In honor of Women’s History Month, MediaFile will be interviewing “The Women in Media” – those who inspire, lead, and make a difference inside the newsroom and beyond. This interview is the first in a series.
Hayley Tsukayama, 31, landed her dream job directly after college at the Washington Post and has stayed for seven years. A graduate of both Vassar College and University of Missouri, Tsukayama has relished in her job as staff writer and technology reporter. Technology wasn’t something she knew much about; but that did not stop her from jumping head-first into an industry with only 25 percent of women working in computing. And that percentage has only decreased since 1991 across all science-related occupations like engineering, computer and information sciences. Despite the underrepresentation of women in technology, Tsukayama gave us the in’s and out’s of technology from a news reporter’s eyes in an interview with MediaFile.
MF: What was your first job?
HT: The Washington Post was my first real, non-internship, professional job. A friend of a friend got me in touch with the Washington Post and it was immediately a good fit; I owe my job to a mix of luck, friendship and company interest.
MF: How do you go about picking a story topic?
HT: It’s more complicated than you might think! I am always looking for ‘news-y’ things, however our beat is in the business section so we also look at the business side of the technology sector. It’s important to keep in mind where we fit in DC; sometimes I am looking for policy angle and not just new tech. So finding a story is a balancing act of all of those things, while still keeping in mind our audience [and] how I can write it in a useful way that is important to them.
MF: How do you go about writing a story?
HT: First, I do a quick mental inventory of what I’ve already written before on the subject. I also read what other people have written about it. A good example of this is writing about Samsung; they just announced they will reveal a new phone next month. The announcement itself is newsworthy, but because of the big recall of their last phone, I need to dig deeper. Another big issue with Samsung is that recently their head of electronics was arrested on bribery charges. I first need to establish where the company is now after all of these issues have come out, and then go into the announcement. Finally, I think ahead to see if this new product will affect the company positively or negatively. Lastly, I check and see who knows more about these issues than I do; I have a supply chain I use to see who is the best position to help me explain this situation more clearly.
MF: How do you explain jargon in a news and technology context?
HT: I think there’s a streak of arrogance in tech reporting; by explaining jargon simply I’m not dumbing it down, just making it easier to understand for people who don’t have time to waste remembering what active matrix organic light emitting diode (AMOLED) means. Technology jargon sounds like a different language, however but you probably have a couple AMOLED screens in your house right now. My job is to explain what techies are excited about, then explain why my audience should be excited about it, and what it all means in the context of their lives. A lot of my job is really translation; it really is another language and I’m not fluent in it. I can then play the role of the reader that way, and use translation as a tool in interviewing to explain to the average reader really complicated engineering concepts they encounter in everyday life.
The Washington Post video piece below demonstrates how Tsukayama explains technical concept, specifically the key facts behind Google Glass.
MF: What led you to technology reporting? Why does technology interest you?
HT: I’ve always been a nerd, I find tech and science interesting, but I don’t have a knack for it myself. I like learning about new things that are pushing our society forward. It began with my knowledge of privacy law and policy related to it when I started working at the Washington Post. I don’t have a background in tech reporting, but when I started reporting on the policy side of tech my interest in it grew. It also reinforced my enthusiasm for hardware and games. I loved my job ever since; it’s a real window into how people who think about the future all the time think about the world. Technology is eye opening and helps people avoid getting wrapped up in the present.
MF: What does being a technology reporter mean to you?
HT: I take on a few roles, one mainly being translating technology into words people can understand. Another role is keeping an eye on companies because they sometimes have a vision for a product that overshoots society norms and what people are comfortable with. Like with privacy, there is a creepy line. But it’s hard to quantify or define; I see a lot of my job as monitoring where that line is and making sure I can inform consumers that companies are doing something you should know about. It’s important for me to evaluate what the cost of a new tech is in terms of privacy, and sometimes for readers convenience is worth the privacy they give up in their technologies. Lastly, I really like the ‘geewiz-aspect’ of tech: look at this new gadget that’s coming! Sometimes I have to be careful because it can feel promotional, but letting people know what’s coming down the pipeline is interesting. People want to know how tech shapes their future lives and in-the-now.
MF: : What is your daily life like as a tech reporter in DC’s political atmosphere?
HT: The biggest learning curve has been figuring out what people’s lobbying strategies are. Sometimes you get tips on a story, and this group that is tipping you off lobbies for this company. So you have to be wary about where stories come from and be critical of who is funding who. You have to realize that when it comes to DC, tech moves fast and policy moves slow. As a reporter, you have to calibrate for yourself how quickly you think things are going to happen, but then you have to remember to keep the idea of the metabolism of DC in mind when you are covering. Those things are a balance and they can be tricky; most technology policy is as old as me!
MF: What does it feel like to work as a woman in a male-dominated industry? How does that affect or not affect your work?
HT: I think I’ve been very lucky, I haven’t had a really bad instance of either a source or readers outright harassing me because I’m a woman. I do think when we are looking at a story, we look long and hard about who we want to cover it; sometimes it’s tempting to say should we have a man write the story to avoid complications on subjects like online harassment. Though we’ve never assigned a story for those reasons, we still think about it. As a woman tech reporter, you do second guess yourself; do I want to deal with the consequences of writing a story like this? But it doesn’t stop me from doing stuff and I have no trouble getting people to take me seriously (the name of the Washington Post behind me helps). I do think about framing things differently to maybe help mitigate the potential hassle of having to tackle a topic; that is something that I think about often. Me aside, I do hear from other women who cover a range of things, and not just technology, that they feel talked down to often. I’ve been fortunate to not have it affect my work or how I write.
MF: Any tips for college students/people who want to pursue a career in journalism? Specifically tech?
HT: Write as much as you can, however you can, whenever you can. At the Washington Post, we look for people who are nimble writers with qualities like writing on deadline, a range of talent, and an expertise in an area or two. People with a little bit of expertise in a particular subject area follow their curiosity and mind that seam for stories; as the media is getting so big and broad, we are looking [for] uniqueness. So whatever passion you have, use it. Use who you are and your personality to help you pick and find stories; that’s one way to stand out.
During Women’s History Month and the upcoming International Women’s Day this Wednesday, Hayley Tsukayama is just one of the many talented, and successful women in the technology industry. Because she stands with one foot in technology and the other in journalism and media, Tsukayama’s perspective on products, companies and policies in the growing tech sector is extremely valuable. If you want to read more of Tsukayama’s work, here are some more recent examples: Nintendo Switch’s release, AOL comeback, Snap Inc.’s success, and Uber’s secret tool to evade government officials.
Correction: This post has been updated to correct a previous claim that Hayley Tsukayama attended Boston College, now correctly reporting that she attended Vassar College.