How I Started in Journalism

Above is a photo of me holding my first-ever print story that was a feature on poetry spaces that I wrote for the books section of The Los Angeles Times.

It’s surreal that in the past two and a half years, my journalism career has blossomed in a way that I never could have expected and I’ve had bylines in national publications I never could have dreamed of: The L.A. Times, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, and so many more. I want to share how I got here without going to journalism school.

I really didn’t plan this (it’s true)

Growing up I remember telling people how much I loved reading and how I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. On more than one occasion, a well-meaning uncle would advise me to stay away from journalism because of the poor pay and life balance. “It’s a dying industry,” an uncle somberly warned me.

Writing was a hobby that I kept up through high school on my site that I called The Bookish Blog where I posted reviews of my favorite Young Adult novels. One of my first ever paid writing gigs was $25 store credit for a review of Stephanie Garber’s “Caraval” I wrote for The Last Bookstore’s blog, The Dwarf and Giant. (We all had to start somewhere.)

So when I started editing for CSU Long Beach’s University Honors Program’s magazine, it was purely out of a passion and a joy for words. I remember being inspired by the editor-in-chief of our small magazine who was also an editor at The Daily 49er and thinking, “Damn, that’s so cool, I want in on that”.

When I joined my student newspaper, I was a math major assisting the opinions editor at the time. I was weirdly well positioned on campus to field a lot of student and faculty perspectives because of my involvement with student government over the past two years and the odd jobs I had done as a research assistant when I went through a marine biology phase at the Shark Lab on campus and then later doing basic needs research.

All this random knowledge helped a lot because when you’re starting as a journalist you’re more of a generalist than a specialist. You need to know a little bit about everything.

Where I almost quit, but then found AAJA-LA

I loved my work on my student paper, it was fulfilling and rewarding as I had the chance to connect with my peers and ask them questions. But I quickly realized that the world that I had inhabited for so long where I had the unusual and lucky experience of being mentored by women of color for many years – was not the case at the 49er. I found myself leading many conversations around race and sensitivity at the paper and oftentimes gaslit when I was raising concerns about our present and past coverage.

We wrote a letter that I helped organize spelling out the issues that had been building up over several years if not decades. I thought to myself that was it. It was the worst experience I ever had in a work environment and I didn’t want to subject myself to that type of mental anguish again.

But then I was fortunate enough to reach out to Teresa Watanabe who had written an eloquent piece in the Times “How do you cover a group as diverse as Asian Americans in Southern California?”.

My email to Teresa Watanabe at the L.A. Times.

It was a very earnest and eager message and little did I know, Teresa also happened to be the president of the local Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association. Teresa proceeded to send me emails inviting me to events and encouraging me to get involved. She had me join the board as a student representative where I had the chance to lead programming and network with other students and professionals.

I was so grateful because at that time I found a community of journalists who were similarly concerned about expanding coverage of our AAPI communities. I felt seen and accepted in this group of whom I affectionately call my “journo aunties” who have supported and championed my work.

In recent years I’m giving back more to the organization as the current national board representative for my local chapter. I’m also the co-director of the inaugural LGBTQIA+ affinity group within AAJA and one of the things we’ve been keeping an eye on is fair and accurate coverage of trans communities.

Intern to freelancer

My big break was when I was brought on as an editorial intern at The L.A. Times in the summer of 2021. It offered me a chance to learn alongside the best reporters in the nation and to write for my hometown paper. I won’t lie, the learning curve was very steep and at times I was struggling to write opinions for the blog.

There was maybe a month break in between before I jumped into my next internship with NPR as their diverse sources intern. This was honestly the best newsroom experience I ever had, I loved my supervisors (shout out to my work parent Holly Morris!). We were very much aligned on issues within journalism and committed to finding ways to improve persistent concerns around accurate and fair reporting on communities of color.

I was working full-time for around 6 months for NPR while also studying as a student at CSULB with a full course load and that was a lot. I was lucky that the training team allowed me a flexible schedule so I was often working at odd hours in between classes to get my tasks done. I put out a weekly newsletter called “Source of the Week” with diverse sources and also managed the Twitter account under the same name.

And I was continuing to write for different NPR sections. I wrote a piece about Harry Styles that went unexpectedly viral, a piece about bell hooks, and half a dozen pieces for NPR Music’s #NowPlaying. Meanwhile, I was still connected to Boris Kachka, the books editor at the Times, and was recruited to come help with some of the L.A. Times Books Festival coverage.

That’s when I started pitching more regularly and found my stride as a freelancer over the past year writing pieces for various national publications. One of the editors at The Washington Post invited me to write a piece for Pride Month. I responded to a call for writers in the Journalist of Color Slack which is how I had my first piece published in The Guardian.

Brb, I’m becoming a (multimedia) Swiss army knife

I quickly found that even while my skills as a writer were useful for online and print reporting I had graduated last December in the middle of a recession. It wasn’t enough for me to simply be good at writing. I had to pick up other skills too. So last year I brought it upon myself to learn documentary filmmaking and I had a chance to do a video fellowship with AAJA’s Voices program.

I was able to direct, produce and edit my first ever short documentary “Mia’s Mission” about a trans and Japanese American criminal defense attorney. I was able to recruit the help of my queer and Asian American friends who assisted me on set and I learned a lot in creating a set that modeled the film industry that I want to see – inclusive and safe.

