Drew Lazor and Neal Santos on Filipino food, journalism and embarrassing moments in their careers

(Photo by Stephen Jiwanmall)

Last spring, we got journalists Neal Santos and Drew Lazor in a room to talk about how they got their start, their favorite projects and, duh, their most embarrassing (career) moments.

Below, find highlights from the talk, moderated by AAJA board members Yowei Shaw and Juliana Reyes, or listen to the conversation in full.

Big thanks to our sponsors: Cambodian dessert company Koliyan Philly, Yards Brewing Company and The Headroom Philadelphia for the recording equipment (and hat-tip to audio producer Jeff Towne for helping us record the conversation).

On getting his start in journalism

NS: I brought a camera [to the Philippines] and took as many photos as my heart was able to take, which was a lot of photos. I was able to explore a world that was familiar to me and also completely not, you know, there’s a difference between being Filipino and Filipino American.

[When I got back] I just committed to photojournalism. It was romantic at the time but I wanted to save the world with my photography. Then I was just hustling, like five internships at the same time.

I didn’t get my job at the City Paper as a photographer, I started off as a part-time web editor. That’s because I was willing to experiment with web design, willing to experiment with video.

DL: I was one of those dorks that saw Almost Famous when he was a kid and thought he was going to be the next great music journalist. I always thought that music was going to be the thing I was going to do.

On getting into food writing

DL: Growing up in a Filipino household … everything is structured around food in some capacity, so I was always interested in [food]. But I never thought it was going to be an actual path for writing.

There was a demand for it and people kept asking me about it. And I found that the people who work in food are just so weird and have so many interesting things to say and I never get sick of talking to them.

“You can be any type of journalist you want to be.” – Neal Santos

On an early embarrassing moment in his career

DL: I was interviewing David Ansill … I was real green, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I was like, tell me about some dishes. And he was like, we got osso bucco. And I was like, what’s that? And he was like you’re a fucking food writer and you don’t know what osso bucco is? And I was like uh, no, I’ve heard of it. Every time I see him I think of that phone conversation and I’m like, ugh, so embarrassing.

NS: When I was in the [Daily News] newsroom, I was just kind of looking around the walls, and Dave Maialetti comes up and he’s like, “What the F are you doing inside this office? Go out there and make pictures.” … He reminded me that people need their stories to be told through your craft.

On the rise of food writing in Philly

DL: The beat became so rich so fast. … The coverage blossomed because so many people wanted it. … Sometimes, I remember, I was struggling to fill my little box in print. Now, it’s like there’s 20 million blogs that do that exact same kind of coverage.

On his day to day

NS: I kind of just roam the streets. Whether it’s on assignment for City Paper or for another editorial client like a food magazine or a newspaper or Instagram, I kind of make my own assignments and challenge myself that way. … I revisit what it is I learned in college. I remember all my basic photo assignments.

Work in my mind has transitioned from the 9-5 model, which is what I did for so long, and now it’s all work, really, as a freelancer.

On his career right now

NS: What I know is important to me is having a nice life. Having a nice relationship with my friends, my family, my community, and everything else just kinds of falls into place if I keep those values in mind. I still want to create, to be this machine that puts out good quality photojournalism. It’s just kind of a balancing act.

On his values when it comes to being a journalist

NS: You can be any type of journalist you really want to be. You can be any type of entrepreneur you want to be, and I feel like I’m trying to meld the two constantly.

That’s something I constantly reevaluate: what’s important to me, what I wanna do and how am I gonna get there?

“Don’t be afraid to be unprofessional.” – Drew Lazor

On writing about a topic that you’re not an expert on

DL: You don’t need to be an expert in a particular topic to cover it proficiently. You need to be curious. You need to be a good diligent reporter, where if you don’t know the answer to something, you find that answer on your own — you don’t rely on someone else’s word.

On their Filipino popup restaurant Tita Rosy’s

DL: The event started at six. At 5:30, I looked out the door, and in South Philly, in Point Breeze, and there was this line of Asian people around the block. It looked like they were waiting for the new iPhone or something, and I was like, “Who are all these Asian people? I’ve never seen any of them!”

[The event] showed us that people were really interested in food we grew up eating. It was a really fun project that meant a lot to us.

On how to be a good reporter 

DL: Don’t be afraid to be unprofessional. … Allow [people] to feel comfortable enough to talk about themselves. … The best way to get honest answers is to make someone feel comfortable, and to do that, you kind of have to take the reporter hat off. … Don’t be a dickhead. … I feel like people appreciate that, if you just talk to them as a real person and not as a “Johnny reporter” who just wants to get the scoop and impress his or her editor.

On advice to young journalists

NS: Ask for help. It takes two seconds to send out an email to someone whose work you really admire. … Mold yourselves after who you aspire to be.

On how to figure out if you should quit your job and become a freelancer

DL: You get to the job one day and you sit down and you’re like, “I do not want to be here and I never want to come back.” That’s what motivated me. … I knew that I couldn’t do what I was doing professionally anymore. … You should consider what you would do if you didn’t have the job. Have some stuff in place. When I left the job, I had a bunch of pitches out there that I already had locked I while I was still employed.

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