A People With Passion series
December 29, 2011: Tran Ha
In the 22nd installment of Jack M Silverstein's Chicago journalism interview series, RedEye managing editor Tran Ha discusses her arrival at the RedEye from the Detroit Free Press, taking over the RedEye's top editor position amidst a changing journalism landscape, and the challenges that RedEye faces in producing their paper.
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.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 24, 2011: Sam Smith, Bulls.com
December 9, 2011: Chuck Swirsky, Chicago Bulls play-by-play announcer
December 14, 2011: Sarah Spain, ESPN personality
December 6, 2011: Jon Greenberg, ESPN Chicago, columnist
October 21, 2011: William Lee, Chicago Tribune breaking news crime reporter
November 4, 2011: Elaine Coorens, Our Urban Times founder
November 4, 2011: Andrew Barber, Fake Shore Drive founder
October 21, 2011: Jane Hirt, Chicago Tribune, managing editor
September 19, 2011: Andrew Huff, Gapers Block founder
September 21, 2011: Chris Cascarano, Chicago News Cooperative, video producer
September 30, 2011: Christie Hefner, Playboy, former CEO
September 15, 2011: Alden Loury, Chicago Reporter, publisher
August 17, 2011: Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune, editorial board and columnist
September 13, 2011: Kimbriell Kelly, Chicago Reporter, editor
August 26, 2011: Chuck Sudo, Chicagoist, editor
August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck, photographer
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)
August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, columnist