For years, Ailsa Chang, JD ’01 (BA ’98), fluctuated between law and journalism, each field battling it out for priority in her career. But as an award-winning journalist for NPR, she’s finally found a way to weave together her two professional interests.
A Bay Area native, Chang studied public policy at Stanford, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1998. While at Stanford in Washington working for a semester in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, Chang rubbed shoulders with “cool, very committed” lawyers, she recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ” So she applied to law school despite the fact that she lacked “a firm idea of exactly whom I wanted to help.”
Chang had written her undergraduate senior thesis on hate speech and wondered if, perhaps, she might become a constitutional lawyer. In fact, Con Law 2 with former Dean Kathleen Sullivan wound up being her favorite law school class. “The First Amendment was very fascinating to me. It began cranking the gears in my brain; I thought maybe I could do something related to journalism.”
After graduating from law school, Chang served as a clerk to Judge John T. Noonan Jr. on the Ninth Circuit and then joined the litigation group at Munger, Tolles & Olson in San Francisco.
“After my first year at the firm, I could already tell it wasn’t a great fit. I thought, ‘This is not me.’ I wanted to hit the pause button.” So Chang took a year’s leave from the firm to become a Fulbright Scholar studying media law at Oxford University. “I worked with reporters and editors and that planted a seed. I’d been excited about the First Amendment in law school and I began to wonder if I could find an intersection of First Amendment law and journalism.”
But when she returned to the firm, Chang again found that litigation simply “didn’t tap into the parts I liked best about myself.”
“My tendency to be structured, obsessively detailed, and neurotic about what could go wrong—those were the parts of me that were put on steroids at the law firm,” she says. “Whereas the other parts of myself—the free-spirited, curious part, the part that loves connecting with people and can strike up a conversation with anybody—they were not getting to breathe. I began to think, ‘What kind of person do I want to be? Is there a job out there that lets me be that kind of person?’ ”
So Chang left law practice and spent some “very therapeutic” time at an artist community in Central Mexico, making pottery and jewelry, painting and journaling. She returned to the Bay Area, fully committed to exploring journalism. She landed unpaid internships at NPR member station KQED and at the San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper. “I liked how in journalism you can float from one topic to another,” she says. “If something is no longer interesting or relevant, you move on. It was liberating. But as a litigator, a case could be in your life for years.”
During those internships, Chang also discovered that the attributes required to be a good journalist were precisely the qualities she wanted to nurture in her own character: “to be a profoundly good listener and empathetic, to see both sides of an issue fairly and clearly, to be open to new ideas and willing to change your mind, and to be comfortable dealing with people.” Chang explains, “I realized that journalism would train me to be the person I wanted to be. However, the lawyer in me wanted a ‘game plan.’ So I applied to journalism school.”
After earning a master’s in journalism from Columbia University in 2008, she became a Kroc Fellow at NPR, with stints at member station WNYC and NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a reporter on NPR’s National Desk, as a producer on Weekend Edition, and as a web producer for the digital team. During her fellowship at NPR, she investigated how Detroit’s public defender system left lawyers without sufficient resources to effectively represent their clients. This resulted in a story that won Chang several industry awards.
“Ailsa has a great interest in investigative reporting and going deep,” says Steve Drummond, a senior editor at NPR who supervised the Kroc Fellows then. “Her legal training and knowledge meant that she knew what questions to ask, knew when to push back. She was a much more seasoned, mature, confident person because she had an area of expertise beyond journalism.”
When Chang learned WNYC had a job opening for a political reporter, “I begged my way into the job,” she says. “I knew nothing about New York State government. But very quickly the editors could tell I had a knack for stories in the courtroom.” Soon after, she began covering legal and political issues related to the NYPD. “That was the most fascinating phase of my time there.”
In particular, Chang dove deep into the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy and the prevalence of unlawful marijuana arrests. Her
investigation revealed that a high percentage of those stopped and frisked were young black and Latino men. The story earned her an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton award.
“Ailsa’s legal training really clicked in on that story,” recalls Karen Frillmann, WNYC’s enterprise editor. “She laid out her argument [and] her story in a very logical way. It really made the stories break through. And her legal training helped with the writing process. When people heard the story, it was hard to dismiss. Plus, she sounds fantastic on the air. Her voice jumps out. She has tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and integrity.”
In 2012, NPR approached Chang about joining the New York City bureau. She later moved to Washington, D.C., where she works today covering Congress.
“There’s so much overlap in the skills of being a lawyer and a reporter,” Chang notes. Both lawyers and journalists must “deconstruct arguments, zero in on inconsistencies, write under pressure, communicate effectively, coax people into talking, be comfortable dealing with conflict, and anticipate counterarguments.” After a pause, Chang adds, “I hope my parents are reading this.”
Chang has proved to be an “incredible interpreter of the law,” according to Audie Cornish, co-host of All Things Considered, who met Chang when they were both reporters. “She can say to the listener, ‘Here’s what you heard and here’s what it means.’ That’s the difficult and delicate part of journalism.” Cornish adds that Chang brings “such joy and warmth” to her job. “People want to talk to her. They love her, even people who probably shouldn’t. That’s important because trust is all you have in this profession. No one has to talk to you.”
These days, Chang has been watching how presidential politics during this unusual election year has distracted much of Washington. “I just did a report on how unproductive Congress has been since most of the attention has been diverted to the presidential race. And now that Trump is the apparent Republican nominee, a lot of attention will shift to the Senate races. Republican candidates will have to figure out how to run with him at the top of the ticket. Democrats have a shot at retaking the chamber, so in the coming months, I’ll be focusing more on Senate races rather than what’s going on inside the Capitol.”
As for the future of her career, Chang says that she’d eagerly return to reporting legal issues. “I remain very interested in thinking about the law. I loved criminal justice. Someday, I’d love to cover the Supreme Court.” SL
Leslie Gordon is an attorney and legal affairs journalist.