The credit for one bright spot on the gloomy landscape of American journalism belongs to a recent Cal grad who arrived in the United States from China only two years ago on her first overseas trip.
On the same day that Linjun Fan, M.J. ’09, received her master’s from the Graduate School of Journalism this past May, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a column from school dean Neil Henry applauding Fan’s “wildly successful” accomplishment: a hyperlocal website covering the town of Albany (pop. 16,400).
Her Albany Today (Learn more) began as one of six hyperlocal sites done as class projects by students in the beginning reporting class. Fan was the only one to maintain her site after the class ended. “Linjun was an awesome student,” recalled the class instructor, Kathy Corcoran, now an Associated Press editor. With Fan’s site as a successful example, the financially strapped journalism school won a $500,000 Ford Foundation grant to further develop the program. “Linjun took the idea to its full potential, developed a strong community readership, and in doing so provided the prototype for the school’s Ford Foundation grant and later websites,” said Corcoran.
How did Fan’s work manage to excel amid the proliferation of local news sites in the digital age? Fan wasn’t new to news. A native of a village in Hunan province, Fan graduated from prestigious Beijing University in 2003. She was a reporter for the state-run TV network, China Central Television, for almost two years before embarking on a two-year job as a news researcher in Beijing for McClatchy Newspapers.
Albany Today’s success was driven in part by the two main reasons Fan came to the United States—to develop multimedia journalism skills and to learn more about America. With the city of Albany as her lab, she threw herself into the tasks with such enthusiasm, initiative, and objectivity that her one-woman multimedia news portal quickly earned attention and respect. The site’s page views jumped from 50 in her second month of operation to 6,000 four months later.
At public meetings, Fan was often the only reporter in the room. She took homey videos of city council candidates describing their platform while kids ran past in the background. She posted audio slideshows of community festivals, accounts of school board meetings, and photos of oil-soaked birds on the Albany shoreline immediately after the Cosco Busan spill. The site became the community’s reliable news outlet, bulletin board, family album, and virtual coffeehouse all rolled into one. Her experiences, Henry said, “stand as a lesson of hope and inspiration for the future of this craft.”
Over time, Fan became attached to Albany, and Albany to her. In June, the Albany City Council honored her with a certificate of commendation, a rare accolade considering the way that public officials often seem to regard the journalists who cover them. “How sadly that I have to leave at the end of the month to go back to my home country,” she said at the presentation, which was accompanied by warm audience applause. Shortly after, Fan returned to China to take up her new job teaching journalism at Shantou University. (Albany Today is being continued by former Oakland Tribune reporter Barbara Grady-Ayer, who lives in Albany.)
“I feel like I’m doing something meaningful, also something that’s positive,” Fan said in an interview. “I’m so glad that I learned a lot in the process.” She recognizes that journalism can be more difficult in China under greater government oversight, or as she phrased it, there’s “a lot of work to be done there.”
“That’s one of my missions—to train students to be more professional,” she said. “I think [going back] is the right decision. The joy of life is not to get something you wanted that falls from the sky. It’s to overcome some challenges and accomplish something.”