INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Past, Present and Future Meet at Pacific Citizen, Pt. II

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Note: This column continues the author’s essay that began with his move to Los Angeles to work at Pacific Citizen in 1987.

From 1987-90, I worked as the assistant editor and acting editor of Pacific Citizen, the newspaper published by the Japanese American Citizens League.

It was my first professional print journalism job. After graduating from the University of Colorado’s Journalism School (now defunct), I worked in Denver in radio. Later, I applied for the assistant editor opening and was hired at P.C., which was the reason I moved here to Los Angeles.

Working for P.C. was an educational and enlightening experience. I met many great people and got to travel to places I might otherwise not, and help cover some important stories. Those right there are some of the reasons people pursue journalism.

But working at the P.C. was also, at times, frustrating. The budget was always an issue, as were the organization’s internal politics. There were also little quirks that were enough to drive one batty — like the editorial phone line not being next to the Linotronic typesetter. Anytime we were working at that workstation and the editorial phone rang (not the general line), we’d have to stop our work in progress and walk over to the desk where that phone was to answer it. Not very efficient.

Also, although I had served as the paper’s sole editorial staffer in the capacity of acting editor after the other assistant quit, I did not become the editor when the job was formally opened. It went to someone else who had never put out a newspaper before. As it turned out, though, not getting the job was better for me career-wise.

By moving on to other newspapers, I saw how other places did things and could compare notes, learn new things and add to my skills set. For instance, at one paper I was able to learn the Quark Xpress desktop publishing platform (which served me well; those skills are still with me) when they decided to go with digital pagination over the old physical paste-up process. At yet another job I became immersed in Web-based journalism and was able to see first-hand how important the Web would become for the future of journalism.

I don’t know if my leaving was better for the P.C., however, short-term at least; the person who got the job quit after less than a year for reasons I don’t know. He seemed like a smart person, though, so maybe he realized working for P.C. was more than he had bargained for and bailed.

But one of the things I did before I left — partly a parting shot, partly a sincere attempt to help — was to write up an assessment of the status quo, and give my opinion and perspective from someone who actually did the work, on what steps the P.C. needed to do take in order to stay viable. I sent it to P.C. board members, as I recall, but I no longer have a copy. I don’t know how well it was received.

If memory serves, however, I think some of the things I suggested were switching to Macintosh computers for desktop publishing, changing the format to be more feature-driven because a weekly newspaper that came late in the mail didn’t fit the definition of “new” in the word “newspaper,” lowering the cost to subscribe to increase the number of subscribers and thus become more attractive to potential advertisers while simultaneously marketing P.C. to those outside of JACL. Stuff like that.

(Within a few years of my departure, the P.C. did in fact switch over to Macintoshes for desktop publishing — but that might have happened anyway.)

•   •   •

Post-P.C., I moved up the journalism food chain at places like the Wave Newspapers, the Daily Journal Corp., the Pasadena Star-News and San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Orange County Register, the Hollywood Reporter and now Investor’s Business Daily. I also had a stint as editor of Yolk Magazine and began writing this media-related column in 1992 for this paper. More recently, I started a Japanese American news website, NikkeiNation.net. Nevertheless, Pacific Citizen was where I got my start in print journalism.

So, you can imagine that I was surprised to hear from Gil Asakawa and Carol Kawamoto, former and current P.C. board chairs, respectively, this summer.

Gil I had known in Colorado. I even interviewed him for a radio show I was trying to pitch to the local NPR station called “Colorado Asian American.” He wrote for Westword, Denver’s equivalent to L.A. Weekly, and was one of the few people in Denver journalism with a Japanese surname. Carol, meantime, was someone I had met years earlier via JACL and P.C.

They contacted me because the P.C. needed help. (I jokingly thought to myself that they must be really desperate if they’re contacting me!)

As noted previously, Pacific Citizen had lost not only its long-time editor, it had just lost its assistant editor, too!

After consulting with Carol and Gil, I agreed to, along with the P.C.’s one remaining editorial staffer, reporter Nalea Ko, help get the paper out as its editor on an interim basis by coming in on weekends. The Aug. 17 issue came out, on time, and as of now it looks like the next issue, for Sept. 7, will come out on time too.

