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

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on Aug. 16, 2012)

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Last week I received an email from my childhood-era friend Vic Cook, noting that he and his family were vacationing in Hawaii to celebrate the 25th wedding anniversary of him and his wife, Sonia.

Twenty-five years?! Then I remembered back to the summer of 1987 and sure enough, I did in fact attend their wedding, at which I was a groomsman.

I also remember because I attended their wedding in Sacramento not long after I moved from Boulder, Colo., to Los Angeles to begin my job as the assistant editor of Pacific Citizen newspaper a quarter-century ago.

I learned of the job opening via an ad that appeared in the PC, which I had begun receiving after joining the Mile-Hi Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, which for those who don’t already know, is the paper’s parent, the nation’s oldest Asian American civil rights organization.

For someone “in the sticks” of Colorado, the Pacific Citizen was great — a weekly newspaper that had news that could be found nowhere else. While it was obliged to carry the requisite JACL news, PC also contained other Japanese American and Asian American news. Granted, Denver had the Rocky Mountain Jiho for its Japanese American community, but — no slight intended — its news coverage was small potatoes compared to the PC.

Pacific Citizen, the national publication of the Japanese American Citizens League.

To a Nikkei-jin born and raised in Southern or Northern California, that might not seem to be such a big deal. Twenty-five years ago, L.A. boasted not only the Rafu Shimpo, but there was also the Tozai Times and the Kashu Mainichi. San Francisco, meantime, had its Hokubei Mainichi and Nichi Bei Times. (Sadly, that list has dwindled in a manner not unlike the Japanese American community as a whole.)

As a journalism major working in a medium-sized media market, I knew I had to leave Denver for greener fields. On one hand, I was actually working in the specialty of my major, broadcast production and management, at a place then known as Metro Traffic Control, where we provided traffic reports to radio stations. (I started as a traffic reporter, but then was promoted to producer-engineer.)

On the other hand, the pay was so poor, I was ready to apply for some of that free government cheese that was being given out back then. It was a grind because the hours were 5:45-8:45 a.m, then 2:45-5:45 p.m. In the midday to earn some extra cash, I did everything from deliver telephone books to working at the Brookstone store at downtown Denver’s Tabor Center.

At that time, my sister, June,  lived in Southern California, as did my best friend Vic. So when I saw that ad, I decided to send in a rez and some writing samples. Fortunately, after graduating I had taken a CU night class on freelance writing for magazines. Through the Mile-Hi JACL, I had met and interviewed the late Minoru Yasui for the class and as I recall, it was among the writing samples I sent. They must have liked it, because I got a call from PC and they offered to pay half my airfare to come out for an interview!

Later, I was offered the job — even at an annual salary of $18,500, it was way more than I was getting at Metro Traffic. I packed all my stuff into my Toyota Tercel (later broken into twice and eventually stolen, all while parked outside the PC offices) and drove the southern route through New Mexico and Arizona to L.A.

After living with my sister for a couple weeks, I rented a room in a Van Nuys townhouse with a couple of young men I later learned were gay. I did, however, have a new job and a place to crash. My new life was about to start.

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Working at Pacific Citizen was my introduction to print journalism; prior to that, as noted, I had worked in radio in Denver. (Fortunately, I had taken the basic required reporting classes, along with stuff like history of journalism, etc., so I knew the fundamentals of what was needed.)

Circa 1987, the PC was a weekly. As I recall, Harry Honda was its general manager, Mark Saito the bookkeeper, Rick Momii the business manager, Mary Imon the typist, Tomi Hoshizaki the circulation manager. Serving as co-assistant editor was Laurie Mochidome, who started out one day before me. I also worked exactly one day with the esteemed J.K. Yamamoto, who was on his way to San Francisco to become the English section editor of the Hokubei. (Now, of course, J.K. is on the Rafu staff.)

None of those aforementioned names are at the PC now, although Harry Honda is still, miraculously, associated with the paper thanks to a column he writes. His astounding longevity and association with that newspaper makes him a rare commodity in today’s world of journalism.

PC then was based at 941 E. Third St., and we shared the building with the still-nascent Japanese American National Museum. During my time there, no one had the title of editor after J.K. left. We got by with two assistant editors in Laurie and me. Later, as I recall, she and her fiancé, Stuart Iwasaki, would leave the L.A. area for the Pacific Northwest. From then until I left PC in about 1990, I shouldered the main burden as acting editor, getting the paper out with production help from other staffers. The idea of a 40-hour work week was laughable. It was usually 60-70 hours, including weekends and weeknights covering events and JACL activities.

Being PC’s acting editor meant having all the responsibility without any authority. Our technology, for instance, needed serious upgrading, as did our phone system. Making those sorts of improvements, however, was beyond my capabilities.

Still, the things I did at PC included reporting, copy editing, photography, page layout, assigning stories, managing freelancers and more. It was good, overall, real-world experience.

I can honestly say that without what I did at Pacific Citizen, I likely would not have later gone on to work at the Wave Newspapers, the Daily Journal Corp., Pasadena Star-News and San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Orange County Register, Hollywood Reporter and Investor’s Business Daily. Writing this column for the Rafu Shimpo is also traceable to my Pacific Citizen roots.

Not only that, I was there at one of the most critical and eventually triumphant times of Japanese American history — the run-up to and successful enactment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, aka redress. That was a big deal.

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Newspapers are magnets for controversy by their very nature. In the U.S. tradition, newspapers get constitutional protection, aka freedom of the press. That protection is necessary because newspapers are obligated to report on abuses of political and governmental power, as well as corporate malfeasance. Newspapers often make enemies of those they cover.

Journalists, meantime, tend to be argumentative, opinionated folks who don’t like to be told what do to. Talk about potential for drama! Then there’s the internal tension within a newspaper of having to make money (via advertising) and reporting the news, which can mean, for example, exposing the misdeeds of advertisers.

The DNA of the Pacific Citizen, meantime, adds a few extra ingredients for conflict. As a newspaper, it’s supposed to have the same editorial freedom any American newspaper enjoys. But it’s also a servant to the needs of the JACL, meaning its membership, its volunteer leadership and its paid staff.

As such, the relationship between the paper and the organization is a never-ending source of tension, exacerbated by the fact that a newspaper is expensive to produce. Since JACL is always having money problems, the “logical place” to make budget cuts is at the paper.

Meantime, the JACL National Headquarters is in San Francisco, but the Pacific Citizen is in Los Angeles. In a way, it makes no sense, yet this is how it’s been for decades. (I’m sure Harry Honda knows why. That part I forget.)

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In the years since I left Pacific Citizen, many controversies and editorial staffers have come and gone. In the mid-1990s, for instance, JACL’s national president got rid of the chair of the Pacific Citizen editorial board. Then there was the issue of apologizing to WWII draft resisters. Also, the paper went from weekly to monthly and then to twice a month. Along the way, the JACL’s membership has steadily eroded.

The Pacific Citizen has, however, been pretty stable over the past several years. It has adopted a more feature-friendly layout with increased coverage beyond the Japanese American community, too.

Lately, however, it appears as though problems have returned. Fiscal issues are again on the front burner; after the PC’s assistant editor position was eliminated for financial reasons, its editor of more than a decade resigned.

With those two key positions empty, the PC suddenly had an urgent problem — getting an issue out.

(More on this unfolding story next time. If there is a next time!)

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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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 (c) 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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