Looking back and ahead with AAJA-Asia chapter founders Allen Cheng and Alan Ota

In 2021, the AAJA Asia chapter goes into its 25th year (founded 1996), and the national chapter goes into its 40th year (founded 1981). To mark these dates, we reached out to Alan and Allen as Asia chapter cofounders to reflect on AAJA’s journey over the years.

What was the need that led to the creation of AAJA? 

Alan Ota: At the time, Asian American journalists scattered in different cities wanted to produce accurate stories about Asian Americans and other minorities and to make sure their voices were heard in the media. AAJA provided a necessary network for these journalists to support one another as they navigated through difficult stories and challenging career moves. 

In Asia, Asian American journalists wanted to cover news events in Asia as part of their quest to better understand the homelands of their parents and grandparents. The Asia chapter of the AAJA served as a bridge for Asian American journalists to go back and forth between the U.S. and in Asia, and provided a kind of validation for what they are doing. It also became a network for Asian American and Asian journalists working for U.S. media outlets to team up and learn from one another.

Allen Cheng: The need for the creation of the Asia chapter of AAJA in 1996 was based on the vision Alan Ota and I shared in 1995. We met for lunch at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club sometimes during the spring of that year and we brainstormed about bringing AAJA to Asia. Alan at the time had just arrived in Asia as the Tokyo-based Asia correspondent for The Oregonian, and I was an editor of a Hong Kong-based business magazine by the name of Asia, Inc. I had arrived in Hong Kong a few years earlier — in 1992, and both Alan and I knew each other well as we were active members of the Portland chapter before our arrivals in Asia. 

It dawned upon us in 1995 that Asia as a region would only become more important — both economically and politically, and that demand for news coverage of the region would only rise, and that meant more Asian American journalists would arrive in the region in the years ahead. It was that foresight that led both Alan and I to begin lobbying AAJA national office and other key chapters for their support for the creation of AAJA-Asia in 1996.

Some 25 years have whizzed by, and it has become clear that Alan and I were right in our foresight. AAJA Asia has grown to become an important chapter within the AAJA organization — not because Alan and I performed magic to make AAJA Asia grow — but because hundreds of Asian American journalists have arrived and worked in the region over these years, and it was our collective efforts that made AAJA Asia grow from just Alan in Tokyo and me in Hong Kong to a chapter that at times top more than 150 members in major cities across the region. Asia has certainly grown more important — and will be perhaps even more important as economic gravity shifts to Asia in the decades ahead.

What kind of strides have journalists made since the creation of the Asia chapter of AAJA?

Alan Ota: I think the members of the Asia chapter of AAJA have helped to give readers and viewers a much better understanding of Asians and of Asian Amerians. With their accurate news coverage and their persistence in their careers, they have helped to explode racial and ethnic stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans.

Allen Cheng: In the 1990s, there were very few Asian American journalists in the region. At that time top foreign correspondent positions at major global news organizations were the exclusive domains of Anglo Saxons. That is no longer the case as global news organizations have expanded in the region, they have opened the doors of regional bureaus to a diversity of talent, including Asian Americans. 

The major financial news groups, such as Bloomberg and Reuters, have the largest talent pools and provide employment for many hundreds of journalists across the region today. These large-scale news organizations provide plenty of opportunities for upward mobility, and that means many opportunities for Asian Americans journalists.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the media industry in your career? 

Alan Ota: The biggest change in journalism has been the rise of the internet and the proliferation of online outlets and virtual newsrooms. It’s a challenging marketplace for journalists, but there are opportunities to experiment, learn and advance.

Allen Cheng: While more opportunities exist for Asian Americans in Asia, there is a very worrisome trend out there: The single biggest change is the rise of the Internet and Internet conglomerates. Before the arrival of Google, Amazon, Facebook and other Internet giants, the traditional media industry thrived and had big and deep pockets. Today, most advertising revenues are sucked up by the major Internet conglomerates, who tend not to hire journalists and instead use search algorithms to aggregate news written by others and in turn sell them as news services. With the exception of financial news companies, most traditional media have suffered.

This trend does not bode well for journalism in the English speaking markets in the West, where some media companies have ditched the traditional balanced and impartial approach to news coverage to adopt sensationalism, nationalism, partisanship and or extreme views for the sake of grabbing eyeballs and generating revenues. This trend is very worrisome and does bode well for our industry.

Where do you see the future of journalism heading in Asia? 

Alan Ota: Virtual newsrooms and online websites will continue to provide opportunities for journalists, whether they are based in Asia or making occasional trips there for reporting. The challenge for journalists will be choosing the right opportunity to leverage their experience and upgrade their skills. 

Allen Cheng: Despite the negative trends caused by the rise of Western Internet giants, I see journalism maturing as an industry among Asian media companies. The rise of Asia has given to the rise of Asian media and telecom companies and conglomerates, and some of these groups are expanding into the global English language markets. For example, SoftBank in Japan and Alibaba in China are two examples of large Asian conglomerates that have expanded into English language media in recent years. This trend means there will be many new opportunities for Asian Americans journalists in Asia in the years ahead.

What do you think is the hardest part about being a journalist today? 

Alan Ota: The hardest part of being a journalist today is trying to find a balance between professional advancement and personal quality of life. Maintaining the right balance with each career move is important, but challenging.

Allen Cheng: The hardest challenge is economics. Years ago, before the rise of the Internet giants, large traditional Western media companies paid journalists well and offered job security. Many of those large traditional media companies no longer exist, or if they do, they are a shadow of what they used to be. This means high paying journalism jobs are becoming scarce, except in the large financial news companies such as Bloomberg or Reuters, or among the specialist high finance media groups, ones that still charge a premium for advertising. 

Companies that cover general news, however, are seeing ever smaller income streams. This means the economics of journalism in the Internet age makes it very difficult for serious journalists to stick to journalism as the high paying jobs are becoming precious commodities that only a select few can enjoy. This trend is also very worrisome.

What’s your advice to young and aspiring journalists?  

Alan Ota: I would advise young and aspiring journalists to get a background in business and economics to provide a foundation for covering communities, markets and government. I would also recommend taking a creative writing class to have the experience of writing in different styles with different perspectives. For journalists with families, it’s a good idea to try to stay for at least five years in one place.

Allen Cheng: Despite the worrisome trends, my advice to young journalists who are serious about the profession is this: Please do not give up on your ideals of achieving fair, balanced, and accurate journalism that reflects all sides of the story. Journalism is more than a vocation. It is a passion for telling other people’s stories, a mission to be a messenger of news, especially news that might help others gain wisdom, insight and knowledge. If you want to be rich, pursue investment banking, or hedge fund management. But if you wish to play a constructive role in helping society gain insight, wisdom and knowledge, consider journalism.

Alan K. Ota is an editor at large for Law360. He has previously worked as a senior writer for Congressional Quarterly and as a Washington correspondent and Tokyo correspondent for The Oregonian.
Allen T. Cheng: Co-founder, AAJA-Asia; Asia chapter co-president, 1996-1997; Asia chapter president, 1997-2006. Allen was a journalist in the US and Asia from 1987 to 2018. He is today the Chief Adviser of Greater China-focused due diligence advisory firm, Advise Insight Ltd. His bio is accessible here: http://www.adviseinsight.com/Directors_and_background/