AAJA National Convention in DC: A Homecoming, a Reunion

The 2014 AAJA National Conference in Washington DC could have been called “AAJA Journalistic Freedom Promotional Week in DC”; I’ve never seen so many enthusiastic people in our profession in one place coming together to talk shop and more importantly teach each other the value and necessity of our craft.


This year’s convention was the first one I was able to attend, not to mention my first time actually attending an AAJA event in the US. I wanted to go because the majority of my experiences as a journalist have been from either doing freelance jobs in Asia or working in the local news scene in Atlanta, Georgia. It is important for me to connect with as many people as possible in our trade in order to learn about new processes, make new contacts, and catch up on events that potentially will affect us all– quite hard to do for me at my present post in Taipei, Taiwan.

With that said, the convention had so many different speakers, panels, workshops, and excursions, I simply couldn’t keep up! I wanted to join almost every talk on the schedule, but I was slightly limited because I was pulling double duty while there; my company, Next Media Animation, decided to set up a booth in the gallery downstairs for recruitment, and I needed to set it up and be present for most of the first day of the convention’s opening day since my relief wouldn’t be able to make it in from New York until the next day.  Still, I was able to do a lot of networking with people I hadn’t met before, along with catching up with long time friends in and out of AAJA during the first day.

I also was able to sneak off to take the NPR tour as well. I literally grew up with National Public Radio playing nonstop in my house from the time I could understand what the acronym meant as a kid. Last year, NPR moved into a new, all digital studio at 1111 North Capitol Street in The District, and the paint still seems fresh enough one year later. The high point was being able to meet Bob Boilen, the guy behind the “Tiny Desk Concerts” which is the weekly indie music program that quite literally has artists belting tunes from behind his cubicle on the 3rd floor. I’ve heard and became familiar with so many great musicians on this NPR show, many of whom never had a major deal or got any sort of major radio airplay, but could hold their own with the best of them. I personally thanked the man and secretly hoped for his immortality so good music could find an outlet on NPR forever.

The next day was the official conference opening, and there were so many talks that I wanted to attend that I simply would’ve had to split myself in half in order to attend them all. I did manage to make it to a few that reflect on my present post as International Content Editor at TomoNews in Taipei.

What newsrooms can learn from web only models:
This talk was led by a few journalists that run websites like Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Vox Media, and much like my own outfit, they are only online so the need to cater their content to an audience that can change it’s tastes on an almost hourly basis is paramount. Old-school news management tools simply don’t cut at times, and a new playbook needs to be written when covering news for an audience that is constantly on the move, reposting and remixing content from different sources on their own. The need to be first and accurate is now more important than ever. When that is impossible, the web allows for going in-depth on a story in ways unimaginable even 5 years ago. Anything from embedding charts, video, and animated dramatizations can be done in order to expose new angles to the story.

Social Media reporting and Ethics:
These days, one doesn’t necessarily need to have a deep pool of photographers and reporters to cover far-flung areas or gaps in their coverage because social media exists. But using media like tweets, Instagrams and Facebook postings in a report opens up Pandora’s Box full of questions. Was this person a real eyewitness or just repeating a rumor? Is this photo something that falls under ‘Fair Use’ or will we need to ask permissions? Even if all the dots line up in the newsroom’s favor, should we still use it right away or keep plugging at the traditional route of calling, door-knocking, and emailing a live person? In this panel, these questions weren’t answered with hard ‘Yes/No’ answers, because it simply depends on too many factors such as tone, reliability, vetting, and the overall stance of your news outfit. My main takeaway from this talk was try as much as possible to talk to “real live human beings” and use the social media sources as a way of bringing in “another side” to the story.

I spent most of my time during the convention downstairs in the corporate gallery where many companies set up their recruitment and information booths; remember, I was also tasked with manning the NextMedia Animation booth for our recruitment efforts. This was also a first for me; I’ve never actually ran a recruiting booth before, so I really didn’t know what to expect other than having to create and show a demo reel our our works, and make some informational flyers. I thought back to what I would’ve like to have heard from people trying to recruit me over the years, and thought I’d just “tell it like it is” if a prospective job hunter asked a difficult question. And boy, did they!

That led me to the conclusion that the majority of today’s journalists and journos-to-be are probably the most connected members of society today. In my talks with them at the booth, I relayed my opinion that it’s not enough to simply specialize in one aspect of the craft. For example, my outfit is looking for the ‘one-man-band’ type of journalist–someone who is a wordsmith, but is also good at shooting video and photos and can edit it all together into a cohesive package. I met several prospectives that are good at one thing, and may have touched on another skill, but aren’t confident enough to list it on their resumes.

This opinion was put to the test later on in the week, for my trip to Washington D.C. was cut short by the outbreak of protests and demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri which is a suburb of my hometown, St. Louis. I was scheduled to go there next for some R&R since I was stateside, but the timetable was pushed forward because I insisted that I could cover the story in greater detail since its literally “in my backyard” and I know all the major players involved. While this meant that I had to miss the majority of the “after five” events, along with the Gala Dinner that the National Convention is known for, I think I speak for every journalist out there when I say that I’d rather be out in the field chasing a big story, especially one that touched me on a personal level such as this. So, in addition to helping to file many reports while at the convention, I filed four packages for Reuters and TomoNews, some of which were also done in Japanese for our outlet there.

In closing, I’d like to say to my fellow AAJAers in Asia, please start saving up for that trip to San Francisco next year! Whatever your beat is over on this side of the Pacific, it’s important to check in with “the mothership” every now and then. It’s also very important to know that there are so many of your fellow journalists in America that are with you in spirit and are willing to share advice, information, gripes, and even a few drinks whenever time allows. Homecoming never felt so good.

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