How do you find "cultural" stories?

Journalism has changed for the worst and it's creating a crisis in our culture.

Cultural Learnings is an editorial platform curated by Sai Villafuerte. You can support it by subscribing to this newsletter, sharing it with your friends, emailing your thoughts, or answering this survey. Cultural Learnings is on Manila Community Radio every Wednesday, 17:00 - 18:00 GMT+8.


During my trip to the grocery, I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of this jacket. Where can I get one?

This weekend, I’m holding a workshop on “cultural writing and journalism.”

When I was first approached for this, it seemed absurd for me to teach this to people. It’s one thing to consciously know whatever it is you say when people ask, “What do you do?” It’s another to rationally explain how you go about doing the thing you do.

So, I asked my friends. “What would you like to know more about in a workshop like this?”

Most of them arrived at the same question: “How do you find ‘cultural’ stories?”

It’s pretty reasonable to ask this. After all, what I do appears to always be tied to some aspect of culture. It makes sense to me in that way, at least. Yet, the divide on what constitutes “culture” has never been more vicious.

I was recently asked a similar question during an interview with Void Realm, a music collective from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “What drives you to find stories?” This question assumes behind my search for cultural stories is a motive.

I guess I sort of have one. There is a form of writing, one plagued with a parasitic quality, that is putting the journalistic profession at risk. Waseem Zakir of the BBC first referred to this as “churnalism” or the practice of copy-pasting press releases. In 2011, the Media Standard Trust set up a website called churnalism.com where you can find out how much of a news story was taken from a press release. In 2016, a study by the European Journalism Observatory found that among 1.8 million articles published by HuffPost, which was acquired by Buzzfeed last year, only 44% were written by staff journalists and thus considered original reporting.* In 2013, Pew Research Center found there were 4.6 public relations executives for every journalist in the United States. In 2019, the country lost 30% of its overall newsroom employment, shedding more every year since 2008. This time last year, The New York Times estimated 37,000 employees of American news media companies were “laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced since the arrival of the coronavirus.” I might just gouge my eyes out if we updated these statistics starting today.

Many publications are rife with churnalism — their “Culture” sections, a vortex of clickbait headlines and generic listicles. It frustrates me that the stories of my talented colleagues will never see the light of day, many of whom probe intensely on the essential questions of our zeitgeist. Delayed Gratification editor Rob Orchard puts it eloquently during a TEDx talk in Madrid: “Virality and clickability make perfect commercial sense, but they don’t build into a journalism which informs and inspires.” I’d like to think I am doing my best to contribute to the latter.

Apparently, I have some insight to impart on this topic so if it vaguely interests you, please come! It’ll be fun. Details below.

As for what is this “culture” I talk about? I’ll leave that for another time.

*This information was added on 13 April 2021, 08:22 GMT+8.


Workshop: Cultural Writing & Journalism

Sunday, 18 April 2021

14:00 - 15:30 GMT+8 (MNL) | 07:00 - 08:30 BST (LDN) | 08:30 - 09:30 CEST (BER)

This workshop is hosted by Nude Floor, a creative space in Manila, Philippines, focused on movement and artistry. The workshop is designed for aspiring and established writers who are deeply interested in the issues facing our culture. I will share some tools I found useful in moving beyond the surface of stories and developing a voice.  

You will learn how to:  

  • Pitch to an editor

  • Find a cultural story

  • Conduct interdisciplinary research

  • Interview effectively

  • Use literary writing techniques

  • Cultivate a creative practice

Sign up here.


5 Things to Distract You From Whatever You’re Doing

I have a few updates about radio. You can finally access an archive of all my shows. Enzo Escober of Out of Print wrote this beautiful piece about my radio family, Manila Community Radio! He said the Cultural Learnings show “radiates the fond specificity of a mixtape smothered in fingerprints.” I’m blushing ☹ Here’s for if you want a quick taste of the type of music I play. I’m also putting together a special show of tracks contributed by listeners. Please add whatever you’ve been listening to recently into this Spotify playlist.

Here’s an incredibly human piece on The New York Times about how people are living this “new normal.” “I don’t think I can go back to a ‘before.’ I don’t think I fit into that life anymore.”

This podcast episode of Vox’s Today, Explained discusses why Taylor Swift is setting a precedent for creative ownership by re-writing all her songs. Also: Did you know Wheatus recorded a second version of “Teenage Dirtbag” last year because they lost the masters to the original track?

A post shared by @jessjanz

Leave a comment