“Reluctant Editor”: More answers, but even more questions

Classified newspaper page

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Book: “Reluctant Editor: The Singapore Media as Seen Through the Eyes of a Veteran Newspaper Journalist” (2019, Marshall Cavendish International) by P. N. Balji

Whereas Cheong Yip Seng’s “OB Markers: My Straits Times Story” was a more extensive account of “The Straits Times” (ST) – from the perspective of its former editor-in-chief – P. N. Balji offers a more succinct account of his stints as chief editor of “The New Paper” (TNP) and “TODAY”. His interesting editorial, journalistic, and political nuggets which shed light on the five different newspaper newsrooms of which he was a part were made even more readable by the fact that “Reluctant Editor” is explicitly not a self-aggrandising memoir.

On the other hand, given the significance of TNP and TODAY in Singapore’s media history – “[TNP] as the only afternoon newspaper ever to top 50,000 in daily sales; and TODAY for unlocking [ST’s] stranglehold on the morning newspaper market” (p. 9) – and Balji’s direct involvement in them, one might have expected greater exposition about the day-to-day developments as well as challenges within the newsrooms. In particular, the chapter(s) on the inception and growth of TODAY felt comparatively short, and overall because the writing or reporting is so matter-of-fact, nothing analytical is directly said about the newspapers or the state of the industry today.

(In thinking about research too – especially given that views in the book were in part sought from other editors and reporters – an interesting future study would involve systematic interviews to document the first-hand experiences and perceptions of those who previously worked in print news media. This would be very productive, given that the industry is oftentimes narrowly defined by its relationship to the state per se.)

A key underlying comparison is that of past and present newspapers (and newsrooms), which by extension could be interpreted as an evaluation of the current journalistic state of affairs. Alluding to concerns over regulation and the nature of political reporting, he described the prescience of former ST editor-in-chief Peter Lim: “He held an unprecedented series of newsroom-wide seminars … to explain what he meant and what would happen if ST continued to follow the tried-and-tested path of writing reports about ministers’ speeches and official policies (ST’s readership would decline over time). That was in the 1980s when the paper was in a commanding and formidable position, with no immediate threats to its continued success visible” (p. 145).

And it is not just politics, political reporting, or perceived worries that newspapers are seen as too pro-government. Throughout the chapters on the TNP newsroom – and when he was describing the unique value proposition of TODAY as a new newspaper in 2000 – Balji portrayed himself as thinking from the viewpoint of the reader (after identifying the target audience and their needs), and therefore writing for the reader. He cites a senior British newspaperman who described TNP as “a friend, taking your hand in a difficult world and helping you make sense of it” (p. 66). “Explanation is the key. Questions, answers. It’s bouncy and never boring, often written through the eyes of the readers themselves” (p. 66).

Furthermore, when a line is crossed or when mistakes are made – sometimes linked to TNP’s tabloid format and its sensationalist headlines – the missteps were explained honestly and clearly. For instance: When the newspaper erroneously reported that former deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye was arrested after a hit-and-run accident; and when it did HIV patients and their caregivers at the Communicable Disease Centre (and the reporter) a disservice by running with the insensitive headline “Death Ward”.

There is plenty in “Reluctant Editor” which relates to Balji’s editorial and journalistic (and perhaps political) observations, even though there is little doubt that his business insights about the industry would also be valuable. One of the excerpts which stood out preceded the launch of TODAY, about proposed research exercises to understand the newspaper’s potential readers:

“Our team had decided against commissioning readership and marketing surveys. For one thing, we were not prepared to spend on surveys; for another, we suspected that people often avoided telling the truth when asked for their views. We were also convinced that such research was usually conducted in too perfunctory a fashion. Some of us were already familiar with the prevailing methodology of readership surveys. Showing interviewees the masthead of a paper, a researcher would ask: ‘Did you read this yesterday?’ If the answer was ‘yes’, they were considered ‘readers’. Follow-up questions to establish whether those interviewees were really readers were ever asked. Such methods continue to this day and still manage to persuade newspapers and advertising agencies to shell out huge sums for what is essentially a flimsy construct of superficial results” (p. 115).

Thinking in terms of social service research, the concerns over selection bias and sampling (whether the researchers are actually reaching out to the “true” readers) and over construct validity (whether the questions posed by the researchers result in data or information which is accurate and usable by the newspapers and advertising agencies) speak directly to the importance of research methodology. The answer, it would appear, is not to rely on expert opinions or acumen alone, but to improve the ways data can be better collected, analysed, and used.

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