Interviewing someone like Anita Li feels like sprinting along the Seine. You want to slow down and relish in the company, but then you reluctantly remember the task at hand, the little time you have, and keep going. It makes sense: Journalism is the kind of industry that coaxes the conversationalist out of anybody. And among her various roles at the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, legacy institutions such as the CBC, and global outlets like Mashable and Complex Media, Anita’s had to do a lot of talking.
Dedicated to promoting social justice and diversity in all industries—not just media—she’s made a career out of uncovering the perspectives that have been overlooked until this information age. Each story she touches is click-worthy not just because they’re interesting, but because they’re authentic and necessary parts of the dialogue surrounding race, gender, and culture. (Check out her TEDxTalk on the subject.) Read on to find out more about the dues she’s paid as an old-school journalist, her philosophy on web traffic and self-branding, and more.
Let’s begin with the elephant in the room. Is it weird to be interviewed when you’ve interviewed a bunch of people yourself?
Yeah! As a journalist, usually I’m eager to get as much information and honesty out of my subjects as possible. But I also understand the subject’s fear of looking like an idiot. I also notice the interviewer’s techniques.
I hope that doesn’t scare you. [laughs] In some ways, I’m media-trained just by virtue of being in the industry for so long.
Do you think your journalistic qualities are innate to your personality?
Yeah… I thought it was normal to be really curious in conversations and ask questions. But I notice in my daily life, with my friends, people don’t necessarily have a proclivity for asking questions. I’m just really curious about people. My boyfriend often gets frustrated by my appetite for the most minute details: like what time did something happen, what they were wearing. I want to visualize the circumstance. To me, that paints a picture, which is essentially what you’re doing as a writer and journalist.
It was the fact that I liked writing that drove me to become a journalist. It was only after I decided to become a journalist that I realized my curiosity was a useful skill.
What kind of writing did you start with?
When I was six, I used to write stories that were two to three sentences long about my dad and how awesome he was on our desktop computer, printed on those continuous sheets you had to rip yourself. But I never had a diary. That was always a thing for me: If I was going to write, it had to be for public consumption. Never private. I still don’t. I didn’t start writing articles until my preteens.
What’d you do for school?
I went to University of Toronto and majored in International Relations and Asia-Pacific Studies, with a minor in English.
Why didn’t you go straight into journalism?
That was something I really grappled with. I knew I wanted to go to Columbia for journalism school. It was a dream; [becoming a journalist was] something I’d wanted to do since I was eight. I’ve always been very career-oriented since I was a kid. I was very obsessed with going to an Ivy League school and being in New York City. I actually ordered those information books from universities when I was fourteen, and read about the things they were looking for, which was a really broad kind of curiosity. That’s why I decided to go for liberal arts instead.
Also, you know Asian parents: ‘Prestige! Rigour!’ But I wanted to be really well-rounded as a person, as opposed to just being a journalist without anything to say. I got in, but it was way too expensive, so I ended up going to Carleton University in Ottawa instead, which was a very different experience.
“I wanted to be really well-rounded as a person, as opposed to just being a journalist without anything to say.”
It’s so easy to watch a film, or read a book, and see journalism as not just a career to have—but a life to live, particularly with New York as the foundation for all that.
I felt like I was indoctrinated. I never gave up on that dream. On the outside looking in, journalism is a very seductive profession. It’s the best of both worlds—you’re known, but you are also respected. It has the gravitas of something that’s intellectual, but also the superficiality of name recognition and notoriety.
Writing is also a very intimate thing. And if the public appreciates that of you, it’s very gratifying.
Were you ever afraid of putting yourself out there?
I don’t consider myself a writer; I consider myself a journalist. And I come from a very objective news background, which requires you to be very balanced.
After getting my Master’s in Journalism from Carleton, I joined the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. There’s something about going to a newspaper job and having to report to your editor first thing in the morning, going to a scene of a crime, or listening to police scanners. The Star was very important to my development as a journalist. It just created such a good foundation for everything else I wanted to do in my career. Those two jobs were really essential to my growth.
It sounds like the biggest difference in old media is that mining of raw information. With new media, you can basically just regurgitate and aggregate from sources that have sometimes already made the information digestible.
Exactly. Old media is about original thought; thinking about the world and processing everything around you. In new media, and with the internet, you just get sucked into a wormhole of information and you’re never actually reflecting on any of it. The thing about being a journalist is that you can’t work in a vacuum. You have to go out, meet people, and experience things.
“The thing about being a journalist is that you can’t work in a vacuum. You have to go out, meet people, and experience things.”
I’ve had to do some really uncomfortable things. For example—when somebody dies, you have to call the victim’s family. I’d have to go through a phone book and call every single person with that name. When I was doing local television news in Ottawa, I had to go a teenager’s funeral and wait outside to interview people who had attended about the deceased. I felt physically ill. But those experiences were invaluable. You have to be bold to get to the truth.
