An Advocate for Web Journalism

IN PROFILE 1972 CHRISTOPHER MA

A trail-blazer in the emerging field of Web publishing and a father of two children on the verge of adolescence, Christopher Y. Ma '72 lives a life molded by the ideals of his generation.

Ma is a long-time magazine editor and was recently named executive producer of washingtonpost.com--the on-line version of The Washington Post.

Ma says that his life, like that of many of his classmates, has been shaped by the tumultuous events of his College years.

"It was a time obviously when an awful lot of assumptions about the way the world was working or was supposed to work were being challenged," Ma says. "I think it did make me more attuned to the world of politics and therefore drew me to journalism."

The godfather of Ma's daughter, Li Chung "Sandy" Pei '72, says that while Ma was no extremist, he certainly reflected the times.

Pei, a New York-based architect, says that such a background has had concrete ramifications throughout Ma's career.

"Whether it makes him radical or not, it certainly represents a push towards change," he says.

Still, there are those like G. Garrett Epps '72--former president of The Crimson, where Ma worked on the editorial board--who feel that the impact of events at Harvard in the late '60s is often overestimated.

Epps, an assistant professor of law at the University of Oregon Law School, says that he feels that Ma, whose grandfather was the last Episcopal bishop of Beijing, has a personal history which is more important than any political movements during his College years.

"He comes from a very distinguished background and family and I believe that was much more important in his formation," Epps says.

Regardless of Ma's ideological commitments, his family has been a constant.

"I've tried to balance my professional responsibilities in a way that would allow me to have a close family relationship," Ma says.

The Web Navigator

Although Ma has long been involved in the business of telecommunications and information technology, his new job at The Post represents a departure from his career as a magazine journalist.

While he earned a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1978, the bulk of Ma's career has been spent as an editor.

Ma says that his first experience in the world of professional journalism was as an intern for the Atlantic Monthly, where he worked during his summer vacations from Harvard.

Ma's assignment was to read the "slush pile," the weighty but eclectic group of unsolicited articles received by the magazine.

At Harvard, Ma continued to develop his literary skills as president of the Advocate and as a Crimson editor.

After a brief stint working as a lawyer, Ma took up journalism as a full-time occupation in Newsweek's Washington office.

In the mid-1980s, Ma moved to U.S. News and World Report and was named deputy editor in 1989.

Ma says that although he was interested in the business side of publishing during these years, his responsibilities were limited to editorial work.

According to Pei, who worked with Ma on the Advocate, Ma excelled in these positions because he possesses the unique qualities of a gifted editor.

"He has an openness, a breadth of knowledge, an interest in written work and an interest in working with people," Pei says.

After more than a decade in editorial journalism, Ma took advantage of the opportunity last year to join The Post's on-line division.

"I wanted to move into the kind of role where I could build on my editorial experience, but also be involved in charting business strategy," Ma says.

In his new position, Ma is not responsible for day-to-day printed copy, but instead is charged with what he calls "developing program strategies."

In other words, Ma is charting the future of The Post's Internet site.

Currently, Ma is working on various projects designed to expand services for local users.

His group is now planning to introduce an on-line guide to Washington arts and entertainment.

Ultimately, Ma says that hopes these types of new services will make the site into a highly remunerative operation.

"Everybody is struggling to figure out a way to develop Web publishing into a business," Ma says.

Although his experience in journalism is primarily with magazines, Ma is not a novice in the area of information technology.

After leaving law school, Ma spent two years working as a telecommunications lawyer for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Ma's work at the FCC in 1978 and 1979 came in the midst of telecommunication deregulation and AT&T's break-up.

Ma says that events during this period led to the development of the Internet.

"The whole explosion of communication services...all comes out of telecommunications deregulation," Ma says.

In addition to his work with the FCC, Ma is also the co-author of Teleshock (1985) and The Practical Guide to Practically Everything (1995), two books which deal with information technology and the telecommunications industry.

Although he was one of the few Asian-Americans in the industry when he became a journalist, Ma says that race was never a tremendous factor in his career.

Ma adds that the industry is gradually becoming more diverse.

"The Asian-American community has always been more attracted to technical fields than to liberal arts and publishing," he says. "But if you look at the rise in the last decade of Asian-American novelists, you'll see that really beginning to change."

Reflecting on his effort to succeed with his career and his family, Ma finds himself in the same situation as many of his classmates.

Ma says that many in his class may have started out with lofty aspirations to reshape the world, but that they have gradually learned to reconcile these with more humble and personal goals.

"When we were students, we were going to change the world," he says. "With the benefit of some perspective, family and community have naturally come to the fore."