Q&A: Hannah Miao, Fischer-Zernin Award for Local Journalism recipient

Photo courtesy: Hannah Miao

Photo courtesy: Hannah Miao

The Land recently talked with Hannah Miao, a 2021 graduate of Duke University, about her recent award for reporting on AsiaTown Cleveland, why she decided to become a journalist, and what’s next for her. Hannah was a summer 2020 intern with The Land.

You recently won the Fischer-Zernin award for local reporting at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University .Congrats! What’s this about and how psyched were you when you heard the news?

Thank you! The Fischer-Zernin award recognizes “coverage of the important issues of city and county governments and other critical metropolitan problems outside Duke’s campus.” In other words, it recognizes local journalism by Duke students. I won this year’s award along with my classmate Rebecca Torrence, who profiled Durham elections director Derek Bowens. I was really excited and honored to win the award, especially since working on that story really catalyzed my journey as a reporter and writer and solidified that journalism is what I want to do.

The story you won the award for focused on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Cleveland’s AsiaTown restaurants, and it was for Cleveland Scene. Tell us a little bit about how you reported the story, what you learned then and if things have changed since then. How did your own background as an Asian American play into your reporting, if at all?

Growing up, Cleveland’s AsiaTown neighborhood has always been a very important cultural home base for me and my family, as it is for many Asian Americans in the Greater Cleveland region. When Covid sent me home from school last spring, I wondered how small businesses in AsiaTown were weathering the pandemic. I had read news stories about Chinatowns in New York and California suffering business losses due to coronavirus-related anti-Asian stigma long before Covid had permeated our country, and I wanted to find out how the dynamic played out here in Cleveland.

I decided to report this story for my final project for an independent study with my professor, Mark Stencel. Ohio’s stay-at-home order limited my reporting to mostly phone and video calls, adding a layer of difficulty to communicating with small business owners who are non-native English speakers. I speak Mandarin, so I was able to speak with a source in her first language. That experience taught me the importance of embracing the unique skills we each bring as journalists. In this case, speaking Chinese allowed me to better connect with sources.

I found through my reporting that coronavirus shutdowns, anti-Asian sentiments and systemic barriers to resources hit AsiaTown small businesses hard. After Scene published that story, Lee asked me to report a follow-up for The Land about two months later. At that time, I found that neighborhood support systems, community organizations and collective care helped AsiaTown small businesses survive in the face of such challenges.

While I was finishing up my last semester of school in North Carolina, I reported a story for Durham’s alt-weekly, INDY Week, this April about Asian American small business owners coping with an increase in burglaries amid a national wave of anti-Asian hate and violence. What I found so striking was how many of the themes and issues happening in Cleveland’s AsiaTown last spring were relevant in Durham almost a year later.

What motivated you to become a journalist? I’ve heard experienced journalists say they’re counseling their kids against entering the field, because job prospects are so slim, but you’re heading off to a reporting job after graduation. Congrats! But also, why?

In college, I explored a number of career paths before I discovered my passion for journalism. I majored in public policy and minored in theater studies. When I started reporting and writing, I realized I could be paid to be curious, tell stories and serve the public. It felt like an “aha” moment and the culmination of so many of my interests!

The decimation of news ecosystems is exactly why I think this work is so important. I believe our country is stronger when communities have reporters serving them by providing crucial information, highlighting under-covered issues and holding powerful people and institutions accountable.

Speaking of that, what will you be doing after graduation? Tell us about where you’ll be in a month or two and who’s lucky enough to employ you.

I graduated on May 2 and I’ll be starting my new job as a markets reporter for CNBC on May 17. I’ll be living at home in Ohio and working out of my childhood bedroom for a few months before relocating to New York sometime this fall.

We’re guessing you’re not moving back to Cleveland, at least not right away, but tell us what you learned from growing up here and why you’ll always be a Clevelander at heart.

I wouldn’t have wanted to be from anywhere else. Growing up here taught me about community, perseverance and resilience. But when it comes down to it, Northeast Ohio and Cleveland will always be important to me because it’s where I call home.

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