By its nature, journalism can often be caught up in tomorrow's stories, but Zing Tsjeng’s vision remains unrestricted by the same contemporaneity. The digital editor for Broadly now, as of March 2018, adds author to her list of her achievements with the release of her Forgotten Women series. Highlighting women who have been left out of mainstream history narratives, Zing has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the forgotten legacies of women whose stories she is determined to tell.
On Her Career and Journalism
What made you get into journalism?
To be honest, I was always interested in writing, but I never thought I would be a journalist until I did my student newspaper and then won a prize for student journalism from the guardian and then thought “oh maybe there is a career in this” because up until then i just looked at it as a fun hobby.
Was it the winning or writing?
It wasn’t even winning the prize it was more editors of newspapers I had read coming up to me and saying “we read your entry and it was great”, which was really nice because they didn’t need to tell me that face to face at all. But I think it was their encouragement however brief on the night of the award ceremony that encouraged me to look at it more seriously as a profession because up until then, at university I was applying for advertising jobs.
So up until university you’d never considered journalism?
And then you finished and won the prize?
And then I did a masters in Journalism, because I’m the kind of person who is always looking for a course I can do to make myself better, because its a little scary -
And then I started working in fashion magazines, my first job was at Wonderland and then I went to Dazed after which I had the really short job at a pop culture site called Combini where I worked before joining the Broadly team.
What kind of journalism were you doing for the fashion magazines?
At Wonderland, I was the online editor but this was way back in 2012, when twitter and instagram were just starting out and everyone was still putting stupid filters on everything. They basically gave me free reign to do their social media and their website, which was really good experience at the start of your career. After that I went on to do online news for dazed and confused, so I did lots of breaking news and fashion coverage.
How did you become the editor of Broadly?
When Broadly was first starting up they wanted a UK base as well as a US one. So I was basically headhunted to join the team. That was a really cool experience and when they approached me, I kind of um’ed and ah’ed as I had literally just started in another new job, but at the end of the day I knew it was the right decision.
What made you decide to go with Broadly?
It was just such a cool idea to start up a brand new women’s publication. It just hadn’t been done in the way they wanted to do it for so long, with so many cool documentaries, great videos and amazing journalism.
Was that part of the mandate from the beginning- to publish really diverse content from diverse voices?
100%. It’s really interesting because I feel like a lot of other places have now caught up with us, as people are realising that you can’t just publish for a very small pool of women. So in a way we’ve been proven right.
What does a typical work day look like?
I wake up and immediately start looking at the news which is probably bad for my sanity. But it does keep me on top of the news cycle and what people are talking about online, especially women because I follow a lot of women and then I get in to work. My day is kind of mixed between everything from coming up with ideas for new documentaries to working with other people across Vice on different projects that aren’t Broadly related. So it’s just a really diverse mix of things to do. My every day isn’t very standard.
Do you feel like the commercialisation of news impacts the work -type or amount -that you have to put out?
No, because I feel like when we started there was a very strong trend towards people just pumping out content because traffic was the number one metric for success as a website. I do think we’ve started to move away from that in the journalism industry as a whole which is really good because then it means you don’t feel like you always have to be publishing stuff. But Broadly never started out as the kind of website where you would get up to the minute breaking celebrity news because there are a lot of places that do that already. So what we wanted to do was invest in interesting writers and good journalism and cool videos and that what has been our MO from the start.
We’ve been hearing a lot of chatter about opinion essays and women, and specifically women of colour having to mine their own personal experiences for content and publications, because there isn’t as much space in publishing anymore. Is it something you’re conscious of?
Yes, I mean when I started out in journalism, I definitely felt the pressure to think about what I could write about from a personal perspective or an essay about my opinions but actually as I’ve gotten more experience I realise there is only so much you can give as a writer. There are some writers who are really good at it and they have ways of turning everyday experiences into something so relatable and literary and its a joy to read but I don’t think i could do that. Also, with experience I realise that the skills I value as a journalist don’t really have anything to do with me as a person but more how I relate to other people, like how to be a good listener and how to make other people feel comfortable with you so they can open up in interviews, that’s what I really value in journalism.
Speaking of metrics - do you have any guidelines you go through when picking content? Are there any boxes that potential content has to tick?
It’s difficult because there are some stories that are just good stories full stop - you just look at the idea and think I want to read that. In terms of what generally attracts me to a story, its just something that says something new about the world that hasn’t been said before by other publications or isn’t being discussed enough. Just because I feel like there is so much noise in the news at the minute, so you want to bring something new to the table, especially if you want to get people reading and interacting with your content. You have to show them that there is something about you that is different to everything else.
On Forgotten Women
Do you you feel like that inspired the forgotten women series?
