How I became a community journalist

I remember it to this day. The poet Lawson Inada had just written me saying he had just seen a fantastic Japanese American jazz musician (Kiyoshi Tokunaga) in a local club in Oregon who not only played bass, but trumpet and piano as well. At that time in the early ’80s, not much was known about the Asian American involvement in jazz like there is now.

I had not yet learned about noted record producer Harry Lin who had produced classic Commodores sides with Billie Holiday or Japanese American jazz musicians playing in clubs in Japan and the rest of Asia before the second World War. Or Hawaiian slack key guitarists and ukelele players like Sol Ho‘opi‘i who toured Europe and the United States and appeared in scores of movies. Or the big bands who played for teenagers in Japanese American internment camps. Or boppers like Richie Kamuca or Paul Togawa who played and recorded during the ’50s. And I didn’t know a thing about famed Bay Area Jazz disk jockey and record producer Herb Wong.

So I thought an Asian American jazz musician was almost like a mirage. I remember bounding up the steps to the then-second floor office of the International Examiner and meeting editor Ron Chew, still brimming over with a novice enthusiasm. Ron listened to me gush about this discovery of an Asian American jazz musician and how he was coming to a Seattle club and how someone should interview him for the paper with patience.

He looked me back in the eye, smiled, and fired back his response: “Hey, why don’t you do it?”

That is how I learned how Ron was able to keep and continually recruit and replenish a multi-talented staff and how I became a community journalist. I remember how he and Mayumi Tsutakawa and other friends, with patience, pored over my story with suggestions on how to make it better. When everyone was finished, my story looked like a battlefield strewn with comments and lots of red ink. But I was welcomed and I learned.

I also grew to appreciate the talents of the wily “Uncle” Ron who nurtured and knew how to get people involved without them knowing it. Because of his ability to encourage volunteers, he soon had a talented crew of people like Gary Iwamoto, Bob Shimabukuro, Sue Chin, David Takami, Ken Mochizuki, and so many others writing for him. He also had the talents of graphic designers and illustrators like Jesse Reyes, Anne Mori, Jeff Hanada, and Michelle Kumata and photographers like Dean Wong who would later also become a fine writer as well.

“Why don’t you do it?” was just another way for Ron to recruit talent and keep them interested.

When I was in my first year in college, you had to declare a major right away. I remember standing in a line at Chico State College (now Chico State University) in Northern California when a clerk asked me, “What do you like to do?”

When I said, “I like to write,” she put down “journalism” as my major without asking me another question. I never did too well in the classes back then, but now it feels as though that college clerk could foretell my future because here I am, some 40-odd years later, seated at a desk working on a story for a newspaper.

One neighborhood, one world

One thing I’ve noticed throughout the years is how demographics have shifted, making for a fluid dispersal of Asian Americans throughout the region. Initially our newspaper was based on telling the news of the neighborhood and the people who lived here. But as years and generations have gone by, we find that people live everywhere and not just one neighborhood.

“It’s a small world” is no longer a saying, it’s a reality. Asian Americans not only live in neighborhoods, they live in the suburbs, the countryside, and every conceivable place in the world. This puts the onus on us as a newspaper to not only cover “the” neighborhood but the neighborhoods around the city, the country, and the world. In short, we must acknowledge the fact that we live in a global society where one single act can affect all and a careless stone tossed in the water can send ripples across the planet. This doesn’t change our priorities or responsibilities to be a conduit for our people’s voices to be heard, it only amplifies them. So the “International” in our title now means many things and takes on various meanings.

The limited vision of ethnic journalism?

A few years ago I seem to recall one of our staff writers quitting, bemoaning the fact that writing for an Asian American newspaper was too limiting. But I like to see it another way. Let’s flip the equation and theorize that since Asian Americans live everywhere and do all kinds of things, that writing through that perspective is just another way of seeing the world.

