CAMP 2018: Q&A with Elise Hu

Presented by Amy Westervelt

“Work-life balance” is a handy phrase for marketing self-help books, but the reality is,  it’s all life. And these two parts of life can’t help but impact each other. Elise Hu—former Korea  and Japan bureau chief for NPR and current staff reporter/host with NPR—walked us through those intersections in her JAWS CAMP 2018 keynote, framed as “all the ways I’ve failed to work for The Washington Post.”

Hu has had three opportunities to work for WaPo and every time, life got in the way; or, as Hu puts it, life just sent her on a different but equally good path. She started her talk with her time as the Korea and Japan bureau chief for NPR, stationed in Seoul. But in our Q&A, Hu remembered that in fact life events had pushed her toward that gig, too. Point being: Goals are great, but don’t get so attached to a very specific outcome that you fail to spot what Hu calls “the next, most exciting thing,” because following that can lead to a great career you may never have even thought to dream of.

Amy Westervelt: You started out in broadcast news. TV. How did you go from that into radio?

Elise Hu: I meant it when I said my career has really been a series of the “next most exciting things”. I started in television, first in Waco and then I jumped around to different stations, until I got to Austin. I started blogging when that first started, back when they were called “web logs.” So I had been blogging for a long time, and I convinced my television station—at the time TV was behind on digital—but I convinced him to let me have a political blog. It was called The Political Junkie. And I was able to really be free and report and write about all sorts of things that I would normally not have time for in a 90-second news package, and really stretch my wings as a reporter. And people read it! People really got into it.

I ended up having special series and things all the time, and I connected with all sorts of sources this way because they read my blog. And because people were reading the blog, I was more respected by and pulled into the print community. The scribes. The newspaper and magazine writers. So in 2009 when the former editor of Texas Monthly was leaving to start a new nonprofit venture, he put together a Justice League of the state’s best political reporters and I was the only one in that group from television. And that’s how I left TV. I went to work for the Texas Tribune, which was a digital publication, imagined as a sort of ProPublica or POLITICO for Texas. And from there, my career went in a totally different direction. Instead of strict hierarchical television news steps, I did this digital startup and from there got recruited for a digital job at NPR, so I ended up there as a digital editor doing digital strategy and stuff, and then from there they went “oh wait, you know how to report, and you have a broadcast background,” so transitioned to on-air.

AW: You mentioned in your keynote wanting to be a foreign correspondent—was that a dream you always had, or did something inspire it?

EH: Since I was in college I wanted that. I spent a lot of time traveling growing up because my mother was a diplomat for the Taiwanese government. So she represented Taiwan in the United States. But she’s also just undergirded by a certain amount of wanderlust and this notion that the most invaluable education you can get is travel. And so for me, being able to just travel for a living seemed like a dream. That’s how I wound up wanting to do it, but really it seemed impossible. It was really random that this came about, that NPR wanted to open this bureau and right at the time that I was thinking I wanted to move because I didn’t like Washington (D.C.).

AW: How did that job transition come about? You were working in D.C., and had moved from digital editor to on-air reporter at that point, but how did you make the jump to foreign bureau chief?

EH: This actually also has a life story to it, too—2014 was probably the hardest year for me, personally, because I had a miscarriage in January. And then I got pregnant again very quickly and had another miscarriage in June. It makes you really anxious. I spent a lot of time wondering, “What’s wrong with me? Am I going to have any more kids?” I’m very open about it because I don’t think there should be stigma or shame about it. But it was really hard on me, it was really hard on my marriage, because we were just sad. And so late that year, because I had had the miscarriages, I wasn’t home with a newborn, and I wasn’t hugely pregnant with the second [baby I miscarried]. I was at work. And I went to my bosses and said I’m ready for something new, I’m ready to shake things up, and Madhulika Sikka, who was executive editor at NPR at the time said “What do you think about Seoul?,” I said, “I’ve never been there.” And she said, “Well we want to open a Seoul bureau and it would also cover Japan.” And I thought “Love Japan!” Except for the patriarchy and colonialism. But I’m in. So I applied for the job and went through a formal interview process and I got it. But had life worked out differently, I wouldn’t have been open to that opportunity at all.

AW: You mentioned in your keynote the challenges of working in a very patriarchal society. Can you provide some more detail on that, and how you managed to overcome those challenges?

EH: One thing that happened a lot was that I was the Seoul bureau chief and in East Asia what’s on your business card really matters, titles really matter, and even though that was explicitly laid out, a lot of the sources were almost uniformly male, especially at the government level. At the time, the head of the ministry of gender equality was a man, and all his underlings were men. So I would go into these interviews and they would say, “Who’s your bureau chief?” And I would say “No, I’m the bureau chief.” And they just couldn’t really get it. A lot of the bureau chiefs in Seoul today are still white guys. So I wasn’t afforded that sort of authority immediately, so it took a long time to break that down. You’re constantly confronted with stereotypes about who you’re supposed to be or what you’re supposed to look like, and so what I did was I spent a lot of time either fighting it by going back again and again and being really persistent, or telling stories about it. I ended up writing a little bit about these gender issues that women were confronting in these societies, which is still really difficult.

AW: You got into this a little in your talk, but how did your husband handle being in a situation where he was the lead parent?

He didn’t want to do it. He was sort of backed into that situation. But he’s also really good at it. I’m so moved by his relationship with the girls. He’s also really on top of it. I don’t have to check in or worry about it at all. It allows you to be present, and not have your mind and heart elsewhere. I think that’s really important. And then I meant it when I said I try not to be away for too long because when it’s long it gets to be hard emotionally. So I’m out for a few days and it’s not a huge deal.

EH: How were you able to navigate putting your own beat together when you were coming back to the US?

AW: Some of it came out of an innate need for a new frontier. I thought, “What is new?” Something that’s a real through-line in my career is that I always try to start something new, I have a real innovative spirit. And so I try to come up with new stuff, mainly so that I don’t get bored. Because I feel like if you’re really passionate about what you do, you’ll do a great job, so you have to find something that you care a lot about. And one of the shortcuts to caring about your job is to make it your own, make something that’s your own. So I thought, what do we need? There’s a lot of short-termism, let’s think about longterm-ism. What would be a beat where I could combine Asia, which is where a lot of the future is because of demographic change and industry in China, and combine my previous reporting experience, which was technology and society? And the answer was really simple, it was right in front of me. So I pitched it to the head of programming at NPR over the phone, she helped me develop it, and then I pitched it to the head of news.

And so now I kind of live between programming and news with the 2050 Project. It will be a natural step for my video work, too. At NPR I did a video series that wound up winning a Gracie this year called “Elise Tries,” in which I tried stuff, on camera. [laughs] It’s a lot more nuanced than that, but … we’re going to sort of take “Elise Tries” and turn it into “Elise Tries the Future.” A lot of this just flows naturally from what I was doing and what my curiosities are. I really believe that as a journalist it’s more important to be curious than to be intelligent. The best questions come from there, the best story ideas, curiosity is really the important foundation from which so much journalism can spring.