El Diablo Alumni – Tina Lam

Haley Szczech, Features Editor

Tina Lam is a 66 year old Durango High School alumni, who wrote for El Diablo her last two years at DHS. When she graduated, she wrote for the Fort Lewis Independent and eventually moved to Detroit to write for the Detroit Free Press. Lam lived her dream life and was able to make money by travelling and writing. She also had the opportunity to share her passion with others by teaching journalism at the University of Michigan. Now she is retired and lives with her husband in Durango and Michigan.

 

What was your position for El Diablo? What years did you write when you were at DHS?

My position at El Diablo – I don’t remember. I think we were all just sort of reporters, with an adviser. I think I worked for it in 1968 and 1969.  Also, when I was working on the high school paper, I wrote an occasional column (maybe once a month?) for the Durango Herald, about high school activities. I actually remember that a little better, because I could pretty much write what I wanted (but what I chose was tame!).

How was it different to write at the Fort? How did the writing style change? How much more independent was it?

When I went to Ft. Lewis, I didn’t work for the Independent until I was a senior, and I became editor then. At the time, I had a 9-month-old baby! My husband took care of him while I finished up my last year and worked on the paper, but my son spent Wednesday evenings in the newsroom, where we and all our newspaper friends put the paper together, laid it out, wrote headlines, etc. My husband and friends started KDUR around the same time, so we had quite a media household.

 

Yes, the Independent really was independent, mostly. We had a wonderful person as our adviser, and I had known her since I was young – Nancy Elliott. She had worked for years at the Herald and she was one of my heroes, a woman journalist. Because the paper was a weekly, we had a lot of columns since news got stale quickly. People who worked with me at the Indy are still friends of mine 40 years later.

 

When did you know you wanted to become a journalist? Had you already considered other career paths? Did you major in journalism?

I wanted to be a journalist since I was a teen, mainly following my dad. He worked at the Herald, writing stories and editorials and even taking photos. I loved going to the paper on a Saturday with him, going into the darkroom and watching him type stories on a typewriter. I loved even the smell of the place. My father also had a good friend named Helene Monberg, a woman journalist who wrote from D.C. for various papers in Colorado, including the Grand Junction Sentinel. I was awed by her. Female journalists were few in the early 60’s and men treated them badly; she had to fight to be allowed into the males-only D.C. press club where press conferences were held, and I loved hearing about that.

 

What kind of classes and extracurriculars did you know you had to take in order to become a

professional reporter?

I thought about going into politics, writing books, and majored in Latin American studies at FLC. Much later, after working at writing jobs in Texas and California but struggling to get a real newspaper job, I went to the University of California at Berkeley for a master’s in journalism. It was a 2-year program, and I loved every minute of it. I had internships each summer (required) and they were wonderful. I knew then that writing for newspapers really was my calling. My favorite classes were Ethics and Media Law, which I later taught at University of Michigan at Dearborn.I felt I had to get a journalism degree because newspapers I applied to before that refused to hire me without one. Taking classes in science writing, investigative reporting, law, basic reporting and interviewing, all honed my skills and the internships gave me a portfolio.I got my first job at a 3-reporter paper called the Pittsburg (California) Post Dispatch, where my 2 fellow reporters had just uncovered a major corruption scandal when I arrived. I didn’t get to report that, but it was tremendously exciting to watch it unfold.

How did you decide to move to Detroit and work there? Was there anything in particular about the city or the newspaper?

My husband, son and I moved to Michigan because my husband had gotten a PhD and got his first teaching job there. I worked for 9 years at the Ann Arbor News, where I became an investigative reporter, and then when my son finished high school, I moved to the Detroit Free Press. I’d always wanted to be in Detroit, because the paper had won several Pulitzers and did great investigations. I loved most of my time there, but the last few years were stressful because of all the changes occurring at newspapers everywhere. It was hard on everyone and a large, impersonal chain bought the paper and made a lot of changes few of us liked.

Still, being a reporter is the best job on the planet. I loved never knowing what my day might hold–covering a plane crash or a court case or getting a phone tip about a corrupt deal. I loved interviewing people, knocking on doors, working the phones on a story, finding fascinating people. It was always exciting and journalists are a wonderful bunch. I was proud to work in Detroit and for the Free Press.


How long did it take you to start making money as a reporter?

Because we had a union, we always made decent money in Detroit, better than people might think. Even as an intern, I got paid, and by the end, most of us were making six figures.

What’s your opinion on newspaper vs. television news?

I think newspapers are vastly better than TV news simply because they have a bigger canvas. I have friends who have worked in both media, but most eventually move back to newspapers because there’s just so much more depth there.

What can high school students do to keep free press alive?

 

Having taught media law and issues to college students, I’m a huge booster of the First Amendment, as everyone ought to be. We take it for granted and misunderstand it; it’s the basis of democracy. To keep it alive, we have to use it–fight to tell stories, fight to shed light on government and fight to keep government from shutting out the press, as it tries to do daily. I mean government with a small g, from D.C. to local city councils and boards. That’s the true role of the press. Even though newspapers are still struggling, the news is more important than ever, and the role of it in all our lives is key. Providing that information will always be crucial.