Inside Public Integrity

Published — July 19, 2021

Q&A with Paul Cheung: ‘Who is journalism really serving?’

Paul Cheung

An interview with the new Public Integrity CEO, where he shares his vision for investigative reporting that dismantles inequality.

Introduction

Paul Cheung will take over as CEO of the Center for Public Integrity on Aug. 9. Most recently director of journalism and technology innovation at the Knight Foundation, he will lead one of the country’s oldest nonprofit news organizations in its mission of investigative reporting about inequality. 

We asked about his vision for the role and the organization.

Why Public Integrity? Why now?

Growing up as a Chinese-American immigrant, I didn’t see people like me reporting the news. My community was only covered during cliché events like Chinese New Year or being portrayed as foreigners stealing jobs from Americans. Thirty years later, little has changed. For instance, news reports still perpetuate the stereotype that Asian Americans spread COVID during the pandemic. 

This constant vacuum of coverage that thoughtfully and comprehensively covers marginalized communities carries greater consequences for society and dictates whether Americans from all backgrounds are empowered to live with dignity. People like my parents — first generation immigrants who gave up everything to find better opportunities — are not active civic participants in their community. Furthermore, they don’t believe that their fundamental rights as U.S. citizens can affect change. 

The compounding effects of the pandemic, our country’s racial reckoning, political polarization and the spread of mis/disinformation has only exacerbated this inequity in America. I want to take action and do something better for my family and my community. Public Integrity has a rich history of holding the powerful accountable, and I want to use that power to hold those people and systems who are perpetuating or worsening  inequality accountable as well as uplifting those who are solving the problems of inequality.

Public Integrity shifted to a mission of investigating inequality a little more than a year ago. What’s your vision for it?

My vision is for us to be the leading newsroom in America in equipping and inspiring change makers with our investigative journalism to reverse the effects of inequalities. We will achieve this by:

  1. Being fearless in our mission to report the causes and effects of discriminatory systems in employment, housing, health care, education and access to democracy that affect people based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, immigration status and income.
  2. Building on Public Integrity’s legacy as a watchdog of the institutions in Washington D.C. and collaborating with a network of national and local news organizations so that we can collectively hold the powerful accountable nationally and locally.
  3. Innovating in our storytelling across existing and emerging platforms and mediums to better serve a more diverse and digitally savvy audience.

Which aspects of your background and experience will be particularly relevant to what you’ll face in this new role?

I am an immigrant and son of immigrants and I know the real-life impacts of systems in place that have long created inequity. My dad was a cook at a Chinese restaurant and my mom worked at a garment factory. We lived in a small one bedroom walkup in the lower east side of Manhattan where the bathtub is in the kitchen. We eventually moved into public housing and later my family worked their way up to become a small business owner of a local restaurant in the suburbs of New Jersey. I remember how they were treated by the housing authority, by the banks and even by some of our customers simply because they are not fluent in English. They felt powerless. When established systems of inequity are in effect, people who look, sound and behave differently, like me, are not treated as equals and denied the opportunities to succeed. My lived experience has given me a strong sense of empathy towards fulfilling Public Integrity’s current mission. 

As a Gen Xer, I am part of a generation that went from analog to digital. We know how to use a rotary phone and code a website. As a result, we can code switch between generations and know how to work collaboratively across the silent generation to boomers to millenials and Gen Z. 

Similarly, most of my professional career has focused on the transition from legacy products to digital products. I have been on the forefront of journalism’s digital transformation by applying the core principles and ethics of journalism into new experiences such as data visualizations to interactive games to social videos to VR and the use of artificial intelligence to advance audience engagement.

What unique vantage points into the media ecosystem do you have from your leadership roles at Knight, News Leaders Association and the Asian American Journalists Association and elsewhere?

Serving as Knight’s director of journalism and technology innovation, I learned that the future of journalism is not a one-size-fits-all industry. Subscriptions won’t necessarily save the day and advertising isn’t dead. While the business models might vary, a few key factors that all news organizations must follow in order to be sustainable:

  1. Regardless of whether you are a for-profit newspaper, or a television station, a digital nonprofit like Public Integrity or an individual journalist on Substack, the industry must have an adaptable mindset to change quickly as audience expectations, technology and business models continue to evolve.
  2. News organizations must go beyond storytelling. Journalists should be problem solvers for the communities they are serving. We must have shared lived experience with our community and be able to celebrate the joys and telegraph the pains of those we cover. We must be of service to our communities in order to reestablish their trust in journalism. 
  3. News organizations must be able to leverage technology to meet the audience where they are because tech is changing the way we experience news and it is not stopping.

Having served as president for the Asian American Journalists Association and now on the board of News Leaders Association, I learned how for too long, investments in diversity and inclusion have been made with a short-term vision. A diversity internship program, a database of diverse talents, training workshops and even hiring of a few journalists of color won’t fix the industry’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) problems.  To correct these systemic issues, we must develop long-term retention and advancement programs for journalists, hold news leaders and ourselves accountable for wrongful behaviors, stop inflicting community harm with parachute journalism and learn how to create a culture of belonging for our colleagues and our audiences. It will require continuous multiyear investments and commitment from those in positions of power for this kind of long-term change work.

However, I see hope. News organizations such as The Kansas City Star and National Geographic  apologizing for their racist coverage is a healing step towards the communities they have long neglected and underserved. The appointments of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates at Howard University are supported by $20 million investment by the MacArthur, Knight, and Ford foundations, as well as by an anonymous donor. This is a positive direction of how philanthropy can shift resources to improve equality. 

Public Integrity’s mission to investigate the cause and effect of inequality is more vital than ever and we are in it for the long game. It will require significant resources over time for us to fulfill that mission. Now is the time for funders, donors and those with resources and power to invest in this change towards equality because our country’s future depends on it.

You’re succeeding Susan Smith Richardson (now at The Guardian) in the CEO role. It’s still unusual for a legacy national news organization to have two people of color in the top job back-to-back. Why isn’t it more common? And what kind of message do you hope this sends to the rest of the industry?  

And yes, it is very unusual for any journalist of color leading any news institution, especially one as established as Public Integrity.

In 1979, the American Society of News Editors pledged that by 2000, the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in newsrooms would match that of the population at large. Forty-one years have passed since that pledge, and the news industry has failed spectacularly at achieving that goal despite the fact that our country is diversifying at a rapid rate. If our reporters, editors, sources and stories are all homogenous and ignore the lived experiences of a growing population, who is journalism really serving? Definitely not the real world.

I believe many journalists of color are being stereotyped into certain roles in journalism or are being judged for what we lacked instead of what our potential can be. For example, I remember years back when a senior vice president invited me to attend a company-wide department head meeting and the SVP mistook me for IT support. The SVP had met me numerous times. This is what journalists of color face every day, regardless of our title or experience level. 

Public Integrity’s board is 100% committed to creating an inclusive culture and I’m proud to be the second journalist of color and the first Asian American to lead Public Integrity. I hope Susan and now me, plus others like Kim Godwin at ABC, Cesar Conde at NBC, Kevin Merida at the Los Angeles Times, Nabiha Syed at The Markup, Swati Sharma at Vox, Sara Lomax Reese and Mitra Kalita at URL media, and others, can serve as living example that journalists of color can reach the top. More importantly, news organizations that can create a diverse and inclusive culture can also regain the audience’s trust and solve journalism’s sustainability crisis.

Cheung currently serves on the board of the News Leaders Association, formerly the American Society of News Editor and Associated Press Managing Editors Association.

For more information, contact Engagement Editor Ashley Clarke at aclarke@publicintegrity.org.

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