Mia Yamamoto and her wife in their home in East L.A.

Most recently I applied for the NPR Next Gen Radio program that’s aimed at training the upcoming generation of audio storytellers in public media. I’m hoping that this week-long BootCamp will help me strengthen my audio production knowledge which will help in all future multimedia projects.

Making friends and finding mentors along the way

I hate the framework of networking like somehow connecting with people in our industry is some type of quid pro quo transaction between two professionals. I haven’t found a better word to describe it but I honestly think it’s more important to talk about fostering community and relationships. These are the people who are going to be the people who you turn to for support when things get rough in the job market. They are the people who are going to help you escape an abusive work environment and recommend you for another newsroom. These are the folks who are going to have your back.

I have been super fortunate that at every step in my journey that I’ve been supported by genuine and kind people. One of my early north stars was Caitlin Dickerson, an alumnus of CSULB who had also interned at NPR rising to their investigative team and winning a Peabody for her work before moving to the New York Times to cover immigration. At the Atlantic, she’s continued to do groundbreaking work writing about immigration policy and exposing flaws in the U.S. immigration carceral system.

Again last year I cold-emailed her in the hopes that she might be interested in connecting for a school assignment where I had to talk to a professional in our industry of choice. And Caitlin graciously responded to my email and we continued to stay in touch saying hi whenever I’m in Brooklyn or she finds herself on the West Coast. She’s the best and you should read this conversation I shared with her in the Objective.

I’ve also made it a point to connect to editors and senior reporters at every internship I’ve done in the past three. I remember while I was at the L.A. Times I made a list of editors and cool people I wanted to meet and do a virtual coffee with. I think that summer I met almost met 3-4 people in that newsroom every week. At first, I was nervous about reaching out to my idols and favorite reporters, but I quickly found that most if not all of the people I reached out to were eager to provide support and advice to early career journalists.

Why do I stay in this industry?

I won’t lie, the journey hasn’t been easy. I’ve been struggling financially over the past year and I’ve had to move back in with my parents. And so while many of my good friends romanticize my clips in these national publications, I’m still often embarrassed that my wages don’t reflect my hard work and experience. I don’t know if I believe in paying “your dues” because I don’t believe suffering is a prerequisite to succeeding in this industry. But I know the reality is that this is an extremely volatile industry that swings up and down. Just over the past year, there have been major layoffs at CNN+, Gannette, Buzzfeed, Vox Media, and The Washington Post, and NPR canceled its summer internship, and year-long fellowships and is looking at cutting 10% of its workforce.

Why do I stay? This is a question I wake up with every day and if you’re lying to yourself if you aren’t asking yourself this question at the start of your career. This job doesn’t have a great work-life balance and especially during 2020 through 2021, it didn’t feel safe being a journalist in the political climate. But I’ve fallen in love with the work and the impact it has on my community. I’ve been able to highlight the work of writers and artists of color in important ways and I’ve seen the impact of my work. I feel so lucky that I get to document people’s lives and highlight humanity and joy with my words and camera.

After I first wrote about the Queer Mercado in East L.A., they were soon after featured by other local publications like LAist, and The L.A. Times, and they were also highlighted in Facebook’s small businesses advertisement. I know that article was important in bringing visibility to their work and helping get the attention of other newspapers as it hadn’t been highlighted yet. It meant a lot that I got to write about an immigrant queer community that was thriving when so many narratives perpetuate the idea that communities of color are more homophobic or intolerant. It was beautiful to show that this was a space that was wholesome and family-friendly for queer people of all ages to explore their identities in a safe space.

This work feels so urgent to me, I often remind myself that writing about cultural sites is also a form of resistance. I really prioritize relationships and trust-building in my reporting so I can accurately preserve history through my storytelling to amplify the work of under/misrepresented communities. By documenting these spaces and communities in the paper of record in our city, I’m ensuring that their existence is made known to future generations and scholars.

Trust in yourself

It’s so important to bet on yourself and make your own opportunities. Very few people just have doors simply open waiting for them to walk in. We, and I mean those structurally lacking resources, have to often self-advocate and ask for chances to prove ourselves.

And trust me. I’m still on that journey of quelling my imposter syndrome. But I learning to trust in my abilities more and more and put myself out there. If there’s anything you should take away from this advice column, you should always shoot your shot, slide into the DMs, and cold email a stranger. You never know! One day they could become one of your biggest cheerleaders.

Now go, be bold

I’ve already mentioned some support systems to get plugged into and I highly suggest finding a professional journalism organization where you can find a group of friends and mentors. Several organizations broadly serve journalists like the Online News Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Press Photographers Association, and others that are more specific like the National Association of Black Journalists, the Association of LGBTQ Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Native American Journalists Association, and Diversify Photo.

Start writing! Even if it’s just a blog that you start writing on your own, it’s important to have published work that shows off your dexterity with words. Don’t forget to read your favorite columnists for tone, style, and flair. You will find your voice with extensive practice.

Alright then! I’ll leave you to it. Good luck and don’t forget to check out the resources on journalism on my main page where I share how to pitch and where to apply for fellowships. See you soon!

sending you guud vibez,

Jireh 🥹 👉🏼👈🏼

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