Q&A: The Dallas Morning News’ Tom Huang speaks on the past, present, and future of AAPI journalists

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a wave of violence, discrimination and prejudice towards the AAPI community. However, these public moments of hate became an opportunity to educate others about issues of AAPI discrimination that had existed long before 2020.

Tom Huang, the current Assistant Managing Editor for Journalism Initiatives at The Dallas Morning News (DMN), sat down for a Q&A with The Daily Campus in March 2021. Huang, a first-generation Chinese American, shared his experiences overcoming race-related obstacles in the workplace and what emerging Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) journalists should expect as they enter journalism.

DC: I just wanted to start with a little bit of your background: How did you get to where you are today?

Huang: I’ve been the Assistant Managing Editor for Journalism Initiatives since 1993. In addition to that, I oversee stories that go on Dallas Morning News’ Sunday page, which are longer, more in-depth stories. I also work in talent development, recruiting and training budding journalists, with specific interest in increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Lastly, I’m involved with community funded journalism, working with my publisher and other editors to raise funding from foundations to support public service reporting.

As for my background, I grew up in an immigrant family in Boston, Massachusetts. My parents fled China at the end of World War II, and ended up in Taiwan before eventually coming to Boston. My family is made up of scientists and engineers. In fact, I attended MIT as a computer science major, but I always loved to write, so I joined the student newspaper there and ended up loving it.

I eventually became editor-in-chief, and during my fifth year (I was in a 4+1 master’s program) I decided to pursue journalism instead of comp sci. After I graduated, I got a lot of newspaper internships, but ultimately decided to work at The Virginian Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia. In 1993, a features reporting job for The Dallas Morning News opened up, so I took it and I’ve been with The Dallas Morning News ever since. I’m also a member of the Asian-American Journalist Association, as well as an instructor and Poynter Institute.

DC: Did you face any race-related obstacles on your journey to where you are now?

Huang: Well-intentioned people sometimes say things that are microaggressions, like, “Your English is really good,” or “You write really well.” Fortunately, however, I never experienced any real explicit thing that made it seem like I was being discriminated against. Most of my promotions were organic, thanks to other editors that served as really supportive mentors to me.

DC: What strategies did you use to overcome these obstacles that you would recommend to members of my generation?

Huang: Leaders are expected to speak up at every meeting and be vocal, but as an individual, I am quiet and introverted and want to think about things before I say them. I always have to challenge myself to assert myself and to find ways to be vocal, and I encourage members of your generation to do the same.

DC: What other race-related obstacles have you seen your peers encounter?

Huang: Generally, it is harder for AAPIs to be seen and heard, especially in journalism. There weren’t a lot of Asian-Americans in journalism 30 to 40 years ago, and it’s difficult to keep them going into journalism because the environment may not be comfortable for them to grow. Many POC journalists may not see what they can do next. A comfortable environment is possible, but it takes a lot of intentional support and training to nurture them and keep them in journalism.

DC: What other race-related obstacles have you seen the general AAPI community encounter?

Huang: Generally speaking, people in leadership positions promote people who remind them of themselves, which can be problematic in a predominantly white industry. As POC leaders, we can help to diversify the news industry by looking for someone that is different from ourselves.

DC: Do you think these obstacles have changed between your generation and my generation? If so, how?

Huang: I believe that the journalism industry is changing. In the aftermath of the Atlanta shooting, there have been so many young power journalists that are emerging. There is a whole new generation of very strong AAPI journalists, especially female journalists, who are assertive and speak up and push for change. Even within the next three to five years, I believe that they will come out on top in journalism.

DC: What advice do you have for younger members of the AAPI community with big dreams?

Huang: The news industry is changing drastically, especially with regard to Millennials and Gen Z. Newer generations will soon be called upon to lead news organizations as the Baby Boomers and Generation X are beginning to retire. At the same time, local newsrooms and their budgets are getting smaller, and are racing to build digital bases. It’s a stressful job working in a newsroom, especially with all the things going on [in 2021].

With these new stressors, my advice is to take the time to find good mentors. Build good, trusting relationships with others in the workplace and across other organizations. Be sure to focus not only the organization that you’re in, but also building relationships outside the organization.

It is important to find people who have had similar experiences to yourself. Find strong women or POCs who have come before you who can talk about problems and challenges. Find an organization that really advocates for people like you. The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) gave me the ability to meet other people who look like me and face the same challenges as me, and it really became the place where I learned how to become an editor.

I also advise young journalists to take on large projects and do the best you can on them. Figure out what your leadership style is and move out of your comfort zone. Figure out what you’re passionate about and amplify it. It is important to use the early period of your career to explore and discover as many things as you can. Take on new and different assignments, work in a new place, move jobs after a year or two. Essentially, don’t lock yourself in; try different things and see what speaks to you.