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Working Journalist: Maureen Fan

Life As Beijing Bureau Chief for The Washington Post


Working Journalist: Maureen Fan
Maureen Fan

Name: Maureen Fan

Job: Beijing Bureau Chief, The Washington Post

What are your responsibilities? Covering China for the Washington Post and paying the office bills.

What's a typical workday? No such thing. Sometimes I am up early, but more often than not I’ve been up late the night before chasing something for Washington deadlines. Like many journalists, foreign correspondents tend to be “working” all the time, hearing about stories at dinner or traveling somewhere for fun but discovering a story en route. My colleague and I come up with our own story ideas, but we also check the wires and depend on our local research staff to help us stay on top of Chinese media and Internet reports. We might cover an earthquake directly, report on a far away protest by telephone or attend a Communist Party political conference. Sometimes we remove our cell phone batteries and SIM cards while meeting a source, so as not to compromise their safety. We often use proxies to access websites that are sometimes blocked in China. It’s a huge country with a long history so there are a lot of topics to cover and a lot to learn. We try to look for original angles or help readers understand subjects that we can bring a special insight or analysis to, whether it’s food safety or middle class protests or religious freedom or the death penalty.

What do you like/dislike about the job? I love that the more you get to know this place -- and the more you think you are beginning to understand it -- there’s almost always something new that will surprise you and enrich your sense of discovery. There are difficulties about working in China, or any foreign country, but that just comes with the territory. I dislike that Chinese is so hard to learn well.

Background: I’ve covered a variety of beats and subjects, from politics, business and courts to transportation, demographics and general assignment. I’ve worked in cities and suburbs, for tabloids and broadsheets, from post-war Iraq to New York Fashion Week. I’ve been a staff writer for the South China Morning Post, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the New York Daily News, the San Jose Mercury News and The Washington Post.

What are the skills young journalists need today? The ability to analyze a situation accurately and synthesize what you see, hear and smell -- not merely be the fastest in reporting it. To know clearly what it is you want to say while making sure you can back it up, fairly. Journalists increasingly need multimedia skills but those won’t be enough without the basics. Niche skills or areas of special expertise (a foreign language, a medical degree, computer-assisted reporting skills) are especially good.

Any advice to aspiring journalists? Read everything. Show don’t tell. Ask even the experts how they know something to be true. Don’t do this for the money or the glory, but because you think an informed society needs a variety of perspectives for news.

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