10 years later: A love letter by Ramy Inocencio

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Editor’s Note: The Asian American Journalists Association has a few milestones coming up.

— This year marks the 10th N3Conference, the annual flagship event of AAJA’s Asia chapter.

—  In 2021, the Asia chapter will be going into its 25th year (founded 1996), and the national chapter will be going into its 40th year (founded 1981). 

We asked Ramy Inocencio, a guiding force behind N3Con and so many other AAJA initiatives, to reflect on these successes.

Hey N3: So, It’s Been a Decade

“Make it fun. Make it inclusive. Make it smart.” Those three short phrases – in that order, but with one no better than the other – were my guiding principles to grow the Asia chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association from 2011 to 2015. I don’t profess to have sat down at any given moment in time to decide on those little phrases but looking back now and with a decade of hindsight, that’s how it worked out – and how it worked well.

Was This All There Was? 

It was the spring of 2011. That was the question that had popped in my head as I left the Foreign Correspondent Club in Central. I had moved to Hong Kong from New York that February to start my new life in the city and new gig at CNN. Part of that new life was building reaching out to AAJA. I knew there were a few members. I wanted to say hi. Only about a dozen people showed up. I expected the city of more than seven million people to have more AAJA members.  There’s a pre-iPhone photo that lives in some old laptop that has us around a few tables smiling at the camera. Ying Chan was there, then dean of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre – the best of its kind in Asia. My new CNN colleague Liz Yuan. Zela Chin, TVB reporter. Allen Cheng, reporter at Institutional Investor and co-founder of the Asia chapter from a few decades prior. New faces ten years ago, now old friends. Leaving them that evening, I knew we could do more. Professor Chan, I remember, was extremely excited about one thing we chatted about and was willing to supply the venue for a possible journalism conference.

The First N3…Was Not Called N3

Surprise. The first international media conference that the Asian American Journalists Association ever organized was a mouthful: the AAJA-HKU JMSC International Media Conference.  Just a few months after that AAJA FCC meeting.  I modeled it after another international journalism conference I had attended the year before by the East-West Center, a Hawaii-based think tank of which I’m an alumnus. I felt AAJA needed to plant its flag in Asia and a conference could be the catalyst. Top editors of journalism companies based in Hong kong including….Marcus…, Ken…?… who else?  About 100 people attended. Registration cost? $100 Hong Kong dollars – about $12 U.S. dollars. A steal. It was a small step for AAJA in Asia. It was hot and humid. Ying and our team of Wendy Tang, Eldes Tran, Kevin Lau and AJ Libunao and a team of supportive JMSC volunteers made it happen. The power of one-on-one. Reaching out individually to get people to come. 

“New. Now. Next.” 

In year two, the name we have today — “N3” — was finally and officially born. At its root, the words ‘new, now and next.” I chose this alliterative triad because the formula spoke to the essence of our journalistic work. What’s new? Tell the world that first. What do we know now? Recap the facts and put the story into context. What’s next? Push the story ahead so readers and viewers know what to keep an eye out for. The second conference nearly doubled attendance to about 200 people. In 2013, the third jumped again to about 300 and in 2014, the fourth N3 Con edged slightly higher to be our best-attended conference to date. JMSC showcased a new hall.

Late nights. One-on-one email invitations. Loving to bring people together. Curious people. Smart people. For collective experience in Asia. Members from the Philippines, Taiwan, people from the U.S. – Ball State each year.  We had raffles. Airplane tickets.

The AAJA Family Means Everyone

During my time as president of the Asia chapter, I started referring to the Asia chapter as my family. A very diverse family, connected by profession, with brothers and sisters in nearly every country in the region. It made the geographic distances feel that much closer. When members landed in different AAJA cities, family would be there to welcome you, take you to dinner and show you the city. 

Growth was helped by charismatic or organized dynamos across Asia’s subchapters. In South Korea, Hannah Bae in Seoul was a magnetic leader that helped rally membership to be the second biggest behind Hong Kong. In Japan, Yuri Nagano put her care and detailed planning to work to organize thoughtful meetups. In Singapore, Chelsea Phua entertained my entreaties to help membership grow. Today and with current leadership, it’s now an active hive of AAJA journalism energy. 

AAJA’s growth story was also not without challenges. It was also a study in how growth did not or could not happen – cities and countries without a minimum threshold of people, membership that was older and more family-oriented, or in places that lacked press freedoms. There is an ebb and flow to membership in Asia’s membership cities – rising in some in certain years, ebbing in those in later years only to return again. Leadership planning and succession is key. And between 2011 and 2015, the Asia chapter grew from a few dozen to more than 200. And in 2014, AAJA National awarded the Asia chapter “Chapter of the Year” for the amazing growth. Also key? Inclusion. The formula we pushed: you don’t have to be Asian, you don’t have to be American, you don’t have to be a journalist. That became one of our mottos early on. AAJA is inclusive – and every single person from all walks of life are welcome.

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