started keeping a journal when I was five years old and have a career that’s essentially just documenting things.)

Anyway, in order to indulge in this nostalgia and to escape from the reality of the news each day, I have resolved in this new year to read more books (predictable) and blog for myself more. One thing I wanted to time capsule while it’s fresh is my first full year of reporting since 2013. (I spent the back half of 2014 prepping the international move and then several months of 2015 on maternity leave).

I looked at the list of 50-something stories I reported last year from scattered places: South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos and twice from Hawaii, thought back on what was most memorable — behind the scenes — about reporting and writing them. So instead of being a list of the “best” stories in terms of traditional metrics like listener engagement or impact or whatever, these are the ones I really remember telling.

Preserving the Tradition Of Kabuki-Performing Kids In A Japanese Mountain Village
Memorable because: This tiny town is a special place that took a long drive to get to, but I was joined by my good friend Ben, who I knew from Washington and speaks near-perfect Japanese. He used to live in this village as an English teacher, so it was a homecoming for him. The night before the kabuki festival we ate a family dinner with his Japanese mom friends from his old English-practice group.

We passed by rice cleaning machines on the side of the road to get there, a first. Watching the dedication of kids as young as six perform this ancient Japanese art was magical and inspiring. I’ll never forget how backstage, the littlest ones just wanted to play with my fuzzy microphone.

Fukushima Evacuees Are In Temporary Houses … Five Years Later
Memorable because: My mom decided to come on this reporting trip with me and my fixer, Akane, and the photographer, Kosuke Okahara. Kosuke was a get because he is usually in Europe. But owing to his devotion to the Fukushima survivors, he returns to the area each year. He came with us to neighborhoods of temporary trailers that nuclear meltdown evacuees have been in for five years now, cramped but making homes and community from them.

I was still breastfeeding, so I had to pump every few hours for Baby Isa, who was at home in Korea. This meant pumping in the backseat of our tiny rental car, so poor Kosuke, essentially a stranger, had to get a glimpse of that. On the Shinkansen ride back, my mom announced she had swiped a bunch of paper cups from the car rental place when we returned our car, which allowed us to down a bottle of sake while on the bullet train. We were all wasted by the time we got back to Tokyo.

Obama Visits Hiroshima
Memorable because: I’ll never forget the quiet on the lawn of that memorial park before Obama arrived. It was stunningly quiet, a heavy quiet I’d never experienced. And then the Obama speech was pitch perfect for the moment, a speech that was appropriate for history and poetic in its affirmation of humanity. I’ve never gotten emotional while covering a politician’s remarks; this was the first time I teared up during a speech, ever. Read the whole thing, or watch it. I broke down somewhere around “So that we might think of people we love — the first smile from our children in the morning; the gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table; the comforting embrace of a parent…” Then I had to pull it together and go live on Morning Edition right away.

Meanwhile, there’s another breastfeeding story here; I pumped in the bathroom and then the Peace Park restaurant had to pack and freeze my milk for me while I was working.

The Sacrifices Women Make To Be K-Pop Stars
Memorable because: I wrote the piece in Washington after doing the reporting in Seoul, because I was home for two weeks to host Weekend Edition Sunday in July. Being at the NPR HQ to put this together meant a more collaborative effort in making the final product. But this was also memorable in its insanity. During the interview, this Korean K-pop star was not introspective at all about what she had put herself through in order to “make it” in an industry where beauty standards are completely determined by middle-aged men.

The Cup Noodle 45th Anniversary
Memorable because: Of the fun fact we learned about Cup Noodle and how it is tailored differently for different consumers. In Asia, it’s a compliment to slurp your noodles, in America, people think it’s rude. So Cup Noodle deliberately cuts their noodles shorter for American audiences so that they don’t have to make slurping sounds to eat them.

