K. W. (short for Kyung Won) Lee arrived in America in 1950 as a young man with ink in his blood, and became the first Asian immigrant to work for mainstream daily publications in the continental United States.
After 40 working years as a reporter, an editor, and a publisher in both mainstream and ethnic journalism, he was inducted into the Newseum's Journalism History Gallery in Arlington, Va., in 1997. Lee is also profiled in Crusaders, Scoundrels, Journalists: The Newseum's Most Intriguing Newspeople, published in January 2000.
A native of Kaesong, North Korea, Lee attended Korea University and studied journalism at West Virginia University and the University of Illinois. In 1955 he started a 45-year-career with dailies in Tennessee, West Virginia and California — much of the last two decades with The Sacramento Union, where he was in charge of investigative coverage and an internship program. He has won 29 professional awards, including those from the National Headliners Club (twice), the AP News Executive Council (three times), and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He was the first recipient of the Asian American Journalists Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. In 1994 he became the first Asian journalist to receive the Free Spirit Award from the Freedom Forum with a $10,000 cash prize.
Lee has covered such issues as civil rights struggles in the South in the early 1960s, massive vote buying practices in southern West Virginia and the plight of Appalachian coal miners. Lee is best known for authoring an investigative series on the 1974 San Francisco Chinatown gangland murder conviction of immigrant Chol Soo Lee (click for Lee's papers), upon which the 1989 film True Believer (starring James Woods and Robert Downey, Jr.) was based. His five-year-long coverage with more than 120 articles led to a new trial and an eventual acquittal and release of the prisoner from San Quentin's Death Row.
In 1979, Lee founded the first national English-language Korean American newspaper, Koreatown Weekly, chronicling the early years of the post-World War II Korean immigration. In 1990, at a time of rising African America-Korean tensions in Los Angeles and other inner cities, he launched and edited the Korea Times English Edition based in Los Angeles, along with an internship program for both Asian Americans and other minorities.
Lee is the founding president of the Korean American Journalists Association with a growing number of second-generation Korean Americans in the mainstream media. In the aftermath of the fiery siege of L.A.'s Koreatown, along with Mexican American actor Edward James Olmos, Lee was honored with the John Anson Ford Award by the Human Relations Commission of Los Angeles County for "promoting racial harmony in inter-group relations through journalism and community involvement."
In semi-retirement, Lee freelances and lectures on investigative journalism in communities of color throughout the University of California system, including UC-Davis, UCLA, UC-Riverside, and UC-Santa Barbara.
Lee is working on two book projects: Lonesome Journey: the Korean American Century — A Korean Oral History and Witnessing a Defining Moment for Korean American Diaspora: Children of Sa-I-Gu (April 29, 1992) Remember.