Breaking up is hard to do

by Alfred Siew on May 22, 2009

Well, actually, writing a lead is nearly as hard to do, especially if you are typing your first post on an empty blog.

So, I’m glad I’ve started.

It has taken a long, long time for me to post on a personal blog. I’ve owned this domain for several months now, after a friend mentioned to me: “why do you have no blog when you’re doing a lot of freelance work?”.

Yes, I know I need to tell the world what I’ve been doing since I left The Straits Times in September 2008, after almost a decade covering technology in Singapore.

But having been a journalist, I’m more interested in writing about stuff I am interested in – rather than my life story – and I already run a blog called Techgoondu.com with a number of my techie journalist or ex-journalist pals.

So, it was not until events this past month that finally compelled me to get things going on this blog.

I recently signed up to teach News Writing and Editing at the National University of Singapore‘s Communications and New Media programme. And I thought this blog would be a good way for me to share some of the news articles and commentaries on journalism that I come across with my students.

After all, these are interesting times for the news media. After decades of unchallenged power, the traditional media of newspapers, radio and TV are losing the clout they are so used to.

Now, it might seem hypocritical for someone who spent almost all his working life writing for The Straits Times – the dominant newspaper in Singapore – to criticise the traditional media.

But even when I was there, I always voiced my opinions. I’ve always maintained that the Net is here and there is no turning back to good, old newspapers.

This is actually not news. In the 1990s, personal homepages had already starting spawning professionally published websites such as Anandtech.com (started by a teenage boy, yes, called Anand).

Back then, you still required some skill to create a website (Cold Fusion, anyone?). And of course, the old media laughed them off when the Dot.com bubble burst in dramatic fashion.

But then the Web came back, in version 2.0. Blogs made it easy for anyone to have a pretty site with just a few clicks (who would have thought the free WordPress would trump professional content tools like Vignette?).

And Google started an advertising model that forever spoilt the market (US$1 to reach a reader in print versus 10 US cents on a website?).

More recently, of course, you’ve got Facebook, Twitter, and whatever newfangled social network services yet to become wildly popular in a short time.

So, to say that newspapers are only dying now is missing half the point. The writing has always been on the wall, but well, who cared when the going was good, right?

Sadly, even when things are getting as bad as now, you’ll find journalists still feeling sorry for the loss of a priestly mission. They’ll ask: who’s going to do our jobs of informing the public?

My question to them is: what have you been doing informing the public?

When was the last time you got a story yourself instead of a handout from the government press office? When was the last time you heard something on the ground and analysed the information?

More than ever, the most “precious” news now is 1) breaking news, which has short shelf-life 2) news with analysis, which makes sense of the info overload 3) scoops/exclusives which no one else has.

The media – and I mean Big Media here – have been fat, uncaring and out of touch with what people want and are interested in. Who cares about press freedom (in Singapore)? Who bothers with journalistic integrity?

It is not that these things are not important. It’s just that people – the very people journalists say they represent – do not see these high ideals in action.

One reason for the disconnect: journalists don’t get the big picture. In J-school, students are taught about objectivity, fairness, clarity. Good points, but not enough attention is paid to teach people about the whole business of journalism.

Unless you are working for news media funded by non-profit foundations (like Pro Publica), your “mission” has most likely been made possible by advertisers, who happen to find your newspaper’s reach useful.

Now that they have Google and Facebook to advertise with (at lower cost, I might add), why is it any surprise that they are pulling out traditional ads? They have never liked the risk of placing a juicy burger ad in a newspaper, only to appear next to a food-poisoning story.

There were two things I learnt during my years of practising journalism:

1) Keep it real: editorial “independence” is not a sacred mission or an artists’ right – it’s integral to the business of newspapers. So, when you say you don’t “sell out”, you are really doing your job; nothing more. If you write crap once, you might get away with it; if you write crap all the time, your readers will stop reading, and the advertiser you’ve been pleasing with good car or food reviews will be off to somewhere more ‘credible’.

2) Don’t be a brat: you, the journalist, are only a gatekeeper because of your reach to readers. Would your readers like you to behave like a brat? If you think a piece of news is not interesting, just tell the PR person: I don’t think we will print this. No need to throw a hissy fit.

If journalists understood the fragility of their “mission” and the impermanence of their position, it would be much easier to face whatever new media model comes along (don’t listen to the gurus, they don’t know either).

Ultimately, there is always a market for good journalism. Of that, I am sure. The simple reason is that people need to get a sense of all the data coming through. Whose review of the iPhone can you trust? Whose reporting of the Iraq war is the most lucid?

It used to be newspapers of record. Now, readers get a chance to re-evaluate, with all the choices online. The trusted source in future may still be the same journalists slogging it out on the ground, and filing for an online site. Or it could be a blogger doing the same (in which case, can we call him a journalist too?).

Whatever form journalism takes in future, I believe readers want the same things – accuracy, fairness and balance – in what they read. Those qualities have always made the best newspapers stand out.

And that applies too for Mr Blogger-turned-citizen-reporter. Endorse a few more phones in those paid-for postings and you’ll soon lose any credibility that your Web 2.0 status gives you. Readers just hate to be deceived.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Meaghan Zabinsky February 10, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Hi, I’m a student journalist at Ryerson University in Toronto. I’m doing a piece on the decline of print and rise of web journalism and I’d love to do a quick e-mail interview about your take on it. I can’t find an e-mail address for you, but if you’re interested I messaged you on Twitter, or you can reach me at meaghan.zabinsky@gmail.com. Thanks so much.

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