Obama’s Final Summit With Japan, At Pearl Harbor
Memorable because: It was my last time with the White House press corps for awhile, because Mr. Trump is not likely to come out to Asia anytime soon. And it was the end of an era — the Obama era — and the culmination of his years long friendship with Japan. The Japan tribute to Pearl Harbor victims was an answer to Obama’s tribute to Hiroshima earlier in the year, so I was glad to be able to bookend the spring experience with this trip. A fitting end to an era of covering President Obama, which dates back to his days as a candidate in the Texas Primacaucus, when I got a one-on-one interview with him in a bathroom.

Saved By A Stranger, Hawaii Edition

Last shot of President Obama on my phone. He’s speaking at Pearl Harbor, framed by his traveling press.

I was woefully unprepared for work on Tuesday. After living Monday, December 26 twice — once in Seoul on one side of the international date line, and for the second time in Honolulu after going back in time 18 hours — I had to start Tuesday at 4am to follow around President Obama for the final time as POTUS.

Everything started out smoothly despite the early hour. Eating places weren’t open, but I discovered an uneaten KIND Bar that Friend Matt bequeathed me and put in my bag from the previous week in London, so I didn’t starve. And then all the logistics to get to President Obama’s vacation residence before he woke up in the morning were flowing. We loaded on to the press bus before 5am and took the journey to the residential neighborhood where the Obama’s stay.

Predawn, holding in a Hawaii rental home with the rest of the White House press pool.

Because POTUS wakes early for his morning workout, the press pool (charged with following his every move) had to hold in a rented, Japanese-style guest house during the wee hours, just waiting for him to get up. That’s when I discovered my lack of preparation: my audio recorder didn’t have the memory card in it. I left it in the computer back in the hotel. I also didn’t bring a backup. This meant I wouldn’t be able to record all the sounds and speeches of the day, which would include Obama’s final meeting with another global leader as president, and Japan’s Prime Minister’s key visit to offer condolences for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Photographers usually have extra SD cards on them (that’s the type of card our NPR recording devices use). But their cameras save to compact flash cards most often and SD cards are a touristy camera backup. So the still photogs weren’t able to help. Bloomberg’s Justin Sink happened to have an SD card, but it was a half-sized one, so it would have required an adapter. No one else in the 15 journalist pool was able to turn anything up, and the pool is so closely watched and wrangled because it has to stay with the president all day that I had NO freedom to break out and try to buy one.

President Obama then awoke for his workout at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Once his motorcade is rolling, the press bus joins in and we suddenly found ourselves on base. While POTUS worked out, the pool waits at a nearby base McDonald’s.

Waiting at a McDonald’s while POTUS worked out, with WH correspondents Justin Sink of Bloomberg (L) and Josh Lederman of AP (R)

My mind wheels were turning, trying to figure out how to procure this card before the next morning stop — the bilateral meeting with Japan. So I went to the base PX store, which is like a Walmart for military. But they wouldn’t open for another three hours. Then I tried the open gas station at the Firestone Tire service center, which a White House press wrangler had to follow me to because you can’t go off on your own. They were selling an assortment of Haribo Gummi Bears, wart bandages and all sorts of car fresheners, but NO SD CARDS.

That’s when I mention to the Hawaiian store clerk at the gas station that I need an SD card badly. She says she could call a friend (this is 6:30am mind you) to drive off base to the open Walgreens and get me one. The press wrangler, who has followed me, rules this out. He says Obama could be finished up working out soon, and when he’s moving, we’re moving. We leave the store in defeat.

Another 20 minutes pass at the McDonald’s, waiting for POTUS to wrap up. Then we are told to load up and move out. As the van parks across the street to await folding into the motorcade, the gas station clerk RUSHES ONTO THE VAN out of breath, waving two SD cards that she had a family member drive and procure for me despite us giving up earlier. The whole press van (which has dealt with my whining for the past few hours) erupts in crazy applause. She straight-up saved the day. I don’t even know her name. I’m ever indebted and so, so grateful.

I will forever think the best of Hawaii and the Hawaiian people.

