“When you put yourself in somebody else’s space, you involve yourself in someone else’s world. I think that to try to turn off those experiences after the fact would be wrong. You have a responsibility both to yourself and to your subjects to remember them.”
~ An interview with Tyler Hicks, New York Times photographer
It’s something you usually hear from your mom or dad. A phrase loaded with expectation and subtle encouragement, reminding you of where you came from and where you hope to go.
“Make me proud,” they’d say.
And despite your inner doubts, you would always try.
I heard those words at this year’s ONA conference. It came from colleagues who have watched me grow from a wannabe journalist to a slightly more qualified journalist. I didn’t realize it until later, but they also supported me in a professionally pivotal way. By putting their reputation on the line, their recommendations make them partially invested in my success (or failure). Of course I will try to make them proud, but they reminded me of something far more important: how, as an industry, we need to support each other when it matters and never forget to pay it forward.
My career has never been a journey solely defined by talent, luck and timing. I would not be where I am today without the guidance of wiser, seasoned journalists. Sure, opportunity is earned, but it is also shared and given. In the moments when people are exploring other professions (like myself, this summer) or slowly burning out, three little words can mean a lot. They remind us that we’re not alone. We all want journalism to be better. Despite our differences, we want our stories to thrive and matter in a digital age. We are a community, and in the end, we rise and fall together.
Messy and complex, Shanghai is almost exactly like how I remembered.
Its skyline glimmers with skyscrapers and high-rises, dotted with steel skeletons of continuous construction. Pungent aromas intensified by humidity and human traffic waft through the streets. Locals and foreigners stream into ritzy shopping malls, up-scale restaurants and KFCs. Smog constantly obscures even a glimpse of the sky above. Unlike its northern sister, Shanghai isn’t preoccupied with Party politics. They say it is the land of economic opportunity. A city where tremendous wealth can be made for those who risk it, and a place where millions of dreams come to live and die…
My last visit here was in 2008. I’ve been in China for a little over month now (including a two-week trip to Xinjiang), but I’ve mostly been re-visiting old haunts and discovering new ones in Shanghai. My initial intent was to spend time with family, but being here has given me an opportunity to pause and recalibrate. I can’t help but wonder, “Journalism was my first love, but could there be others?” While my interest in media hasn’t disappeared (I’m not sure if it ever will), I know it has to take shape in other ways. Not for curiosity’s sake, but because the industry’s evolution demands it.
So I’ve opened myself to an array of possibilities: exploring the local startup scene, co-working with foreign journalists, rekindling my passion for international development and foreign policy, and chatting with a wide range of other professionals. There is still a lot to learn, but being in Shanghai has given me something: A chance to re-imagine my own dream, and maybe, hopefully, see it one day come to life.
February 1st, 2012.
My last day at the AP. Everyone gathered in the conference room to hear the announcement the week before. We were there to cut cake, but I welled up trying to say thank you and goodbye. “Stories come and go, but in the end, it’s all about the people,” I said, blinking back the nostalgia. The memories reminded me how lucky I’ve been these past two years. My co-workers were my first friends in an unfamiliar city, and there was no better place to learn and breathe journalism than the AP. Was I really going to leave a respected institution for an unpredictable future?
What has it become? What will it be tomorrow?
Questions I think about, probably too often. I wedged myself into the industry when things were falling apart. June 2009. Business models were backfiring, structured career paths were crumbling, skill sets were expanding. The disruption was, and continues to be, relentless.
From the safety of my desk, I watched the world ebb and flow to media’s sea-change. Layoffs, Arab Spring, participatory journalism, the rise of Twitter blunders (and firings), app-mania and tech startups. At times, it was reassuring to be sheltered from the upheaval. More often than not, I felt I wasn’t doing enough. I felt I was missing something profound.
It’s true, we are in a time of transformation. An opportunity to re-imagine journalism and give it new meaning. A chance to fix media’s bleeding business model, which to me is one of the most important issues in the industry. The decline of ad and subscription sales have caused companies to lose sight of their value proposition. Instead of a physical newspaper, individual stories are now the commodity, and thanks to SEO, the “quality” of a story is measured by clicks and pageviews. Companies sell ads based on how successfully these stories play on the web and the model we’ve always known supports itself.
But, in my opinion, this model is detrimental to good journalism. The issue of pumping pageviews is not a revelation, it has become a disturbing reality. Top stories in mainstream media feel like a popularity contest, where the rules are exploiting headlines, creating mind-numbing top-10 lists and using search word gimmicks. What happened to informing (not distracting) society? Affecting change by enriching (rather than perpetuating fear in) people’s minds? It still happens, but not enough. The challenges we face in media are systemic, but redefining journalism begins with the business model. It’s the core of what sustains an organization and how it operates. There needs to be a better way.
These questions sparked a need for answers. Eventually, I was no longer observing, but aspiring to join a movement of people experimenting and looking for solutions from the ground-up. I may not find the answer, but I knew I needed to try.
I left my job because I deeply believe:
- now is the time to experiment and learn new things
- this idea is worth pursuing
- journalism can do better
It was not an easy decision. It’s been over three weeks, and I can attest it’s a long and lonely road ahead. Fortunately, I’m teaching at ASU’s j-school this semester, and learning and meeting interesting people along the way. There are countless pros and cons to flying solo and having a never-ending list of things to do, but I can confidently say I have no regrets.
In the end, that’s all that matters.
For the past year, Noowah has kept me up at night. I would lie in bed imagining its future knowing that the idea was still unrealized. But unlike a dream, Noowah felt real.
It’s fascinating when an idea takes root in your head… spare moments become occupied with strategizing, and weekends are replaced with work. After months of trial and error, self-discovery and therapeutic sessions with other entrepreneurs, I am still determined to make Noowah the vision, a reality.
And it starts with this:
In September, I wrote about being accepted into UNITY’s NewU Entrepreneurship Fellowship, sponsored by the Ford Foundation. It was an eye-opening experience meeting other journalists of color who were pursuing their passion. It was inspiring to be among their company.
The second phase of the fellowship has begun, and the public will help decide who will be granted $10,000 in seed funding. One NewU founder in the AAJA, NAHJ and unaffiliated category will be awarded the grant. Noowah is listed under AAJA.
Here’s the one-minute video pitch I filmed at the workshop, but here’s my personal pitch:
Vote for the best idea you believe in.
Noowah is mine, and if I earn your vote, I will do my best to make Noowah happen. Not just because I want to, but because Noowah needs to be more than the blog it is today. Our mission is to help make the world a better place by making stories matter. We want to connect stories about social issues with nonprofits that share a similar cause, creating a community where people can do something about the stories they discover on the site. Noowah is more than a project, it’s a mission I believe in as a journalist, a storyteller and an individual.
I don’t know how this dream will end, but with your vote, your help, I can finally see it through.
Cast your vote here, and feel free to vote as many times as you’d like. The voting period ends midnight, January 3rd, 2012.
Thanks, and happy holidays.
According to Nat Geo, I’m the opposite of ‘typical,’ but it’s all relative.
The video is an ad for Nat Geo’s year-long series on global population, but it reeled me in from the beginning. Who knew demographics could be so cool looking?
I watched the entire clip and I learned a thing or two.
“Although this art form has now existed for more than a century, it has literally exploded in the past 15 years thanks to the digital revolution.”
This is why I’m excited about journalism.
What is motion design? This video produced for the Motion + Design project breaks it down.
(Editor’s note: Watch it in full screen.)