Before moving back to South Korea for a full-time position as the Seoul editor at CNNGo, Frances Cha attended Dartmouth College to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Asian Studies. She enrolled at Columbia University for a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and started teaching shortly thereafter, all the while working for a variety of publications.
Despite her busy schedule, Frances took the time to impart us with some journalistic wisdom and to discuss why she flew back to Seoul, K-pop’s influence in South Korea’s tourism, and what it’s like being an editor for a publication that integrates both work and play.
You received your MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and have also taught writing classes at your alma mater and most recently at Yonsei University. What lured you into online journalism and travel writing?
I’m actually still teaching a fiction workshop right now at Yonsei. It’s so much fun switching in and out of journalism and fiction mindsets – and I like pursuing them together simultaneously. I was doing lit journal and the school newspaper in high school, then college, then in grad school I was working at a fashion magazine a few times a week. You learn to look at events in different ways and tease stories out of them differently. Fiction is a bit like travel writing – in grad school, we read John Garner, who said there are only two real plots in fiction: a stranger comes to town, or someone goes on a journey. So the two feed on each other… and I guess I’ll be travel writing in nonfiction or fiction for the rest of my life.
Tell us how you ended up moving to South Korea to work as the Seoul editor at CNNGo. What are some of your day-to-day tasks as editor?
My family has been based in Seoul since I was in middle school, and so even though I was traveling back and forth since I was fifteen for boarding school, I always thought of Seoul as home. When I got the opportunity to teach fiction at Yonsei, I moved back after graduation, but within two weeks of coming back I heard about this opening, and I interviewed the day I heard about it.
Day to day tasks… I assign and edit articles and have skype or phone editorial meetings with the rest of our staff who are scattered all around the world, from Oregon to Tokyo to Bangkok. For the first year I was doing only Korea content, but these days I moved away more to global homepage content. The line between work and play become very blurred because sometimes I’ll go somewhere on holiday or to a restaurant, and then I’ll write about it afterward for CNNGo, even though I went there without the slightest intention of doing so. What I love best about the job is actually the hilarious emails that we get from our bosses—they really should be printed out and framed. In fact, I might just do that right now.
CNNGo covers “the best travel, entertainment and lifestyle experiences” in Asia and beyond. What are some of your most memorable travel experiences?
My favorite place in Korea is probably Taebaek. Mountain country. It’s beautiful in any season and has this otherworldly aura about it, especially when it’s snowing and you’re closed in. Plus the hanwoo is amazing up in the mountains.
One of my favorite trips this past year has been with my co-workers at Turner Korea. We rented a car in Gyeongju and went to Andong Hanok Village, which is where one of our unnis’ family is from. They’ve owned the most beautiful estate in that village for 500 years, ever since it was given to them by the king. It’s not open to the public, but we got to stay over and have proper tea and etiquette lessons as they were given in one of the old families, and slept in the same room as a century old sewing machine.Our last summit in Hong Kong two months ago was also spectacularly fun. Our staff went on a scavenger hunt all over the city and we had to do ridiculous tasks, like getting a stranger to have a drink with us, and filming it, and photographing all the 7-11 stores we could find. And having the worst fortune told at a temple. I’m still not over mine.
At an AAJA Seoul panel discussion held earlier this year, you mentioned that the elements for a successful article at CNNGo are: 1) nailing the “voice”; 2) “maintaining ‘snarky, cool’ angles” on already-covered topics; and 3) having an attention-grabbing headline—which you say accounts for 50% of whether or not the article will go viral.
What’s your process for writing a winning headline?
Sometimes we’ll go back and forth on a headline for half an hour and after a while they just get increasingly more inappropriate and outrageous. Then we’ll put it aside and mull over it subconsciously for the next few days until we have an aha! moment in the shower or whatever. Since we’re online, we’re trying to tempt the discerning clicker, and it always helps to be funny, snarky etc. and to avoid clichés like the plague. Except that last one was a cliché, I know, I know.
Why is finding your voice/tone important? How do you bring a fresh spin to an over-covered topic?
The first thing I learned on this job was to avoid chirpy, hackneyed writing on the pain of death. Our boss would give us these brochures and press releases and make us circle pretty much every gushy adjective and verb with a red pen. He wanted us to write the story that you would tell one of your good friends while unwinding at a bar somewhere – and to offer interesting commentary alongside memorable experiences. So yeah, the first step to bringing that fresh spin on an over-covered topic would be to envision what you would actually say about it to your best friend over drinks somewhere, way after work hours.
In 2010, you reviewed JYJ’s first showcase in NYC for V Magazine, and in 2011, you wrote a spot-on piece about the craziness of K-pop fandom in The Believer. How significant is K-pop’s influence in South Korea’s tourism? Do you think K-pop/hallyu will continue to grow and eventually hit mainstream America? More importantly, how do you keep up with all the new 7-member-plus boy and girl groups that debut each week?
K-pop’s influence on Korea’s tourism industry is actually quite huge. I’m always surprised by how fervent the following is – and people who travel here for that have this glint in their eye – like they’re hunting for some kind of cathartic experience and they’re getting it in full. It’s very regional however, and I don’t think there’s any change at all for it to cross over into mainstream Western audiences (2NE1 probably has the most potential of the current acts) unless it is a perfectly bilingual outrageous female singer or group who will have the appeal similar to that of Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj.
I don’t actively try to keep up with K-pop anymore but I do go to concerts and music shows quite frequently because a lot of my friends are in the industry, and plus they’re just vastly entertaining, with all the dancing and comedy mixed in with the crazy intense fan culture, including the sa-seng that have I written about in the past.
Lastly, what are your three travel tips for people visiting South Korea for the first time?
There are so many…but here goes:
- Go to the palaces when it’s raining. There will be no one there and they’re unutterably beautiful.
- You really should try live squid. It’s delicious, I swear.
- Check out the Furniture Museum. It’s the prettiest place in Seoul.
[Photos: Courtesy of Sophia Chong, Turner International]