A People with Passion series
December 29, 2011: Tran Ha
We are meeting in the RedEye’s conference room. Covering the walls are old RedEye issues, and I am surprised by how familiar they are — I remember many of them, even though most were only on newsstands for a day.
Tran is enthusiastic and energetic in her soft-spoken way. Later, when I watch a newsroom meeting, she leads the RedEye staff in a manner both self-assured and receptive; she directs the course of the meeting while giving everyone an opportunity to be heard.
Here, in the 22nd installment of my Chicago journalism interview series, RedEye managing editor Tran Ha discusses her introduction to journalism, her move to RedEye in 2003, her transition to editor, and why the paper matters to its readers.
I read a lot as a kid. Before the journalism, I was really just into books. I read a lot of Nancy Drew. I was like a voracious reader as a kid. As I went into high school, I started reading more non-fiction. I had a class where there was a non-fiction book. It was somebody’s biography. And it got me interested in people, real people. It’s so cool to read about where people came from, what influenced them, how they became who they are and all of that, so for a while I was really into reading a lot of biographies.
When I went into college, my intent was to major in English, because I didn’t know what I was going to do but I knew that I liked reading, and I knew that English was a good subject for me. I was really bad at math, and not terrific at science, so that was my path. My parents, who really wanted me to be either an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer, were really against me getting an English degree. They thought, “What are you going to do with an English degree?”
There was a lot of back and forth. I have a very large, extended family in Minnesota, and they tend to consult with each other about everything. One of my uncles, I think, in one of these conversations, said, “I know somebody who graduated with a journalism degree and they’re doing some cool things. I think they’re working for a TV station or something like that.” So then my parents were like, “Oh, that would be better than an English degree. You could be the next Connie Chung! You could be on TV!” They were really jazzed about that. And I thought, Okay, that’s a good compromise. I can still write. I didn’t tell them I wasn’t going into TV.
At Minnesota, you could do broadcast, you could do magazines and newspapers, or you could do PR. Something like that. I decided that I wanted to go into magazines, for no other reason than that I like to read magazines. I didn’t really grow up reading newspapers, because my parents were first generation immigrants. Didn’t subscribe to a newspaper. They subscribed to the Sunday paper for the coupons. So I didn’t really come from a family that was super-literary or journalistic. They got a lot of their news from television, and what other people told them. They still do actually. (Laughs.)
So yeah – that’s how I fell into journalism. Tried a lot in college. Got a lot of internships. I never worked for the school paper. I freelanced for the school paper, and had a couple magazine internships.
College was the first time that you were doing journalism.
So what was your first this-feels-good moment?
I think it was the first time that I got something published in the paper. It was a tiny story, probably five, six hundred words, something like that. I’d worked on it – this is why I wasn’t a good newspaper reporter at the time – because I’d worked on it for days. It was perfect. And it got published. It was about an art exhibit on the University of Minnesota campus, and I don’t remember off the top of my head what the lede was, but I loved the lede. I’m one of those writers who has to have the lede before I can write the rest of the story, which is why I quickly moved over to editing, because I was a slow, slow writer.
That was my first experience having a story published in the paper. And I found that I really enjoyed the reporting aspect of it. I’m not generally outgoing as myself, but when I was tasked with a story, I could go and talk to anybody about anything. The writing part was kind of painful for me, because like I said, I’m meticulous, so it wasn’t a great match for newspapers. (Laughs.) I was more on the features side for a while.
I tried a bunch of different things. I interned at a radio station. I did some PR. I worked for a couple magazines. I got a job as an assistant editor out in Des Plaines, my first job out of college, at a trade magazine that covered the seed and greenhouse industry. I edited and designed and sometimes wrote stories for these two monthly magazines, Seed World and Greenhouse Product News. It was very glamorous. (Laughs.) It wasn’t. But it was a really great experience, because I got a chance to do a little bit of everything. I learned probably more that first year on the job than a lot of my time at school.
I view your first couple of jobs out of school as extended internships. You should try on a bunch of things and see what you’re good at. I didn’t know it at the time, but a lot of that experience helped prepare me for this job, because I had the design skills, I had editing, I had to write, I had to copyedit, all of that stuff. And I’ve always been sort of A.D.D. in terms of committing to one thing, so that was good for me. I got a job offer from the Detroit Free Press for a web producer position, so I moved to Detroit. I worked in Detroit as a web producer for two years, and that was a really good experience as well, and then I heard about RedEye, and I thought, I want to be a part of that.
I had a friend who worked for the Tribune who was on loan to this staff as a copyeditor, because they pulled a lot of people from the Tribune’s newsroom when they launched RedEye. She said, “They’re hiring copyeditors for this new paper.” And I just thought it sounded cool. At the time, I felt like Detroit wasn’t taking any risks or trying to do anything differently, so I was really jazzed by the idea of a new paper that was trying to do different things. I got in touch with Jane and applied for the copyediting position. I came here in, yeah, January 2003. They were maybe three months old.
