November 16, 2012

For two weeks I played host to six college students, all journalism majors, as we flew from Hong Kong to Washington, D.C., to cover the U.S. Presidential Elections. I packed the agenda with numerous newsroom visits to show them what journalism in the U.S. was all about. We were going to meet and greet senior news executives, I told them. Their job was to interview them and write up short reports. “This is a work trip,” I reminded them.

Little did I realize that the visits would ignite a passion and perspective in these young people and re-ignite my passion for the profession.

“That’s the executive editor, next to him the managing editor, next to him the deputy,” said our tour guide going down the newsroom hierarchy as we stood inside The Washington Post. The students looked wide eyed and the excitement only heightened when the tour guide showed us the Pulitzer Prize medals and the front cover headlined, “Nixon Resigns.” (Photo courtesy Hong Kong Shue Yan University)

A female student later shared with me her feelings about our visit.

“It’s so different than newsrooms in Hong Kong, over here it seems like journalists are respected,” she said, describing how disheveled newsrooms and journalists often looked back at home. In Hong Kong, it is well-known that the profession was viewed as second class, and for many a young journalist it is seen as a stepping stone to a better paying career in public relations or government.

The road I traveled

As I planned the trip last summer, I often thought about what kind of impression I wanted to give these young people. Being a Chinese-American, the U.S. was my homeland. And most of my students had never been to America, much less an American newsroom.

Our visits included the National Journal, The New York Times, NPR, CCTV America and the Newseum, where the students marveled at this beautiful structure devoted strictly to news.

This was my first time stepping foot in newsrooms since I last worked as a full-time reporter at The Deal in 2008.

After some 12 years as a full-time reporter in the industry, I was starting to burn out. Shrinking newsrooms and newspapers were becoming a part of everyday shop talk, while Google, Facebook and Twitter were becoming necessities on the job. I started to regard the once beloved profession with cynicism.

In 2009, I officially left journalism after being part of a layoff at a financial magazine where I was a reporter.

“Journalism is in disarray, I need to reinvent myself,” I would tell friends and family when I talked about the leap from the newsroom into the classroom. The spark and spunk I once had for the profession had seemingly flatlined.

And the flatline continued even as I taught writing and reporting here in Hong Kong, where the profession didn’t seem to hold too much of a future.

My students’ descriptions of journalism in Hong Kong are basically true. As a young reporter in her 20s, I first came to Hong Kong in 1996 and spent time working in Hong Kong newsrooms.

For two years I worked as a reporter at the Hong Kong Standard, back then and even now one of the two daily English language newspapers in Hong Kong. The editors came from all over the world — Mainland China, Britain, South Africa and Australia.

The standards of the paper were nowhere near as stringent as how I was trained as a journalism student. There was no ethics manual to sign, no rules regarding attribution, sourcing or guidelines surrounding how much we could accept in gifts. We cranked out copy to fill the pages. A fellow reporter jokingly said that “we were like word machines.” In my time there, never once do I recall the newspaper producing an invesitgative piece. The word “watchdog” didn’t exist.

Between America and Hong Kong

Turn the clock forward to 2012. My students often question themselves and their decision to study a profession that isn’t respected here in Hong Kong. They talk about the long hours, little pay, and the overall public perception that journalists are a nuisance.

Then there is the underlying and much more disturbing reality that press freedom is eroding and is being replaced by self-censorship in Hong Kong. Most newspapers here are headed by pro-Beijing factions, with the exception of The Apple Daily.

“In America you have freedom and it seems like the journalists really enjoy their press freedom,” a student shared after one of our visits. “In Hong Kong we don’t even have the freedom to vote.”

At the end of this trip, I had regained an appreciation for the media and journalism in America. Although the industry’s transformation is chaotic and newspapers like The Washington Post are shadows of their former selves in terms of number of staff, the reality is that America remains one of the best places to practice journalism.

As the plane departed back to Hong Kong, a student shared with me that until she came on the trip she was having second thoughts about being a journalist. Seeing how American newsrooms operated changed her mind.

“I’m energized again,” she said. It was an unexpected surprise and outcome from the marathon trip. “Same here,” I said as we headed to the other side of the world.

Amy Wu is a Chinese-American and teaches journalism full-time at Hong Kong Shue Yan University. Before that she spent 14 years as a professional reporter and worked for Gannett, Time magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Deal. She is from New York and earned her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia.

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