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People on Campus: Jon Funabiki

March 23, 2007

Photo of Jon FunabikiJon Funabiki's first byline was in the school newspaper at Green Oaks Junior High in East Palo Alto. The newspaper was published with a Ditto machine.

He would go on to write and edit stories for The New York Times, San Diego Union, San Diego Tribune, SF State student newspaper The Phoenix and more.

Funabiki returned to his alma mater in the fall as a journalism professor, with a focus on what he calls "little media" -- the ethnic, independent and community-based press gaining significant success and influence. Funabiki, also the first director of the University's Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism (CIIJ) from 1990 to 1995, is charged with creating a new center or institute in the Journalism Department that will focus on the community-building potential of ethnic and other community media.

"Big media haven't figured out how to reconnect with people," said Funabiki, honored recently as an Ethnic Media Champion by New America Media. "Little media may not be as sophisticated, but they have more interest in and relevance to the people they're trying to serve."

With the new center or institute, Funabiki envisions research, continuing education for professionals, development of new courses, screenings of documentary films and more. He wants to ensure that serious journalism, which he views as a public service and vehicle for public education, is viable for decades to come. Mainstream daily newspapers continue to suffer from dwindling readership and revenue, while the ethnic press continues a boom that began in the 1990s, according to a new report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Little media have shaped much of Funabiki's life and career. As early as the late 1950s, he recalls his family passing around Hokubei Mainichi, the newspaper based in San Francisco Japantown, where he would later work as a reporter.

"It was the only newspaper where you would read about people we knew in the community," he said. "They covered the churches we went to, the Japanese basketball leagues we had and the baseball teams."

At the time, Japanese American communities were rebuilding after the World War II internment. Funabiki's parents had been forced into the Heart Mountain, Wyo., camp, where his older brother was born. All of Funabiki's relatives, including an grandfather who owned a farm in Mountain View, spent time in internment camps.

The tragedy and legacy of internment made Funabiki an advocate for social justice. While attending SF State -- long before he founded CIIJ's Newswatch project, which analyzes media coverage of minorities -- he wrote a research paper on post-Pearl Harbor coverage of the internment debate. Researching archives of major newspapers, Funabiki found that news and editorial coverage overwhelmingly supported Japanese American internment. It helped him understand the media's pervasive racism and strong influence on public opinion. Years later it would help him create a new beat at the San Diego Union.

In 1985, concerned about resurging anti-Japanese sentiments in the U.S. fueled in part by automobile manufacturers' competition, Funabiki persuaded his editors to give him an international news beat covering relationships between the U.S. and Asian countries. Traveling frequently, he wrote in-depth articles on politics, culture and foreign relations. One series helped free from South Korean jail an investigative journalist accused of libel.

After 17 years at the San Diego Union, Funabiki's next career moves would take him away from the newsroom and into jobs with wide impacts on journalism. As CIIJ's first director, he created several core programs that still thrive today, including one where professional journalists mentor SF State students and an annual summer academy for under-represented high school students.

Current CIIJ Director Cristina Azocar, one of Funabiki's SF State students in the 1990s, said he has not only been a major influence on her career, but "instrumental in helping diversify America's newsrooms."

"It was because of him that I became aware of issues of diversity and I am honored to have followed in his footsteps," Azocar said. "Now, he is a key thinker in the role of ethnic media in American democracy."

After leaving CIIJ, Funabiki joined the Ford Foundation in its media, arts and culture program. He is proud of the many projects that Ford funded under his watch, including several critically acclaimed documentaries, the Institute of Justice and Journalism at University of Southern California and UNITY: Journalists of Color, a strategic alliance advocating fair and accurate news coverage about people of color.

Funabiki and his wife Amy now live in Alameda, near their daughter, son-in-law and 4-year-old granddaughter. Funabiki is delighted to be back in the Bay Area and teaching.

He recently enjoyed introducing the Garden of Remembrance, a CampusMemorial honoring Japanese Americans sent to World War II internment camps, to his Ethnic News Service class. He said his students previously didn't know of the garden, though they walked by it often. The class' experience helped reinforce Funabiki's decision to return to SF State.

"This is an urban setting with a dynamic and diverse student body, often with a life experience closer to the ground," he said. "There is always fervor here."

-- Matt Itelson


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Last modified March 23, 2007 by University Communications