The press pool on the move.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Musings On Newsroom Diversity

The people of color in the Texas Tribune newsroom when it launched, in 2009. We jokingly took this "minority caucus" photo.

The people of color in the Texas Tribune newsroom when it launched, in 2009. Given there were so few of us, we jokingly took this “minority caucus” photo.

 

As audiences — and, let’s face it — the entire United States of America — become increasingly non-white, new numbers are out on newsroom diversity. They’re “meh”:

“People of color make up about 17 percent of staffs at daily newspapers and 23 percent at digital operations. At print publications, about 38 percent of staffers are women; digital operations clock in at 50 percent women.”

The figures represent an increase in top line numbers, but as I pointed out when quoted for this piece, diversity isn’t just a numbers game. It is helpful to have metrics to see where you’re starting and whether you’re improving, but any diversity efforts have to be interrogated further: What does diversity mean to whoever is championing it? Does it mean just having a mix of people, or does it mean empowering non-white people in a way that’s meaningful, in a way that they’re not scared to share opinions that are out of sync, or might challenge norms and improve the organization?

My personal experiences as a person of color in newsrooms include annoyances like getting confused for another Asian reporter (so often that this is how me and Ailsa Chang became friends), and struggling with feeling like a token or “the only one” in the room. I even used Family Guy‘s token “Asian Reporter Trisha Takanawa” as my Facebook avatar for awhile. To drive home the point of subtle racism toward minority journalists, Family Guy makes it overt: “Tricia’s cultural background prevents her from entering certain buildings. In the series, she cannot go into the Park-Barrington Hotel because ‘they don’t allow Asians inside.'”

The burden of being “the only one” is a tax that we minorities pay over time, and could explain why so many people of color drop out of the field before realizing their full leadership potential. Why do I have to be the only one in a room who speaks up for inclusion? And don’t look at me for what Asians writ large think about things, as I can’t speak for the billions of us. As activist Jesse Williams says, racism is not a black person’s problem or a brown person’s problem. It should be the concern of everyone, so expecting that only people color carry that water is ridiculous:

“[Racism] is not a black problem. This is a white problem. This is an American problem. This is a societal problem. People should be outraged that a man is able to instigate an interaction with kids and then shoot them when it doesn’t go well. It should be an outrage for everybody.”

I don’t speak for my employer. For as long as I’ve been part of it, the organization has been talking about being a more demographically inclusive place. I believe my managers when they say they’re committed to diversity. But we have a ways to go on two fronts: retention of people of color and a lack of people of color in leadership positions. Over the past few years, we’ve lost women of color in top positions, so when I look at the very highest ranks of my company, I don’t see anyone who might have a shared experience with mine. The effects are between the lines. Without underrepresented groups in charge, not only are there likely editorial or hiring decisions that perpetuate a certain lack of diversity but what’s more concerning is that there are blind spots; gaps in experience or perspectives that seem “normal” that aren’t that way to everyone, but go unnoticed because the people at the head tables are racially homogenous.

Toward Solutions

This can’t just be a long rambling rant, right?

Besides a more thorough thinking through and interrogation of what diversity means to a newsroom, the other thing to think about is having people in power acknowledge unconscious biases transparently and use their power to make a more level playing field. This is important, because the homogeneity in leadership ranks can make newsrooms uncomfortable for people who feel different, and younger staffers may feel pressure to fit in by assimilating to existing culture rather than disrupting and diversifying it. That then undermines the whole point of having a diverse newsroom in the first place. The assimilation in small and big ways is where I feel I’ve compromised myself the most in my journalism career. I feel sad about it and it constantly weighs on me, especially during this presidential election cycle.

As a recruiting tool, it helps to make your women and people of color visible. It’s invaluable. I came to NPR because of the sheer visibility and change making of another person of color, Matt Thompson (now at The Atlantic). He is my forever work spouse and had no small part in recruiting me. He was a champion for recruiting people of color and even mandating that people of color be in finalist pools when we hired.

