Sayaka Matsuoka, 28, Indie Journalist
In the midst of a global pandemic and a national uprising over racial injustice, journalist Sayaka Matsuoka packs a face mask, goggles, helmet and maybe a backup phone battery in case her Facebook livestream runs long.
That’s the life of a Triad City Beat associate editor in 2020. The staff of the free, independent weekly known for its arts and entertainment coverage finds themselves breaking critical local health news in the midst of sometimes tense protests of local law enforcement.
Sayaka feels a responsibility to get it right.
“I want to make sure 50-60 years from now, we are on the right side of history,” she says.
Sayaka was born in New York City, a first generation American to parents who emigrated from Japan. Her father was a trained sushi chef, and the Matsuokas soon moved south. They opened Kyoto Fantasy Express, which they operated for about 20 years before they retired in 2018.
Sayaka grew up working in the restaurant.
“It was part of the family business. It was what you did. It was sort of how we put food on the table. It helped me to learn responsibility from a fairly young age. That was a huge part of my childhood,” she says. “I still have dreams in the future of opening my own restaurant. They’d probably discourage me from doing so.”’
“I loved it. It was one of those things. I read almost every textbook cover to cover. It never felt like work to me,” she says.
She applied for master’s degree programs, hoping to go into museum curation. When she didn’t get into the program of her choice, she ended up applying for an internship with Triad City Beat.
The publication was brand new and run by seasoned independent weekly editors, Brian Clarey, Jordan Green and Eric Ginsburg. She hadn’t had any formal journalism training, but she was still expected to pitch story ideas like the rest of the staff.
“I just remember being super intimidated,” she says. “They were very supportive, but there wasn’t a bunch of hand holding.”
Sayaka wrote feature stories. Her five-month gig ended with a cover story about a young woman who was a victim of sex trafficking. It was the most intense and sensitive story she had ever written. She had to walk a careful line, giving the woman space to tell her story without retraumatizing her.
“That’s still one of my proudest stories I have done. It really shaped some of the stories I go after now.”
After the internship, she and her fiancé moved to Chapel Hill where he had a new job. She worked part-time at a coffee shop and starting pitching freelance stories to publications like Indy Week, a Triangle independent weekly, and Durham Magazine. But when the couple decided it was time to buy a home, they found that Greensboro was a more affordable option.
They moved back to Greensboro, and Sayaka rejoined the writing staff at Triad City Beat. In 2019, she became an associate editor.
The small staff meets weekly to divvy up stories – news pieces, feature stories on arts and culture, and opinion pieces about Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point.
Sayaka’s childhood spent in a restaurant and art history education primed her for features as diverse at the region’s eclectic restaurant scene to Greensboro’s mural culture to a Black farmer’s market.
“I love covering art and I love covering food,” she says.
The pandemic scuttled large portions of the weekly’s content, as events were cancelled and restaurants, bars and entertainment venues were closed. The newspaper suspended printing, and the staff swiftly shifted to daily, online COVID-19 coverage.
Then came the protests following the death of George Floyd. Triad City Beat staff, including Sayaka, took shifts livestreaming marches and protests. Days of cities under curfew and civil disobedience. Thousands of people followed along from home, watching sometimes tense interactions between protesters and law enforcement, watching the reporters do their jobs live as it happened.
Given the risk journalists have faced as protests nationwide, Sayaka bought a pair of goggles and started bringing her bike helmet with her.
“They are always in my car for when I go to a protest if I think something will get hairy,” she says. She hasn’t had to use them.
The live nature of the reporting has prompted internal conversation by Triad City Beat about how to cover such events. People are wary of being personally identified online or in the media, lest that draw negative or dangerous attention.
“It was a rapidly changing thing we were talking about daily,” Sayaka said.
Ultimately the staff decided to try to avoid focusing on private individuals in footage or photographs, and keep an eye out for potential personal details that might be accidentally shared during a livestream. The goal was to provide coverage without harming anyone.
“There is a responsibility as the press to report in a morally responsible way.”
Triad City Beat is now back in print, and slowly shifting back to its mix of news and features. Sayaka thinks she will stick around this community, where her family lives. She feels like a part of it.
“Doing journalism you can’t help but be ingrained in the community. If I am going to be ingrained in a community, I want it to be in Greensboro,” she says.