Former SDSU JMS professor Chris Chan’s fascinating journalism journey

by Patrick Doyle, Senior Staff Writer

It was 1996 when Chris Chan, as a young producer, found himself lost in the Southern Philippines with no sense of direction and no phone service. Cotabato City was not all that it had seemed at first, as Chan had traveled from Singapore to help produce a story on the Muslim rebel groups in the region.

One rebel group had made an agreement with the Philippine government, but another one was still vehemently opposed to compromise. Chan remembers a tour guide pointing out a specific river and informing them it was where the rebels threw the dead bodies of the people they kidnapped and didn’t receive any ransom for. It wasn’t exactly the safest region for a relatively inexperienced producer to seek a story.

Nonetheless, Chan went to receive the blessing of the local religious leader in Cotabato City before beginning the story. His reporter and cameraman didn’t want to go, so they sent him alone. He explained to the imam his intentions of wanting to understand their side of the story and his desire to hear why their rebel group continued to oppose the Philippine government.

Chan did not necessarily have a solid plan for if the imam said “no” and took him hostage. There was no safety net or anything for him to fall back on if things went south. He was just hoping, in that moment, life worked out for the best.

Luckily, it did, and he received the imam’s blessing. Unluckily, he was then dropped off in the middle of the city with no bearings, no GPS, no cell phone, and had to find his way back to the hotel.

“It was an exciting experience,” he said. “You kind of get thrown into different things that you have no idea and never expected.”

A lot of Chan’s career has followed this format of taking ambitious steps with no set plan, just the hope that life works out for the best.

With over two decades of experience now in journalism and even more in communications and teaching, Chan has never gotten a degree in anything journalism or communications-related – and he evidently hasn’t needed it. He grew up in the suburb of Covina, east of Los Angeles, and had a vague interest in political writing.

“It was a really nice place to grow up,” he said. “It was quiet, it was more of your traditional high school experience … I had an interest in politics and news writing. I was in the high school newspaper and then became co-editor of the newspaper.”

This interest, however, did not follow him much into his college career. Starting as a business major at the University of Southern California, Chan soon switched to international relations a couple years in, as he found a keen interest in the politics of Asia. He said he made this change because he was looking for a “little bit more purpose,” as learning the aspects of business did not fulfill him in the way he had hoped.

After earning his bachelor’s in international relations, Chan moved to Hong Kong in 1994 towards the end of the East Asian Miracle, a time of rapid economic growth in the regions of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Chan said he was motivated by jobs being everywhere, as well as the fact that he studied the region and had interest in exploring where his parents grew up. Like many things in his life, he didn’t have the most solid plan, but he moved there hoping life would work itself out.

Sure enough, within a month he got his first job at a television news station called Asia Business News, which is now CNBC Asia.

“I was a news assistant, just kind of learning the ropes,” he said. “Everything from getting coffee for guests that come in on the television program, to writing short stories, or going out to huge press conferences for major events and just being support for the reporters.”

Despite not having much experience in journalism, Chan found ways to adapt and get better over time.

“Because I didn’t have that background in journalism and writing, it was sort of just learn on the fly, and just kind of do what you need to do, write in the way that you need to write,” he said. “I just learned on the job and tried to figure things out.”

Chan says he was lucky to have so many great mentors who helped him learn about the types of journalism he enjoyed so much without needing to get a degree in the field.

“I enjoy visual storytelling. I enjoy watching it, consuming the content, but also really wanted to explore producing it. There were really great people who mentored me and taught me as much as they could, as much as I wanted to learn about it.”

After about a year, Chan transferred down to Singapore in 1995. He wanted to try something a little bit different, which is why he decided to pick up and move his career there.

Again, he didn’t plan out his every move and make a grand ten-year career plan as so many journalists are often encouraged to do. He just wanted to see what it would be like to live and work in a different area of the world—and it ended up working out for him. He took away a lot about how a headquarter office works, the logistics of international television, and a lot of tips on how to run a broadcast. All of this information was critical for him as he moved forward with his career in broadcast journalism.

He spent several more years in Singapore, but by 2000, he and his wife decided they missed their family and it was time to come home. Faced with the option of staying in Asia for his career or moving back to the United States, Chan decided it would be best to roll the dice again and move back to California in pursuit of another stable career.

As he returned, the “dot-com bubble” was just starting to burst, which was a time when online business stocks were being severely overvalued and caused a big crash due to unrealistic projections, according to finance expert Kalen Smith. This was especially bad for Chan, as he worked for the online investment company eTrade for a couple years right after coming back.

Eventually, Chan found an opportunity at NBC 7 in San Diego, so he once again moved across the state to pursue a more stable career.

“San Diego is just a beautiful place,” he said. “Growing up, I had some family friends that lived here, and we would always come and visit. I had a son and a daughter on the way, and we really wanted a place where we could grow roots and a nice environment for them to grow up.”

