Buried in Asian American journalism lore is the untold story of the first English-language newspaper for Korean Americans and the vital role played by a young, fresh out-of-college Sansei journalist, Randy Hagihara. It was from these humble origins that a storied career came into bud.
The time was the fall of 1979 and the place was Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. It was there and then that Koreatown Weekly (1979-1984) was born, ironically in the cramped offices of Harry Honda, Nisei editor of the Japanese American Citizens League’s Pacific Citizen. While Japan and Korea harbored deep mutual animosity in their homelands due to Japan’s decades-long rule of the neighboring peninsula, in LA it was collaboration among ethnics of these two nations, with an assist from an Eastern European descendent that gave birth to the publication.
Koreatown was the vision of Korean-born investigative reporter Kyung Won (K.W.) Lee, one of the first Asian reporters hired by mainstream dailies in the 1950s. Koreatown fulfilled Lee’s longtime dream to give the growing Korean American community its own voice in the language of the new country. Despite a century of coming to America and a big jump in immigration after 1965, Korean Americans ? unlike their Chinese and Japanese American counterparts ? couldn’t claim a single weekly or daily newspaper of their own. In contrast, Chinese and Japanese Americans had managed to publish timely English newspapers over the Yellow Peril period leading up to the end of World War II.
Koreatown was to act as the historical catalyst bridging the great generational divide between non-English speaking exiles and immigrants and their English-speaking American-born children. It was in this unlikely milieu that Randy entered the world of professional journalism.
The initial team at Koreatown consisted of Lee as editor-publisher with me the managing editor-general manager. Lee was to focus on priority community issues/problems and coalition efforts within the mushrooming immigrant enclaves across the U.S. I was focused on introducing and reporting on the mom and pop enterprises that characterized immigrant Korean families in the early days as well as handling the business side of the English language newspaper, an alien entity to the overwhelming monolingual immigrant enclave.
Soon after the start, Lee and I realized we were not equipped or experienced enough in the ways of the LA Korean (and Asian) communities and operating a business to succeed on our own. Fortunately, a key figure entered our lives within weeks of the inaugural “Festival”? edition published in September 1979. By the second Koreatown edition in October 1979, Randy Hagihara was already in place as news editor, photographer and the do-it-all handyman we needed to successfully publish week after week.
The three of us were comrades in arms … and typewriters. Hagihara not only took all the photos, he developed them in his makeshift darkroom in our second floor seedy apartment/office on the edge of Koreatown and Olympic Boulevard in downtown LA. Truth be told, Randy did much more than his share. He took photos, wrote stories and ended up being the bill collector for deadbeat advertisers while also selling ads, too! Along with that he helped break in our early editorial staffers ? Sophia Kim, Kapson Yim Lee, Dana Lacy, and a host of youthful high school and college contributors led by David S. Kim who have gone high places in their chosen fields. That early experience as a mentor clearly paid off when Randy became known as a teacher, leader and expert judge of journalistic talent.
From the start, Randy showed his penchant for covering hard news, tackling in late 1979 the tragic case of teenaged Kwang Heuh Baek, who was accused (and later convicted) of killing a bartender in a gangland shooting at an L.A. Chinatown eatery. A few issues later he covered a potential solicitation of murder charge involving a 29-year-old Korean immigrant. The headline read: “Korean machinist arrested for ‘practicing English’ … Allegedly talked about murdering wife.”?
As the third man in a three-ring circus of Koreatown, Randy solved problems of all stripes … the most famous involving pest control. We operated out of a second-floor apartment that also served as our office. The apartment was old and soon after we moved in, we encountered “other” residents in our apartment ? very large, healthy cockroaches. Turn on the light late at night and watch them scatter!
After a few months, however, the big game moved in … mice. In late November 1979 the mice were bold. By Dec. 1 of that year, Randy was called in to eradicate the mice. In a half hour with good traps set, he snared six of the critters. As befits his love of photography, “The Day the Vermin Died”? was captured on film.
Koreatown was also unusual in that while the stories and editorial were primarily Los Angeles-based, after the first few editions, the paper’s composition and printing were completed at The Sacramento Union. (Lee and I as financial/business editor worked at The Union beforehand.) Each Sunday in an 800-mile roundtrip one or more of us, often including Randy, would drive the 20,000 copies back to LA for distribution. We called that “I-5 Journalism”? and it went on for the next few years.
The struggling weekly was also blessed with sustained volunteering and fundraising from a veritable “Who’s Who” of both first- and second-wave generations, including such names as Col. Young Oak Kim, his stepson Tom Suhr, Sen. Alfred Song, Superior Court Judge Harkjoon Paik, Dr. Sammy Lee, Keith Soon Kim, K. Connie Kang (then legal affairs reporter for the San Francisco Examiner), and professors Chong Sik Lee and Eui Young Yu.
Post Koreatown, Randy went on to pursue a full mainstream media career including stints at the Palo Alto Times-Tribune, San Jose Mercury News and Oakland Tribune before 20 years working in a variety of capacities for his hometown daily, the prestigious Los Angeles Times.
At first he started as an assistant city editor at the Times in its Orange County Regional edition. During his years there the edition grew to 200 editorial staffers, and he rose to become city editor as the Times battled the Orange County Register for subscribers there.
In 1998, Randy was went back to the mother ship in LA to head up the Times editorial recruitment, development and internship activities and run the nationally renown “Metpro” program. His boss there, Susan Denley, summed up Randy’s accomplishments.
“Over a dozen years, Randy has recruited and taught hundreds of beginning journalists at this paper and, thanks to the Metpro program, papers around the country. As a recruiter, he’s known for his impeccable judgment, especially skilled at identifying beginning reporters who have the talent and drive to soar in this business. He is honest and sometimes blunt ? it’s the crusty old city editor in him ? but he’s never unkind and goes out of his way to mentor and advise young journalists. Randy has a marvelous ability to remain unflappable to keep his head while all about are losing theirs.”
Those who have worked with and for Randy have nothing but praise for him. He is a man’s man and a journalist’s journalist. Randy’s qualities endear him to so many because he is at the same time a severe taskmaster and an understanding, compassionate mentor. He is fair. He is stern. He is funny. He is caring. He has a great sense of humor, but knows when to be serious. He can spot talent and nurture that talent, pushing enough to allow those under him to get the most out of their abilities. When it’s deadline, he’s all business. But afterward he can enjoy the fruits of a job well done.
As a reporter/editor, Randy has done it all. He can write the hard news story. And he can write the passionate feature. And when needed, he whips out the camera and understands the role of good art in presenting the story at hand. He’s quick and efficient. No wasted words or wasted time. As a recruiter, Randy discovered many hidden talents to add to the Times reportage staff. His interviews were often unconventional and brusque, but under the gruff veneer was a probing mind who could see promise where even the interviewed might not see it. Plus he understands how critical the chemistry in the newsroom is, how people “fit”? and work best together. He understands people and the reader. It’s what makes him special.
Now retired from the Times, the “homeboy” from the gritty Boyle Heights section of East LA can look back on a career that has touched so many lives ? particularly Asian American journalists. Though Randy is small in stature, he looms as a giant figure in both ethnic and mainstream journalism in this Pacific Rim nation-state and is and will remain a source of inspiration for this digital era generation of new media journalists of all colors.
K.W. Lee contributed to this article.
Steve Chanecka is a retired journalist/entrepreneur living since 1977 in Sacramento. He was the managing editor, co-founder and general manager at the Koreatown Weekly. Chanecka and K.W. Lee met at The Sacramento Union when he was financial editor and Lee was the lead investigative reporter.