I’m still very optimistic about the future of media, and there are so many new media outlets that are doing great work. People are always slagging on BuzzFeed, but they’re doing great journalism. Traffic is a necessary evil—you want people to read your stuff—but you have to balance frivolity with substance. Technology can make you more complacent, so it’s all about the way you leverage it for the betterment of journalism as a whole. We have access to information at the click of a mouse, but we [can’t] be lazy about it. A lot of reporters are just pulling stories from other sources, and emailing instead of making calls, despite the fact that both take the same amount of time.
“Traffic is a necessary evil—you want people to read your stuff—but you have to balance frivolity with substance.”
Who do you consider yourself responsible to?
The public, for sure. Journalism is a public service, and that’s how I’ve always seen it.
Now, as a journalist, you have to build a brand identity. It’s a necessary evil and I’m doing it as well—as a journalist who focuses on diversity issues—but I feel like that sometimes overshadows the actual journalistic work. People say they have to self-promote, but that’s a double-edged sword: How do I get my work out there without it being all about me? But at the end of the day, it’s about the stories I’m doing and how they can help make the world a better place. It sounds cheesy, but I am an idealist at heart. That’s why I’m in this job in the first place.
Do you think the average person knows how the journalistic process actually works?
Not at all. That’s actually a huge pet peeve of mine. Because media is so accessible, it’s one of the few jobs where people think they have a say in terms of whether or not you’re doing it correctly. Yet many people don’t know how it works. When tragedies happen, and reporters reach out to the victims’ families, you’ve got the peanut gallery calling us vultures. But what else are you supposed to do as a journalist? It’s not about being exploitative; it’s about informing the public. Of course, there’s a fine line, and trained journalists know how to do it with sensitivity.
Businesses and advertisers are also increasingly infringing on journalism. There are other factors to consider now, like the amount of traffic a website generates, among others. People do think they know how to do my job, and I find it very frustrating.
If what drives your pursuit is your duty to the public—how do you use your journalistic judgement to determine what the public ought to know?
I actually find traffic very useful, because it’s a way of weighing that balance between what readers want and what they should know. New media is driven by traffic numbers, and at some point you could just give readers what they want. Yet sometimes people aren’t aware of certain things that are happening in the world, and when you publish a story they might not be as familiar with, they might want to know more. Like Black Lives Matter. Nobody really gave a shit until now, but it’s not like black people haven’t been shot at by the police since forever. It’s our duty as journalists to unearth things people don’t know about.
But at the same time, I’m not arrogant enough to dictate every single story, which is how newspaper worked back then. It was based on the judgement of a group of editors. Now, I can publish this lighthearted story, and while that feeds traffic, I can assign this important story and put it out there.
Let’s talk about Complex, which couldn’t be more different compared to the traditional Canadian outlets you were working for. What excited you about it? What did you grapple with?
What led me to Complex was NTRSCTN, which was a site focused on diversity for millennials. It was a start-up site housed by a larger company, so it had a safety net and a readership that already existed. We did have a lofty mandate, but it was also hopeful: Everybody should have a voice, and everybody should listen to each other’s perspectives across political, racial, and gender lines. It was really gratifying to see the success of something small grow, and know it was you. That was the main reason why I wanted to go to New York. It was the perfect opportunity to do what I wanted to do.
One of the biggest challenges was striking the right tone. You don’t want to be too preachy or serious. The way my editor-in-chief described NTRSCTN was ‘the cool older sister to Complex’: the outlet that would tell you about social injustices that were happening without being annoying about it. Complex is a fun-loving brand, so we wanted to appeal to that readership and also get new readers who were more woke. We had to find that sweet spot. It was a little different from Complex’s other properties, but there was overlap because Complex’s readership is so multicultural.
“We did have a lofty mandate, but it was also hopeful: Everybody should have a voice, and everybody should listen to each other’s perspectives across political, racial, and gender lines.”
Your whole face changed when you talk about it—it’s beautiful to see. What kind of relationship do you have with your readers?
I’m really proud of what we did there. Despite closing in April, we’d developed a great readership who were informed and passionate. I saw them as peers. Being retweeted by Ta-Nahesi Coates [national correspondent for The Atlantic] and DeRay Mckesson [of the Black Lives Matter movement], and the acknowledgement from others who were well-respected in the space, was awesome.
The whole point of NTRSCTN was to create a conversation. I was very invested in the feedback we got from our readers. At one point, we were getting emails that alerted us to topics we weren’t yet covering. They were just as invested as we were and giving us tips—and that’s when you know you have a readership who’s engaged and down with your cause.
Note: Since this profile was published, Anita has departed Complex Media, and will start her new role at a New York-based, social justice-focused media outlet in late August.