One of the first stories Chan covered as a reporter with NBC 7 was the Witch Creek fire, which destroyed over a thousand homes and caused over a billion dollars in damage. When the fire was first beginning, Chan recalls his manager asking him to come in to work at 8 a.m. the next day to cover the fire, a bit earlier than normal. But at 3 a.m., his manager called him again, telling him the fire had jumped the 15 freeway and he needed to get out there immediately to cover the story.

“It was intense, it was tragic,” Chan said. “I went to Rancho Bernardo and everybody was evacuating. All the cars were leaving, and we were going in. I will never forget there’s a street that both sides were lined with trees and all of them were on fire, and we’re driving in, and there’s just smoke everywhere. It was just a surreal experience.”

This was not the first time at NBC 7 that Chan would experience such tragedy and have to report on it. He said the hardest part of being a journalist throughout the years has been interviewing people who had lost their loved ones in a tragic accident. As uncomfortable as it was, the network often required it of him whenever possible.

“I found that to be a standard operating procedure for a lot of news stations,” he said. “It’s very uncomfortable to go up to somebody who has recently lost their husband, son, daughter, brother, sister, and say ‘How do you feel, tell me what it’s like.’ That’s probably the most difficult thing that I had to deal with. I still am obviously uncomfortable with that.”

After many successful years reporting with NBC 7, Chan decided to take another gamble and move on from journalism. He hoped that life would just work itself out again, as it had for him up to this point. He had no long-term plan lined up but was just tired of covering the same stories, which were no longer as fulfilling for him.

“I wanted to transition out of reporting,” he said. “I wanted to find a new path because career-wise I felt like I didn’t want to move—a lot of people have to move before they move up the latter. People weren’t like pining over me to be an anchor. I was tired of going out and doing stories like, ‘Hey, it’s raining,’ where people could look outside or look at the weather app on their phone and know that already. I was looking for something different, looking for a change.”

After NBC 7, Chan started his own little business making videos for other people and doing some communications and PR work for companies in need of it. He says the few business classes he took at USC before switching majors were “totally irrelevant” to him building his own communication business. His parents were small business owners, so he learned more from them as he grew up than he did from his university.

“I didn’t really plan things out very well,” he said. “Had I known I wanted to go into journalism I would’ve taken some journalism classes and learned to write and do all those things, but it just didn’t happen that way.”

Someone suggested to Chan that he should consider teaching, so he started instructing at San Diego City College before eventually finding openings at San Diego State and Grossmont College. For a few years, he taught in the School of Journalism and Media Studies and enjoyed his experience being a professor. He loved interacting with students, and his most memorable moments were at the end of a semester when dozens of his students would tell him how much they liked his course.

One of his students, social science sophomore Sam Whipple, felt he took a lot away from Chan’s course despite not being a JMS major himself.

“I think the biggest takeaway I had was how important it is to network and make connections with people,” Whipple said. “I thought he was a cool guy…I feel like he tried to help everyone’s grades as much as he could.”

But despite the positive reception to his short teaching career, Chan felt it was difficult to advance without having a PHD, which he did not want to do. He was only teaching part-time, anyway, as he was balancing communications work on the side and being a good parent to his two children, who needed rides to sports, music lessons, practices, etc.

“It wasn’t easy, it was very busy,” Chan said. “But I was able to make it happen.”

In 2020, after only a few years as a professor, Chan took yet another gamble and left his job teaching, primarily because he found a great opportunity as the San Diego Council Communications Director, where he still works today. He absolutely loves it so far.

“As a journalist, I love the sense of purpose of informing people and giving them the best information possible to make their decisions in life,” he said. “The mission here is fantastic. The mission is doing the best that you can for the residents of San Diego and the city. Every day you get to fulfill that. Whether it’s someone complaining about a pothole, or the streetlights not working, or whether it’s helping a councilmember pass legislation that will hopefully leave a legacy and fix some major problems with the city.”

As for the future, Chan isn’t quite sure what’s in store for him in the years to come. He wants to stay in his current position for at least a few more years, but true to form throughout his entire career and life, he is not binding himself down to one set plan and is hoping life will figure itself out.

“As you can tell by the story, I’m not a huge planner,” he said. “I do plan, and the planning has opened up opportunities for me, but I’m just seeing where things go right now, and enjoying the ride. I think a lot of people go into college, and my kids have their plans, but life doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes you get into things that you don’t expect, but I think you have to be able to adapt and kind of pivot if necessary, and find what makes you happy and what makes you be able to live.”

When he reflects on his life, Chan says his time living and working overseas were crucial to him in every possible way.

“There’s something really special about getting a different perspective on life and exploring other cultures, and understanding how other people live. Maybe that gives you a little bit extra in understanding people in their day-to-day lives.”

Ultimately, people are the reason Chan pushes forward and continues to do what he does. His intense passion for people and their stories is his drive to continue to work in this field. And just as he has thrown “plans” to the wayside throughout most of his life, he does not plan to stop helping people anytime soon.

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