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May 4, 2015, 12:33 p.m.

Elise goes East: How NPR’s new Seoul bureau chief is using Tumblr to complement her reporting

Since moving to South Korea in March, Elise Hu has been using Tumblr to document everything from the serious to the silly — and expand her voice beyond the NPR airwaves.

Last month, about 70 parents who lost their children in the sinking of the Sewol ferry — in which more than 300 people, mostly high school students, were killed — gathered in a central square in Seoul and shaved their heads to protest how the South Korean government has handled the aftermath of the disaster.

Elise Hu, NPR’s new Seoul bureau chief, covered the protests for the network, and interviewed one of the grieving mothers. But perhaps the most poignant part of the interview didn’t make it into Hu’s piece that ran on All Things Considered and NPR’s website.

Instead, Hu posted about an exchange she had with the mother, Jeong Jung-im, on Elise Goes East, a Tumblr blog she’s running:

That’s when she asked my interpreter if I was pregnant and if she could touch my swollen midsection. It seemed to bring her a smile and a mother’s pride, so of course I agreed. I told her I, too, was the mom of two daughters, and that the younger one was the one in my belly. She paused and cried some more, with both her warm hands still cradling my stomach.

Though my translator and through her tears, she looked at me and said with conviction:

“I hope she is healthy. And that she lives a long life.”

By then tears were streaming down my face, too. I know it meant breaking the invisible curtain between reporter and source, but I couldn’t help but give her a big hug.

“I don’t know that I would have room to share that somewhere else besides that platform,” Hu told me by phone from Seoul.

Hu has used the blog to post her stories from East Asia, share information that didn’t make it into her NPR pieces, and to just make observations — both serious and silly — about what it’s like to be an expat living halfway around the world. She moved to Seoul in March, and the blog has attracted more than 7,000 followers, already exceeding her goal of 5,000 for the first year.

In her nearly two months in South Korea, Hu has published a wide array of posts, from an extended Q&A with a professor about Japanese–Korean relations to a series called This Exists, which highlights objects unique to Asia that Americans might not know about. Not to mention this YouTube video that showed her listening to a voicemail message from an irate listener.

The Tumblr has brought Hu tips and feedback from readers — both in the States and in Korea. When she posted her story on the stresses South Korean students face, she received a number of responses from readers who shared stories from their own experiences as students.

“This allows me to have more of a bloggier voice and is more linked to me personally,” Hu said. “It allows me to sort of jump around in the idiosyncratic way that I might just exist as a person, because our more formal blogs don’t have that similar flexibility or voice, so I’ve really appreciated that.”

Hu didn’t just land in Seoul and start blogging. She began thinking about the project before she left for Asia, and worked with others in NPR’s Washington headquarters to develop the Tumblr.

There was a group brainstorm to think of a name for the blog. (One rejected name: Seoul Searching. This Asian Life was another.) The Tumblr was designed by NPR designer Danny DeBelius, and Hu said Claire O’Neill of NPR’s visual team was also instrumental in deciding the direction of the Tumblr. Before departing for Korea, O’Neill created a mood board to help figure out what kind of things Hu wanted to post and how she should approach the Tumblr.

“It was a handful of meetings, a few brainstorming sessions, just strategizing how we might think about consistency in content, and how she’s developing the audience and growing the audience,” O’Neill said.

To develop recurring features like This Exists, O’Neill said they looked elsewhere for inspiration. Specifically, she mentioned the work of David Guttenfelder, a former Associated Press photographer who is now a National Geographic fellow. He helped open the AP’s bureau in Pyongyang, North Korea in 2011 and started a series on Instagram capturing different items he collected during his many trips to North Korea.

North Korean artifact #165. A carton of cigarettes from the Naegohyang Tobacco Factory.

A photo posted by David Guttenfelder (@dguttenfelder) on

NPR, for its part, is encouraging its reporters to take this approach as another means to engage its audience and attract them to the NPR brand. “What Elise is doing is help us redefine our relationship with the audience through something like this,” said NPR social media editor Wright Bryan. “You look through it and there’s some heavyweight stuff, there’s behind-the-scenes stuff, and there’s also the ‘what it’s like to be the reporter on the road’ in the report. Elise is creating a new brand of news for us in a way.”

Individual reporters and the network itself are particularly active on Tumblr. NPR London correspondent Ari Shapiro maintains a Tumblr of his travels. (Though it’s mostly a feed of his photos from Instagram.) NPR has also created an On the Road Tumblr where reporters can share their experiences while they travel to cover stories. There are also Tumblrs for the NPR Archives, the NPR Social Media Desk, the NPR Science Desk, and more.

Bryan said NPR encourages its reporters to use Tumblr because it’s simple to incorporate text, photos, and video, and because the platform is lightweight and easy to use. “When you’re off in the field, when you’re off reporting, it’s easy to whip out your phone and put something on the Tumblr with minimal effort,” Bryan said.

On her end, Hu said she views the Tumblr as a hub for all the different platforms where she’s active. And she said she wants to continue to add in different types of content. A former television reporter, she said she wants to add in more video, though she’s already started dabbling in it.

She also said there might an opportunity to potentially translate certain stories into Korean and post them on the Tumblr. Regardless, Hu insisted she’s only just getting started. “I have only been here for six weeks,” she said. “I still need to get settled.”

Photo of Seoul skyline by Clint Sharp used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 4, 2015, 12:33 p.m.
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