And the early days of RedEye…?
Oh, they were crazy. But really fun. Even when I started, after three months, people didn’t really have desks yet. We were still figuring stuff out. We try new things in the paper, and the next day we ditch them. It was really cool to be a part of that. Jane [Hirt] and Joe [Knowles], who were the founding co-editors, did a really good job of creating a culture over here that was different from the Tribune. And we worked hard. We worked a lot of really long hours. But it was so much fun. Just constantly re-inventing things in the paper was super cool.
I knew I was taking a risk. I knew it was a start-up, and that its future was unclear. But I think as soon as I came and interviewed and saw the energy of this staff, I thought, “This has to work.” You know? I don’t recall one specific moment where I personally was like, “Yes, we’ve made it.” Because I was working on the copy desk. I worked nights. I hardly saw the other half of the staff. I wasn’t really privy to a lot of the business-side stuff at that time. So for me personally it was just being able to be a part of it, and then seeing people read it on the streets. Even to this day, when I see somebody picking up a RedEye, I always sort of stop and stalk them for a little bit. (Laughs.)
I used to do that with my column in college.
Yeah. I still do that to this day. My friends will send me little anecdotes too. My one friend texted me a few months ago and was like, “I was on the bus, and this bus driver stopped at a bus stop and hopped off the bus just to go get a RedEye.” (Laughs.) Those are the moments where I think, “What we’re doing is really reaching a lot of people.
Okay, so then you came in ’03, and there were five years between then and when you took over your position now. Because I think Jane left here in August of ’08.
Yeah, that’s right.
And I was reading this interview with you that I found, and there was a sentence that was like, “Despite the news of a troubled newspaper business on the horizon, Ha decided to give it a shot,” or whatever the rest was. Tell me about taking over this new post at a time when you’re in a field where everything is going goofy.
The interesting thing is that I feel like we’ve always been a little sheltered from a lot of that turmoil. It doesn’t help to pay so much attention to that stuff because you can’t control any of it. And just the nature of this staff, the age of this staff, their outlook on life and on work, it helps to buffer us from a lot of the anxiety that you might feel in more traditional newsrooms. Not to say that the staff or I are not concerned by the challenges within the industry, but in our little corner of the world, I think we – or at least, I feel really lucky that we have such a focused niche of people in Chicago. Our demographic is actually the only demographic in Chicago that’s constantly regenerating itself. There’s always an influx of 20-year-olds who are moving into the city.
So for me, taking over the editor position was really exciting. Yeah, a little terrifying as well, because Jane had really big shoes to fill, and I was terrified of being able to live up to that. A lot of my concerns were less about the turmoil of the company and the industry and more about, you know, “What am I going to do with this?”
I learned so much from Jane and Joe, working for them for all those years, that I think when I first took over I saw my job as just making sure that a lot of those principals and the culture of the place stays intact so that we can continue to do what it is that makes RedEye successful. I wasn’t about changing stuff up. I had ideas about processes or logistical things that could be streamlined, or ways that the staff could work more efficiently and things like that –
What did you see?
I think because I was on the copy desk for so long, I saw a lot of the production stuff. They weren’t even major changes, but just doing things like assigning covers that weren’t breaking news covers in advance so that the designers had a little bit more time to work up concepts. We used to design every cover on deadline, whether it was a deadline story or not. And as you can see, a lot of these covers are super intensive.
So what are the biggest challenges then that face RedEye, not even financial necessarily, but just the challenges of putting this out every day and being relevant and being something that makes a bus driver stop a bus?
I would say that there are a number of challenges. Some are more big picture. To your question of being relevant, that’s one of my primary concerns. I depend on the staff a lot for that. We’ll have a conversations on things like headlines, you know. If we pick a headline that has a certain word, we’ll have a conversation about, “Do people say this anymore?” This was a long time ago, but I remember when we decided that the word “bling” was out. 60 Minutes said it in a newscast or something, and we’re like, “Alright, no more ‘bling’ in the paper.” (Laughs.) So just paying attention to little things like that, from headlines to the language we use in columns or stories, even that stuff is relevant, is fresh, is the way that people are talking. And I have a couple people on my staff who are barometers for different things. I always run stuff by them.
Part of that big picture thing is that the staff is always reflective of the demo, and when I’m hiring, to make sure that I’m hiring people who can bring that point of view and sort of help crowd source within the staff. In terms of stories, you know, same thing. We crowd source story ideas, and we put them through the ringer. We always talk about, “Does anybody care about this?” We do informal polls. Now that we have twitter, we sometimes ask people on twitter. So the relevance part is a really big deal to me.
I decorated my room growing up with Sports Illustrated covers – I just loved looking at the different designs and stories all lined up next to each other. Can you recall, and tell me a story if you can, of a specific issue where there was buzz that day in the city, because most dailies don’t have covers, you know? That’s something that differentiates RedEye from other publications: it’s a daily with a cover.