One recent feature started with an interview with a photographer who was South Asian and lived on the Eastside. He became fascinated with the arctic region and documented the area for the Smithsonian. Inevitably, his interests included the changing of the seasons, the natural environment and the native peoples who populated the region. As he traveled, he began to see the dire effects that pollution had on the planet with the northern region being the barometer to sound the alarm. So a simple interview turned into a feature on the environment as our writer interviewed him, reviewed a book of essays he had edited, and covered a show at the Whatcom Museum about how global warming was melting glaciers at an alarming rate.

I think as a newspaper using an ethnic lens, we see the world differently with concerns that affect us as a people. Nobody wants the mainstream media to describe who we are in broad sweeping generalizations. That’s why I feel it will always be important that we have our own voice to tell our own stories that resist easy categorization, misinformation, and stereotype. As one of the staff members that has been here the longest, I feel like I am simultaneously looking forward as I look back. I have seen countless writers and staff learn the ropes of journalism here and then go out into the world. It makes for a fluid, fluctuating, and sometimes-precarious situation as people come and go. But it also insures that countless generations learn the importance of journalism and have a community mouthpiece in which we can accurately reflect the problems, hopes, and aspirations of our people.

A chorus of voices dying to be heard

Sometimes I feel like our coverage of Asian Pacific Americans, at times, tends to be dominated by our coverage of those groups with larger demographics. But there are myriad voices out there dying to be heard. And as a newspaper, I think we must find a way to include their stories in our newspaper. The story of Pacific Islanders, South Asians, indigenous people, Southeast Asians, and even people from regions like Afghanistan and the Middle East must be brought into the mix. I think we have that responsibility as an ethnic newspaper. The challenge is to find people with skills in reporting on those areas or to train them as writers to report on what issues are important to their people and constituency.

A tip of the hat to the women

One thing I have noted is the sheer tenacity, patience, and responsibility of the women who write for the International Examiner and hold down staff positions. If it hadn’t been for their willingness to work on numerous issues and cover stories for this paper (especially in the arts), we would not be celebrating our 40th anniversary. So just a note of thanks, deep respect, and appreciation to the women.

Thoughts of an arts subversive

I might say there are two abiding passions that have kept me here involved in community journalism. I grew up as a young student learning about my identity during the turbulent era of student demonstrations in the late ’60s and early ’70s. At San Francisco State, we as students would meet off campus at teacher’s houses as we all tried to honor the student strike and demand for ethnic studies. The days of those struggles left a lasting imprint on my consciousness as a younger person that it was of essential importance that we are not alone, that we come from a culture and a history. It was imperative that we give back to the community in some shape or form. Writing for this newspaper is one way I found to give back. As a working poet and artist, I feel that arts and culture is a vital part of any community. To me, it represents the heart, soul, and spirit of a people. Art can literally change you. So I have found that coverage of the arts is an essential weave in the fabric of our lives. To this end, I have strived to encourage an appreciation of the arts in our community by our coverage.

Arts is where you find it

It is a daunting task to cover all the arts in depth but we try to get a fair sampling. Unfortunately, much to the disappointment of people in the arts, we cannot cover every conceivable creative act of every Asian American artist out there every time. And while we try to be supportive, we still have to be critical.

Some people automatically feel that since they are Asian American and we are an Asian American community paper that we should automatically give them a stamp of approval. But it doesn’t always work like that. I have to give each writer respect and allow them to sort out what their own response. In other words, I can’t tell them what to think.

What we try to do is use each genre and media as a stepping-stone or platform to air wider specific issues that may be of interest to readers. For example, a book on the tsunami in Japan might lead to a full feature on the issue with interviews and stories connected to the same theme. Although we always try and support local artists, I also believe our readers are curious about what artists outside our region are doing as well. To this end, I try and tap the talents of friends/writers to cover events along the West and East Coasts or even in Asia. As a writer I believe literature deserves more coverage than the occasional book review so we created Pacific Reader, a twice-yearly look at books by or about Asian Americans and new titles on Asia in the adult and young adult/kids categories.

Where are we going?

The International Examiner still has a crucial role to play in giving voice to our community. I am hopeful that each succeeding generation will step up, answer the call and realize that this paper does not belong to any one person or generation but is a forum for our people to give voice to their concerns. If people realize this, I am hopeful that the tradition of ethnic journalism will prosper and thrive for generations to come.

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