Reporters Who Know the Business  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 2000

Reporters Who Know the Business   

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


It's odd to hear reporters use words like "brand name" or "the product"--at least at some papers. But not at California's Orange County Register.

And definitely not among its Asian cultures team. Two of the four reporters on that squad, Hieu Tran Phan and Anh Do, have helped both the newsroom and promotion departments understand a swelling population of Vietnamese. Of the 2,734,552 people living in the county in 1998, 329,917 were Asian, according to the Center for Demographic Research at California State University, Fullerton. Roughly 140,000 of those were Vietnamese. The Register--and Phan and Do--knows there's a clear need to both bolster coverage and let that community know about it.

"We would always be invited into these meetings," Phan says, where circulation and overall strategy were discussed. He and Do were asked for their opinions, and various duties were assigned, "always with the idea that we needed to make the product more visible...and make ourselves more visible in many ways."

The paper launched the Asian cultures team about a year and a half ago. In addition to writing stories and sharing a weekly "Vietscape" column, Phan and Do host a weekly 15- to 20-minute radio talk show on a Vietnamese station, sponsored by the paper. Phan also represents the Register at community events. The two reporters have consulted on issues such as where to place newspaper racks in Vietnamese neighborhoods, and Do says she's served as a go-between, connecting marketing types with people in the community.

In the process, they've become sort-of celebrities in the area known as Little Saigon and resident experts in the newsroom.

Their duties are helping to improve communication between the business and editorial sides of the paper, a newspaper-wide goal. Editor Tonnie L. Katz says the two halves have been "working closer and closer over the years." Around the beginning of October, David Whiting moved into the new projects director job, a senior position, in which he also serves as a liaison between the business side and the newsroom. The relationship, says Katz, makes sense. "If you have a wonderful paper, and you don't tell anybody, what does it get you?"

Not just Phan and Do, but the whole newspaper has a responsibility that goes beyond putting out the daily edition, Katz says. "Serving and building community on the one side of the coin and on the other side of the coin, capturing market...all of us here have goals and responsibilities in those areas."

To traditionalists, that may sound a little scary. But, Whiting says, the paper is venturing into this territory with measured steps. "We're very sensitive to the slippery slope," he says.

Phan, 26, and Do, 33, both were born in Vietnam and came to the United States when they were 8 years old. They know the Vietnamese community better than most Register employees. "Marketing has the need to talk to somebody in these communities; they don't know where to start," Whiting says. "Marketing can ask the reporter...'Who can I talk to?' "

Phan says his public appearances and such don't make him uncomfortable. "If I were actually going out to sell the paper or to advertise the paper...then I would feel reluctant," he says. "I do more backstage consulting."

Michael Hewitt, a team leader for the lifestyle section and the editor of the Vietscape column, says he hasn't run into any ethical problems. But the consulting work does create added demands for Phan and Do. "As an editor," he says, "the largest issue for me is just one of time.... It's basically more tasks for them."

"We sort of became newsroom ambassadors," Do says, acknowledging that "it requires a great deal of time." But she sees the impact. "Our brand name is really well known."

While the reporters understand marketing parlance, the Register hasn't lobbed a hand grenade at the sacred wall between editorial and business. But the paper is encouraging more meeting and conversation over the top. The tricky part is ensuring that no one takes a leap into the other side.

Phan says he watches the boundaries, but adds: "Honestly, I'm not always certain what those boundaries are, because this is uncharted territory for us."

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