Beyond the straight transaction of recruitment, I think it helps me and other minorities to see other women and people of color speak up for themselves and own their value at organizations. It sets a great example and makes for places I want to work.

More Reading

Tags: , , , , ,

What is the future of journalism? Pick any adjective out of the dictionary and that word can describe it. The news business is in such a revolutionary time that filling in “The Future of Journalism is ____” with any word, and supporting the argument, has become a parlor game among a certain mass media-obsessed set.

Today I found myself on another future of journalism panel, and a Japanese journalist shared the observation that his paper’s business plan is “old people living longer.” Luckily, he says, Japan is an aging society and “old people love the printed paper,” so their business model rests on those eyeballs. The only times people call to cancel their subscriptions is when a subscriber has a.) died, or b.) lost enough eyesight that the print is too difficult to read.

Banking on old people to stick around as long as possible (in relatively good health) is kind of Japan’s nationwide policy, come to think of it.

Tags: , ,

“My overuse of Twitter was part of a larger set of issues I have. I have a deep hunger for information, distraction, and activity. If I slow down my stimulation or creation, I start to feel useless and confused. Throughout my life, I’ve usually satiated that hunger with cultural consumption and work, but Twitter gave me the chance to feed it more efficiently — and even more unhealthily.”

Annie Lowrey, on quitting Twitter. I feel this.

“We often get caught up in platforms rather than the most important tool for success, which is not a technological platform at all: it’s intellectual curiosity. It’s that persistent tug to want to know more, to ask questions, to seek answers. The best reporting comes from the best questions, and no matter what the platform, great journalists are asking them.”

my chat with Gigaverse about finding good work, my favorite platform on which to report and balancing parenthood and journalism

Tags: , , , ,

Everything I Know About Serial From Hearing Y’all Talk About It

Something crazy happened this fall. A serialized audio tale called Serial gripped the nation, becoming the most downloaded podcast in the history of podcasts. A spinoff of This American Life, Serial followed producer Sarah Koenig as she re-reported an old homicide case from Baltimore. Ever since it caught on with a certain set (read: people who I hang out with at bars), I was the fifth or seventh wheel in some-sort-of-Serial-conversation almost every day.

I have not heard a second of Serial.*

But since I sure do spend a lot of time at bars with you all, let met tell you about Serial based on never hearing it. All of us in the small club of Non-Serial Listeners should try this exercise:

Sometime around 15 years ago, a high school student named Adnan was dating a popular Asian-American student named Hae Min Lee (or something). He suspected she might have been cheating on her and may or may not have strangled her to death, put her body in a trunk, and got his marijuana dealer friend Jay to help him bury the body.

The Baltimore Police investigated and pinned the crime on Adnan, charging him with murder, which carries a sentence of life without parole. Adnan swears he’s innocent, though the details of where he was on the day Lee disappeared are hazy. All the details are retraced for us.

Jay-the-“friend” was critical to the prosecution’s case, as Jay testified that he helped bury the body and maybe something about picking up Adnan at a Best Buy. And there was some long chapter somewhere about whether there was a pay phone at the Best Buy back in the day.

The case goes to trial. But the first trial ends in a mistrial cause of something that went wrong with a juror maybe(?) and afterwards, the jurors polled indicated Adnan would have been acquitted.

High on this polling data of one jury in one space in time, the defense is confident going into the second trial. That doesn’t go so well. It might have to do with an attorney’s voice, which is difficult to listen to. There is debate about how sexist it is to complain about her voice. Adnan is convicted and sent to jail.

Koenig, in a jailhouse interview with Adnan (or several), finds him to be quite witty and charming. In the exploration of the case, the podcast casts doubt on whether Adnan actually committed the crime. Since the case hinged on Jay, they try to talk to him in the podcast but he proves elusive. Jay eventually gives and interview to The Intercept, but only after the podcast season concludes and apparently he’s kind of convincing in Adnan’s guilt. But of course he would be. Hrmmm.

