By Eva Dou
In 1981, Bill Sing and Tritia Toyota met at a conference at UCLA.
The Los Angeles Times reporter and the KNBC anchor mused over how there were few opportunities for Asian American journalists to network and share ideas.
They called up four other Asian American journalists they knew in L.A., and AAJA was born.
“I felt there was a real problem with stereotyping of Asian Americans in the media,” Sing said. “We wanted to help change that.”
Now, 29 years later, Asian American journalists are gathering again in Los Angeles for the AAJA Convention. What started as a small, L.A.-based group has expanded into a network with 20 chapters and more than 1,400 members spanning the country.
AAJA President Sharon Chan says the main goals of the group have stayed the same: Providing networking opportunities and support for Asian American journalists, increasing awareness of news media among Asian Americans and monitoring the accuracy and fairness of reporting on Asian Americans.
Of course, the newsroom landscape has changed, and some of these goals have taken on new meanings.
For instance, one of the group’s goals has become helping Asian Americans get the skills they need for today’s multimedia jobs, Chan said.
Asian Americans are still underrepresented in newsroom management, but they’ve come a long way from 1981, when there were still very few Asian Americans in the entire industry, says Nancy Yoshihara, one of the group’s founding members.
“At the very beginning, the newsroom could be a very lonely place for an Asian American,” she said. “It was very lonely, and most of us were very young.”
Despite the loneliness, Sing said some journalists were hesitant to join AAJA at first.
“At some places, you had to downplay your ethnicity to get along and get in,” Sing said.
The founding members say Los Angeles was a good place for the group to start because of the active Asian American community. UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center was founded in the city in 1969. Trailblazers like Toyota were already on air by the early 70s.
“Here at the time, there were the largest number of aspiring Asian American journalists,” Yoshihara said.
The group’s first initiatives focused on helping Asian Americans gain access to the newsroom, both as staffers and as community members, said founding member Frank Kwan. In addition to helping aspiring journalists, the group taught members of the Asian American community how to navigate their way around a press release to bring attention to issues important to them.
Gradually, newsroom managers came to see a diverse staff as a necessity to help provide coverage that resonates with the community. With that shift, AAJA’s initial focus of simply getting Asian Americans access to the newsroom has changed to more of an emphasis on gaining leadership roles, Yoshihara said.
That emphasis on helping Asian Americans gain decision-making roles has become more critical in recent years, Yoshihara said. With newsrooms trimming staffs across the country, it’s become more difficult to gain those positions.
While AAJA membership numbers are down in the difficult job market, LA Chapter President Jinah Kim says she hopes bringing the convention back to AAJA’s roots will serve as a “revitalizing force.”
“I fully expect by the end of this year, our numbers will be as high as they were in 2008,” Kim said.
Sing and some of the other founders are attending the Opening Reception of this year’s convention. He says some people are seeing this convention through a lens of nostalgia as AAJA returns to its birth city.
But Sing cautions against focusing too much on the past. He says this year’s convention city should not be viewed as a repository of memories, but as a hub for new and developing forms of media.
“You’ve got to look to the future,” he says. “There’s lessons from the past, but you take that, and you look forward.”
Those who helped found AAJA and launch its annual convention share their thoughts on the organization’s early days:
“I approached Tritia (Toyota) and I told her about I wanted to start a media organization for Asian Americans. Coincidentally, she told me that she had the same idea.”
– Bill Sing, who helped found AAJA in 1981
“We weren’t totally positive that there would necessarily be another convention after the first one,”
– Frank Kwan, a co-founder of AAJA, on the first national convention in Los Angeles in 1987
“I was giving opening and closing remarks at the first convention, and there was a great sense of pride in being able to pull that off.”
– Sing, on the first AAJA Convention
“In the early days … the ‘pipeline’ of trained people was somewhat limited, and that took some time before there were many qualified Asian Americans to choose from. It’s very different today – the skills are there, and AAJA is adapting to the changes by providing new resources.”
– Kwan, on the changes in the journalism industry fostered by AAJA