The most recent one would be the Steve Jobs cover. That was a cover we had to do on deadline. I think news broke that he died maybe about 8 PM. We had another story planned, and we ripped up the cover and the inside spread and did that on deadline. We always have more than one option for the cover when we’re mocking stuff up. We pick two or three headlines, and we always have three or four art possibilities, and then we put them up on the wall and narrow it down. We had a few covers to choose from that day. And we ended up going with this one because it was just so dramatic.
The next day, the feedback was amazing. People were putting that cover out in front of the Apple Store as part of the flowers and other things that people were leaving. There was a lot of national buzz for that cover, but in the city you can tell on a day when you have a really good paper because all the boxes are empty. And that day, by 9 o’clock, all the boxes were empty.
And now, of course, RedEye probably interacts with its readers online on a second-by-second basis –
Twitter, facebook. Yeah. I log on to twitter every morning, and I have a search set for @redeyechicago, our handle, just to see what the chatter is about. Often times on days when we have a really funny headline or a really cool cover, people will tweet little shout-outs. Or days where people disagree with a cover, they’ll tweet out their feedback that way too. So yeah, the feedback’s pretty instantaneous.
But then you don’t really have a lot of time to sit and soak that up and enjoy that –
No, you’re always on to the next day. And I think that’s one of the things that I like about working for a newspaper, a daily. Coming from the magazine world, I was always intimidated by the daily pace. But now that I’ve been in it for so long, I don’t know that I could go back to magazines. I think I would just be so fidgety. One of the good things about a daily is that if you mess up, it’s a day. You get another paper out. But if you have an amazing paper, it’s a day, and you know, on to the next one.
So what makes for a great RedEye cover? What are the elements that you all are looking for when you go and draw something up?
It’s different. But I would say that the common elements are visual drama. The visuals are really important. So the Steve Jobs cover is very dramatic, even though it’s a quieter cover. There are some covers that are in your face, that are also dramatic, like the (scans wall) the ear buds one. I guess when I say ‘visual drama,’ it’s something that catches your eye. You really only have five seconds for somebody to walk by – maybe even less than five seconds – for somebody to walk by and decide that they’re going to stop and pick up a paper. So visuals are really important. A clever headline is really important. Sometimes we go a little bit more straight forward. Sometimes we have fun with it. We can’t have the same look and feel every single day. And the good thing about it is that we have four different designers who all bring their own style, so it’s always mixed up.
Our mission is to inform and entertain and engage our readership – specifically our readership – every day. Give them something to talk about. Give them something they may not have known. Surprise them a little bit. Make them laugh. I think we do manage to do that everyday. Some days more than others obviously.
What we do works for us. We try not to take ourselves too seriously as a staff, and I think it helps us take more risks on the cover with language, with story ideas. Obviously we take ourselves seriously as journalists. We approach the reporting and the editing with as much care as any other publication would. But in terms of deciding what to do, we try not to take ourselves as seriously. I think that approach shines through in the paper. We can laugh at ourselves. We can be a little goofy.
So what is it that Chicago gets from RedEye that it doesn’t get anywhere else? What makes RedEye a crucial piece of that Chicago news diet?
What they get is just all the goodness in one place. We cherry pick all of the best stories and edit them and present them in a fun way. It’s a quick read. That was sort of the pitch when we started the paper. And online, I think we’re still developing our online identity, but a lot of the personality of the paper is something that we’re trying to translate online. I think that over the years, people have connected with the personalities on this staff. That’s one of the things that really sets us apart, because I think people feel like they can be a part of this – and they can. People can be in 5-on-5, their comments appear in the paper. It’s much more of a back-and-forth vs., you know, (stuffy, authoritarian voice), “This is The Paper, and it’s all about what we think.”
Early on we did a lot of focus groups and surveys. We haven’t done as much of that recently, but we did do a survey last year, and what we heard from people was that they spend so much time online at work and on their phones that it’s nice to have a paper to sit down with over coffee or something. And, you know, it’s a short read, it’s not a huge commitment, and so some of the readers really like having that little bit of a break –
And of course, you can feel the digital influence on the paper. I hadn’t thought about that until you were talking about it that way, but it feels sort of alive and interactive and mobile in a way that maybe newspapers tend not to feel.
Yeah. We work hard at that. Especially as more and more people are getting smart phones and tablets and things like that. That goes back to the relevance and making sure that the paper reflects what is expected from this core readership.
The energy and the ideas that come from this staff are amazing. Like, I could be so tired or having a bad day, and I could come into this room for a staff meeting and have such a great meeting that it’ll give me energy for the rest of the night. One of my favorite parts about this job is that for as much as we do, it’s always fun. We’re always talking about things, like, “Hey, did you hear about this?” You feel like you’re always hearing the latest thing from somebody. Because we have to, so we can put it in the paper. And just being able to focus on a specific audience, and try to do it really well, I think is just a great privilege. It’s a fun job. It’s a lot of fun.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)