The whole thing just DRAWS YOU IN on so many levels because it reveals how many variables are completely out of your control in the criminal justice system, the work that goes into shoe leather journalism and how our memories and perceptions deceive us. Just look at how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be. Koenig asks at one point, “What did you do last week?” AAAAHHHH NONE OF US CAN REMEMBER!

Oh, and then in the final episode or thereabouts, it is revealed that a serial killer was released from prison two weeks before Hae Min’s murder, and he later went on to rape and strangle to death an Asian American woman. This killer later committed suicide, so we can’t hear from him again.

The week-by-week Serial episodes spawn podcasts-about-the-podcast. Slate‘s is the most popular. Cocktail chatter about Serial can include questions like is it racist? (Insert something about the stereotypes of immigrant children.) Is this worth telling as a podcast? Isn’t every Law & Order episode an hourlong version of serial? What is the journalistic value of this? Why is Serial so effective?

This concludes your Serial introduction from someone who’s never heard Serial. Details are/were sketchy.

*I listen to one podcast. It is Andy Greenwald’s Hollywood Prospectus, from Grantland. I don’t even listen to it that regularly.

Tags:

View from My Window: Seoul

Dawn in the megalopolis.

Dawn in the megalopolis.

Good morning from Seoul, where I’m on the aforementioned scouting trip. This is a look out my window from the 16th floor of the Westin Chosun, which is the heart of the city and right by the Seoul Finance Center, where I will later attempt to open up a bank account.

No one comes here without talking about the food and I’ve only had one meal so far at a Japanese place across the street (the weather is grim — wet, snowy and -5 Celsius) but let’s face it, it was better than anything “just across the street” in DC.

Saying A Proper Goodbye

Kinsey had to listen to a lot of speeches about him on Tuesday. (Photo by John Poole)

Kinsey had to listen to a lot of speeches about him on Tuesday. (Photo by John Poole)

We didn’t want it to happen, but it did. Our boss Kinsey, who headed all NPR’s content and technology, got re-organized out of a job a few weeks ago. There is a longish take on the situation (reported here) which includes elliptical language about a stunningly Game of Thrones-ey situation, involving decades-old fiefdoms and fights among NPR and its stations over the network’s direction.

Since it happened so abruptly, we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare the tribute. But I thought the best way to show him our appreciation was by making something, because in all the talk about his visionariness, the reason he was so effective because made visions reality.

The other thinking that went into this was that whatever we built, the best way to pay him tribute was to work as a team, to symbolize our continued support for one another and the ability to quickly organize ourselves. That team had to bring together the people who make stories and the people who make technology, ’cause that’s a huge part of Kinsey’s legacy — making sure that product and editorial were lifting each other up.

From the Infinite Kinsey branding page.

From the Infinite Kinsey branding page.

So in our break times and overnight and on weekends, we made Infinite Kinsey. Modeled on NPR One, a listening app that gives you segmented audio that follows you on any device, the Infinite Kinsey is an endless stream of audio tributes for Kinsey Wilson, about Kinsey Wilson. We collected more than sixty audio tributes in the span of a week. They came from NPR employees past and present, and from all corners of the country. Some audio messages were sent in from as far away as Hong Kong and the airport in Istanbul.

Since it was a product, it needed a launch. Tuesday night at a goodbye gathering, I got epically blasted and we unveiled the player to its single intended user. It has a branding page and even a product launch video, a parody that Friend Claire put together, with great help from a bunch of NPR folks who volunteered to do some really goofy video shoots with us.

Goodbyes are so so hard, especially the ones you never wanted to happen.

But it’s important to put closure on this chapter — not just for KW’s sake, but for those of us who will continue at NPR. With our parting gift to him, we will kinda get to follow Kinsey wherever he goes, a stream of voices telling him he’s rad.

Claire and Becky, manning the tech table for the Infinite Kinsey rollout.

Claire and Becky, manning the tech table for the Infinite Kinsey rollout.

Load more