An official job search is under way to fill the editor vacancy, with the assistant editor job to be filled afterward. It’s a critical time because the P.C.’s Holiday Issue will be going into production very soon. But I won’t be able to help for too much longer, especially since my kids’ basketball leagues are nearly upon us!

It has occurred to me that this is a very unique time in P.C.’s storied history. Not only is there a new P.C. editorial board chair in Kawamoto, there is a new national JACL president, a new national executive director and, in time, a new P.C. editor, assistant editor and business manager.

It amounts to a rare opportunity to really examine the status quo and see how things could not just change but improve, for JACL and P.C.

For instance, does a printed newspaper that comes out twice a month and is delivered via the USPS serve its audience as a means for timely news? Does it deliver that news in a cost-effective manner? Are there new paradigms that can serve the existing audience yet attract a younger demographic? Can it be done in a way that doesn’t alienate a loyal but shrinking constituency? Is there a happy compromise that can do a superior job and grow the audience and make money? (Being nonprofit doesn’t mean not making money, after all.)

There are many more questions. Short-term, the P.C. is stabilized. Longer-term, steps are being made to get the patient out of the ICU with new, full-time staffers. Being an optimist, I think that a year from now, things could be much, much better. It ultimately depends on the decisions that will be made now. For the new JACL and P.C. leaders, it’s not a time for half-stepping. Some bold, out-of-the-box actions should be given thought.

Consider, for a minute, that Japanese American journalism is in a precarious place now. When L.A.’s Japanese American community tried to help this paper from going the way of San Francisco’s Hokubei Mainichi and Nichi Bei Times, the results were mixed at best. That was a different set of circumstances, though.

The P.C., whatever its problems, has some things in its favor, too. The main advantage, to me, is its membership. Regardless of what JACL staff and national leadership may think, the membership has shown its support for P.C. and wants it to survive in some form.

Personally, coming back to help P.C. a quarter-century after beginning there is also a rare opportunity. If I can repay the P.C. for getting me started in journalism by helping get it produced and at the very least offer some hard-won wisdom and experience, I’m happy to do it.

V3 Con Dept.: Over the weekend I attended the V3 Conference, Friday night in Pasadena at the Pacific Asia Museum and Saturday at the Japanese American National Museum, thanks to the aforementioned Gil Asakawa, who served as one of the conference’s steering committee members.

What began in 2009 as an event titled Banana for Asian Pacific American bloggers has in a few short years — this is the third one and the first under an improved name — evolved into a well-produced, slick event with corporate sponsors, goodie bags and all that.

The core emphasis of bringing together Asian American digital media content creators to meet each other (and their audiences) remains, but there are some new wrinkles.

One is the participation of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association to help the IW Group, which helped the conference beginning with the second Banana conference (no Ed McMahon jokes, please), with volunteers, staff and planning.

The IW Group was one of the keys to making it work, according to AAJA-LA President Jocelyn “Joz” Wang, a member of the event’s steering committee. AAJA’s participation also added some credibility and was the real natural partner for this event.

Wang, while dazed and tired from all the work it took to execute the conference, seemed pleased with the outcome.

“It was really of a mix of different people. It was really trying to build communities and build relationships that had not been done overtly in the past” said Wang, who is the AAJA-LA president and one of the principals in the website-blog 8Asians.com.

This year’s event was sold out and it attracted some 500 registered attenders. Next year V3 has already blocked out a date of Saturday, June 15, for the next one, once again scheduled for JANM.

This is not a criticism of V3, but it did occur to me that conspicuous in its absence was YOMYOMF (You Offend Me, You Offend My Family), the recently launched YouTube channel that I wrote about recently in this space. It began a few years ago as a blog. Hopefully they’ll see fit to be there next year.

The other absence that once again was no fault of the V3 organizers was that of Rachel Roh. Before V3, Roh used her Facebook page to break the news of scandal at the JACCC involving its (now departed) CEO, who was convicted of “theft, fraud and embezzlement” schemes in France. As big a story as it was, Roh gets credit for reporting it first, on a social media website no less. (The Rafu Shimpo, of course, had knowledge of the story as it developed and gets full credit for thoroughly — and accurately — reporting this head-scratcher of a tale.)

If I can attend next year’s V3, I think having YOMYOMF and Roh there would be more than appropriate.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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