Lori Matsukawa’s lasting legacy on Asian American journalists

‘If I can do it, they can do it’

When Lori Matsukawa first entered a pageant competition in her home state of Hawaii, it was in hopes of earning scholarship money for college.

After the then-aspiring piano teacher was crowned Miss Teenage America, she traveled around the United States as well as to other countries, including Peru and Japan. During these trips, Matsukawa was interviewed by local reporters. She saw how those journalists’ jobs were to talk to people and she thought that would be fun to do.

And that is how Matsukawa went from having musical aspirations to becoming a staple on TV in the Puget Sound region as an anchor at KING 5.

But come June 14, the Bellevue resident will be signing off one last time and retiring after a 40-year career in broadcast journalism — 36 of which were at KING.

It may seem weird for me to dedicate an entire column to someone who, on the surface, works for the “competition,” but it’s actually thanks to trailblazers like Matsukawa that I am able to do what I do.

Diverse coverage for a diverse country

For her entire career, she has understood the importance of diversity in the industry — both in terms of coverage as well as in the newsroom.

During her travels as Miss Teenage America, she saw how diverse the country was.

“I got to see a lot of the United States,” she said, adding that she knew it was important to keep this diversity in mind in her work.

While at Stanford University, she wrote for the school newspaper and some of that work included covering the LGBTQ community, though at that time, she said it was mostly focused on the first two letters of the acronym. Matsukawa was also part of a group of students who started an Asian American newspaper on campus.

And when two of the founders of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) — Bill Sing (a Mercer Island High School graduate) and Tricia Toyota — made their way to Seattle in hopes of starting a third chapter (the first two chapters were in Los Angeles and San Francisco) in 1985, Matsukawa understood its importance.

“AAJA became the framework through which she channeled all of her energy into talking to the news executives in town about getting more diverse talent in the newsroom, whether it was writing, producing, holding a camera or delivering it on the air,” said Frank Abe, a former Seattle-area journalist who is now retired and was one of Matsukawa’s fellow AAJA Seattle co-founders.

The chapter’s third co-founder is Ron Chew, who has also retired from professional journalism and is the foundation director for International Community Health Services.

Nationwide impact

Matsukawa said groups like AAJA and the Seattle Association of Black Journalists (the local chapter for the national organization) emphasize the importance of attracting people of color to the industry and keeping them in the business. It’s also about encouraging people to become managers because they are the decision makers.

And it all starts with hiring a diverse mix of reporters.

“Nationwide, Lori has mentored countless journalists of color — not just Asian Americans — over the years,” said current AAJA Seattle president and Seattle Times video editor Corinne Chin. “Many of us early- and mid-career journalists of color grew up watching Lori and her mentees, seeing people who looked like us on television, and understanding that we, too, could become journalists one day.”

Chin added that even though Matsukawa has become known as a living legend in the Pacific Northwest, she has remained humble and generous with her time. She is often a judge for the chapter’s scholarship competitions, one of which (Northwest Journalists of Color) she helped start.

“I think that we can all agree that newsrooms would not be as diverse as they are today if not for Lori Matsukawa,” Chin said.

A welcome gesture

I met Matsukawa right out of college at Unity — a journalism convention that brought together all of the minority journalist organizations — in 2008 in Chicago. I’d just graduated two months prior and had no clue what to do with my new journalism degree. I’d heard about Unity from Marian Liu, who was an AAJA Seattle chapter member back then and had come to speak to one of my classes at the University of Washington. I didn’t have any connections in the industry or job prospects, so I took a chance and registered to attend the convention.

I didn’t know anyone heading into Chicago but folks from AAJA Seattle hooked me up with two other green, aspiring journalists for roommates and various veteran chapter members in attendance regularly checked in with us to see how our convention was going.

One of those people was Matsukawa. She and her husband took a bunch of us journalists-to-be to dinner one night at a nice Italian restaurant in Little Italy. They paid for all of us and I just remember thinking they were so nice. This gesture — along with the aforementioned check-ins from other chapter members — made me feel very welcomed into the big scary world of professional journalism.

Just showing up

In addition, just being at the convention and seeing so many faces that looked like mine and knowing they were in the same industry as me made me feel more confident in my career choice.

And that’s not nothing.

Matsukawa said sometimes just being there or showing up is half the work. One of the things she is proud of in her career is having young people tell her that because they see her on TV, they tell her, “I can be a journalist too.”

“They can do it,” Matsukawa said. “If I can do it, they can do it.”

Abe said there is real power in seeing someone on the screen who looks just like you. Just by being on the air, Matsukawa was a model.

“It cracked me up to see Mimi Jung talk about how she was living in Puyallup and seeing Lori on TV and wanting to be just like her,” he said. “And now she is, in her own way.”

Jung currently co-anchors KING 5 Mornings on KONG.

Venice Buhain, editorial director for the Seattle Globalist and a former AAJA Seattle president, said Matsukawa was one of the people who encouraged her to join AAJA Seattle.

“I believe I am still a journalist today because of the influence of strong Asian American women journalists,” Buhain said.

A lasting legacy

Matsukawa said she had the opportunity to retire in 2016 when KING’s corporate owners made an early retirement offer to employees who were 55 or older. Only one anchor could take the offer and so Matsukawa’s co-anchor at the time, Dennis Bounds, retired.

One of the reasons she decided to stay on was because she was working on a five-part special focused on the experiences of Japanese Americans in the Pacific Northwest during World War II, following Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast.

The special, “Prisoners in Their Own Land,” aired in February 2017, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the order. It’s a strong body of work that showed not just the impact on Japanese Americans but on Washington state as a whole, from neighbors to lawmakers.

“I was really glad I was able to leave a body of work on this period at KING,” Matsukawa said.

And now that the project is complete, it’s a good time for her to retire.

I know I’m not the only one in this region to say I will miss seeing Matsukawa every evening. We will see the effects of her impact on our industry for a long time.

And while I’m print and she’s broadcast, I can wholeheartedly say I want to be a journalist like her as I advance in my career.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at spak@sound publishing.com.