Personal interview with Leila Chan -To be a live-long journalist

Eva Tsang - Executive Committee Member of HKJA   (translated by Simon Lee)

[中文] [Dec 2013 - The Journalist] Leila Chan takes great pains to tell people not call her“ author”. A lot of fellow journalists think she is a farmer because of a book she has written. “Nonsense, a reporter wouldn’t become a farmer just because she’s interviewed one,” Leila says. She insists on calling herself a “journalist”, yet a newsroom is not a place for journalists to be comfortably settled. Promotion will only mean editing, endless meetings and taking blames. Determined to change the world through reporting, she decided in 2009 to become an independent journalist, writing columns and books. 

Leaving to survive

I'm not an academic, but I can empower the society to
 take part in the discussion.
Leila decided a long time back to be a live-long journalist. “I’m not trying to get rich, I just want to do the right thing.” But remaining in the newsroom would not have allowed her to go on reporting. It’s not a place for journalists to ruminate. She knows of a veteran at a newspaper who took a 50 percent pay cut and finally ended up buying out his contract with three months’ pay. The big mess resulted
in hundreds of thousands of dollars in reduced compensation. “Who would retire from a newspaper?”

Looking ahead at that time, she had thought of moving to China to be a reporter there. Or, maybe, join a television station. But she worried that she would not be as competitive as it would be a different ballgame, and so she decided to do what she did best – remain a journalist.  Journalists overseas can stay independent, like doctors and lawyers, working by themselves. There was no reason why she couldn't do the same here. So she decided to part ways with the newspaper at age 40.

It’s not about courage, it’s about skills 

 “Quitting is not about courage, it about skills.” She once felt lost before the age of 30, thinking that one had to know a beat inside-out to be successful. Later on she realized what she needed was not just a beat, but rather a brand of her own. With a sound credibility and reputation, jobs would follow. “Journalists speak through their reporting and not their standpoint,” she says.

Leila does not hold meetings with activists, nor get involved in planning issues like the North East New Territories, and she does not write for InMedia either. “Or else I’ll become like Chu Hoi-dik, drawing the lines too clearly and raising concerns about having a secret agenda.”

She takes pains to tell people not to call her an “author,” as her job is reporting and through that she would bring up policy issues to the public. She published the book last year which talks about the issue of death in Hong Kong. Currently 93 percent of the people die in hospitals, “no matter how much resources you pour into the healthcare system, it’s not going to help,” she said.

“I don’t have a fixed mindset, I’m not an academic, but I can empower the society to take part in the discussion” from bottom-up, and change the world.

 “The Internet will kill newspapers and magazines, but it can’t replace books. The future is either faster and shorter, or longer and more in-depth. Those in between are destined to be forgotten… There’s no easy way.” In the Internet age, multi-tasking doesn’t mean shooting pictures and writing copies any more. Leila took her work and tailored it for the different medium.  was a 210,000-word piece, and from that you can edit it into short clips for The House News, and also turn it into 5-to-6-minute segments at RTHK. “I’m not leaving the mainstream for the fringes, rather I’m going to hold on to the mainstream to death but make better use of the creative space in mainstream media.” 

Leila marked her first milestone with her investigative book . “Honestly speaking, the response from < Food Waste > was a huge confidence-booster.” The book brought her numerous awards in 2012. “I dare not say I’m already a success. If my books don’t sell, my columns could be cut any time. I haven’t thought about where the end is. The target is to keep going forward as far as possible.” 

Happy yet lonely path

She had little difficulty with reporting. When writing about environmental issues, had she thought about interviewing then-Environment Secretary Edward Yau? “There’s a myth at a newspaper I worked for - that one must allow the officials to state their positions in an interview?”

Given her current status, the secretary may not give her the interview. “I thought, I don’t think Edward Yau is qualified to be in my book. My book will outlast him. If I want to talk about the government’s views, I can get it from the Environment Bureau’s documents and interviews with the frontline staff.”

 “I covered Taiwan education reforms in the past, and I had written a book about it and showed the book to people.” If you’re serious about the subject, people will respect you. “People who work at mortuaries called me about problems at the frontline, as they really treasure having someone who understands their work. Although nothing will be changed, they want to share it because they think you understand it.”

Leila is content, yet lonely. “It’s hard to share with fellow journalists, and I miss the time when there’s someone in charge.” Income is another issue. “For royalties, you only get HK$100,000 from 10,000 books.” But she spent months writing each book in the past. She can’t maintain income by selling books. She needs other reporting jobs.

Many people who want to work as independent journalists are hesitant t
o do so when they have to consider spending enough time with their families. “Family responsibility is an excuse, I have family responsibilities too.” Leila added,“ They are just making things complicated and then say they can’t do it.”

The cost and threshold of publishing a book are quite low for Leila. “I cannot understand why some of my old colleagues prefer spending money on a master's degree rather than approaching a university professor for an interview for free. Once you find a topic, you can get as much information as you want.”

Leave the lights on

When everybody in the industry is complaining about low wages and poor prospects, Leila says one should not take exploitation as the norm. “If one has been a journalist for 10 years and is still earning below HK$20,000, one has to think about it. This industry does belittle people and the reason is that we don’t have any credentials. But if a company wants to keep somebody, they’ll pay whatever is needed.” When she moved to a weekly magazine, she had to take a HK$10,000 pay cut, but less than a year later she got all that money back. “Sometimes there are things you can budge, but you have to know what direction you’re going.”

 “Nobody has the right to tell a new journalist to give up on the industry.” Leila raised her tone as she made this point. She went to study in the U.K. after the Handover and when she came back to Hong Kong for an interview, she was told: “You’re so smart, why don’t you do something else?” She thinks picking jobs isn’t a black-and-white choice. It’s fine if one likes to work in public relations. But for somebody who wants to be a reporter, why should people tell them to go away? “Journalists serve an important function in society. I really take issue with the HKJA for calling me a freelancer. That’s really vague and it can be somebody who writes PR copies.” If you become a PR person you lose your credibility, and that is the root of your reporting work. She believes that if journalists did their job well, the industry would be respected.