Yes definitely, because all the stories feel really new and contemporary even though some of them are literally thousands of years old because no-one has heard of them - unless you are a specialist academic - most of the names would be new names. Even me, and I would consider myself quite clued up on history. For a lot of the women that we picked, at first I was like ‘this story sounds amazing, but I have no idea who this is’. So we picked the women with the help of an organisation called The New Historia, which is an academic project from The New School: Parsons. It is run by a women’s history professor and it is devoted to making sure women in history aren’t forgotten, so we worked with her to select the roll call of women which was a really interesting process. From there I worked with the publisher to make sure the list was as diverse and representative as possible because I didn’t want it to just be women from America or England and I obviously didn’t want it to just be white women. It was really important to me that it was representative of women history across the world, not just in Europe or across the West.
When you started thinking about the idea, was it something you came up with or were you approached by a publisher?
I was initially approached by my publisher, who were interested in doing something in women’s history and they had the kernel of an idea, so we worked on it together and it eventually became Forgotten Women. I was adamant that I didn’t just want it to be a list of women, I wanted there to be a story told from page one to the final page of women who had been doing things throughout history. You can see it in the way the chapters are laid out - at least with the Leaders- it ends with people who were involved with the civil rights era which was really important to me as I wanted it to feel like you were dipping in and out of this big, existing narrative.
Speaking about women rights and equality has become such a big topic over the past few years again. Is Forgotten Women something you felt had to be done right now or did you feel like it could have existed five or ten years ago or five or ten years in the future?
No, I feel like we are in a really unique moment now. I always reference this tweet that went viral last year “ Name a bitch badder than Taylor Swift” and so many people came back saying “what about this woman, what about this woman, and they were all referencing women from history”. I don’t think that would have happened five years ago because people wouldn’t have reacted to it in the same way. So I think we are in a really unique moment now because there is a real hunger to know more about these kinds of things and I think there is the newfound openness to new ideas and to critiquing things that we assumed or latched on to in the past. You can see it with something like the British Empire, because now people are thinking ‘hey it wasn’t so great’ and I think that is very much now - maybe it was happening in academia or something - but now it’s mainstream and I think its the same thing for women History. people were maybe not so interested a couple of years ago but now they really are so these books are the perfect books for our times because they speak to what a lot of people want to learn about now.
How did you decide the end point for selecting women, was it more natural because these things ebb and flow?
It’s interesting because it varies from field to field, so for instance, with The Leaders, which is all about politics and activism, you get women throughout history, eg. Ancient Egypt had female pharaohs, but with science it’s different. The history of science or at least the history of documented science is quite short, so we had to naturally constrain it.
What do you look for when deciding whether a woman has been forgotten, what are the parameters for deciding that?
I was initially nervous about it because it felt like a value judgement on whether someone else deserved to be forgotten. But what I’m trying to say is more that these women were - through no fault of their own - forgotten, meaning that they either didn’t get the recognition they deserved while they were alive or since. In some cases, strangely or tragically, they were very famous while they were alive and then after they died, their legacy wasn’t preserved and they didn’t get written into history books. Sometimes that is deliberate because people made sure they weren’t being remembered e.g. an Egyptian Pharaoh called Hatshepsut, who came to power because her son was too young to rule, she was the dowager queen but that wasn’t good enough for her so she said F*** this and declared herself Pharaoh. She was a huge architect and built a lot of massive temples in Egypt - some of which are still standing, when she died, her son came into power and a couple of years into being Pharaoh, he started literally chiseling out her name from all the records. Her name was changed to her father's name or her brothers name and in some cases someone literally went at it with a chisel and carved her out of history. That was one very obvious case of a woman who needed to be in the book because it was a clear example of how you can be so famous and get a lot done in your time and build monuments but if someone after you isn’t willing to preserve or is hostile to your legacy you can be completely forgotten.
Do you find that a lot of the time women have been deliberately left out or do you find that it is more of an institutionalised sexism of the time?
It’s kind of a mix of things, so sometimes women legacies can change in really interesting way that changes what they were about. For example, Ranavalona, was the ruler of Madagascar and at the time she inherited the kingdom there were Christian missionaries in Madagascar and she started kicking them out because she was afraid of being colonised and she was quite brutal about it. She had people killed and sent people away etc, so when she died, she was portrayed as a bloodthirsty tyrant because her son converted to Christianity. But it’s only now that people look back on what she did and see that it made sense because she wanted to protect their kingdom from outside influence, it’s only with hindsight that the warped legacies of some people become clearer.
So what’s next for you?
Well, the next two books are The Writers and The Artists coming out in September. I’ll definitely continue writing, I’m actually playing with the idea of doing a scriptwriting course because that’s something I’ve never really done before, but I guess looking at Forgotten Women, there are some stories that you think would make such amazing movies.
Can you think of any women off the top of your head in the upcoming series that stood out to you?
Yes, one woman that really stood out to me was Josephine Hopper, who was Edward Hopper’s wife. She was actually a really amazing artist in her own right right and she really influenced him to take up the medium of painting that he did, but when they got married, she put her career to one side and became his assistant and his muse. She was his model for the rest of her life. That really stood out to me because its a classic story, why couldn’t she have pursued her career alongside his? But that wasn’t the done thing at the time.