Her time Jessica Lum was a journalist for the new century, an empathic reporter who told timeless stories with digital-age tools. (Courtesy of the Lum family)
On September 22, 2012, Jessica Ann Lum took the stage to accept her award for Best Feature in the student-journalist category from the Online News Association. As the lights in the San Francisco Hyatt Regency’s Grand Ballroom glinted off the silver sequins on her shirt, Jessica gave a “brief and SEO-friendly” acceptance speech, as host Hari Sreenivasan, the PBS NewsHour correspondent, had requested.
Jessica hadn’t expected to win. The other finalists were teams of students, and she worked solo on her “Slab City Stories” project—a multimedia report on the inhabitants of a former Marine base-turned-squatter-RV-park in the California desert (though not, she made sure to point out, without the support of her professors, classmates, and Kickstarter backers). Jessica didn’t enjoy being in the spotlight, either; she was more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. It took her only a few seconds longer to accept the award than it did to get to the stage. After a rush of thank-yous and a celebratory double fist-pump, Jessica returned to her seat—and to what appeared to be a bright future, one in which she’d tell many more stories and win many more awards.
Less than four months later, on January 13, 2013, Jessica died. She was 25.
As a college senior, she’d already decided that she was going to be a journalist who told people’s stories honestly and powerfully, using words, photos, videos, and design; and that nothing—not the recession, the bleak journalism job market, nor the rare, incurable cancer with which she’d just been diagnosed—would stop her. According to her family, friends, professors, classmates, and colleagues, Jessica was that determined and that talented—and she was right. Jessica’s tragically brief journalism career is significant not only because of the substantive work she produced, but because of how she did it: firmly rooted in the fundamentals of reporting and storytelling, but with a vision and style that incorporated today’s digital tools. She was, in many ways, the future of journalism. Jessica loved to tell people’s stories. This is hers.
Jessica’s ONA trophy—a clear acrylic pyramid—sits on a mantel in her parents’ house in Sacramento’s South Land Park neighborhood. This is where Jessica and her older sister, Bethany, grew up, and where her parents, Bob, a retired high-school physics teacher, and Anna, who worked for the state as an analyst before retiring in 2007, still live with their dog, Dakota. Dakota is a recent addition to the family; Anna relented on her no-dogs rule when she realized this was Jessica’s only chance to have one. She asked only that the dog Jessica brought home from the Sacramento SPCA not be big or black. Dakota is a black German Shepherd mix. “This is the one she fell in love with,” Anna says with a laugh.
From an early age, Jessica displayed many of the traits that would define her journalism: curious, adventurous, intelligent, determined, fearless, compassionate. As a newborn, she surprised nurses by grabbing onto the side of her bassinet and trying to pull herself up. The Lums would see this determination countless times thereafter. “If she wants to latch onto something, she’ll stay there,” Bob says.
Growing up, Jessica was a tomboy who preferred Transformers to dolls; this made fitting in with other children difficult at times. By junior high, she’d found her way socially, though she always had a soft spot for outsiders—from homeless people, to whom she would occasionally give her lunch (and the Tupperware it was packed in), to a lonely new student from Taiwan who became a lifelong friend.
She stood 5’ 4.5” and typically wore T-shirts and jeans. She loved to snowboard and was a self-described “huge nerd,” with Dragon Ball Z posters on the walls of a room that looked more like a 10-year-old boy’s lair than a teenage girl’s. She played video games and ate Korean BBQ, usually with her fiancé, Chris Tanouye.
Although she was a voracious reader, she was not really a news junkie. Her father, though, could sometimes convince her to watch the news with him. PBS NewsHour was a family favorite, and when Jessica recognized one of its regular commentators on a San Francisco street, she had her picture taken with him. The photo, now framed, shows a smiling teenager next to a happy—if a bit surprised—Mark Shields.