Thirty minutes into the first panel, esteemed editors and writers Bertha Henson and Terry Xu were taking questions from the floor. A burly man picks up the mike and says, “All the young people are falling asleep lah, they’re not interested in politics. I’m an old man, so I’m interested.” The air in the convention hall is a bit awkward now.
He continued to say that in the recent elections, “online media ended up looking like a bunch of fools, because you’ve got everything wrong. Pretty much.” Ouch. The room quietened, people turned to face him; the drama had begun.
As I snapped away, he continued his vendetta against new media — the main subject of this panel — with things like “you have egg on your face”, and calling out atrocious writing by a writer from The Middle Ground, and that one ought to “slap him”. Surely it was a little too early for this? Nope, not at the very first Publishers Summit, presented by Vulcan Post.
A full-house that morning, many from the industry turned up to catch the panel on The Current State Of New Media In Singapore, helmed by former Straits Times associate editor and consulting editor at The Middle Ground, Bertha Henson, and editor of The Online Citizen, Terry Xu.
The Joys of Online Publishing
Both The Middle Ground and The Online Citizen operate with a small team of writers, but for just the general election season, The Online Citizen got onboard 15 writers to cover all the rallies. Bertha, on the other hand, said that their writers were selective about which rallies they thought were more newsworthy, but didn’t have to attend all of them. “Everything is online now anyway,” Bertha said.
She added, “We already have an idea in mind about how the story is going to look like. There’s a concept we have, so we just have to listen to what is beng said that will fit in with the story. And if there’s anything to change halfway, we’ll just change it. That’s the joy of online journalism. Another joy of being online is that even after it’s been published, you can still change things.”
Another point she brought up was that online media is free from some of the constraints mainstream media has. Online media, according to her, has the advantage of time — one that is useful for breaking news and updates. Online media also has the option of adding something “conceptual about how you present a story, an analytical element to the story, and and also being selective about what readers want to know”, instead of following a certain format that is usually required in broadsheets. The element of experimentation — which includes adding moving images, infographics, conducting a different style of interview, and more — makes online media a good alternative to the mainstream media we are accustomed with.
The Voice Is Important
“It may not be as timely in a sense, but so long as we could add some value in our pieces. The question: what sort of insight can online media give you that mainstream media cannot — that’s the important thing,” Bertha said about how things work in The Middle Ground.
Style and voice is important for online media sites to differentiate from their peers. Browse The Middle Ground, and you see more commentaries and op-eds on issues, instead of breaking news. While they may all be reporting about the same things during the general elections, The Middle Ground and The Online Citizen are different in style and voice.
“This year we had the ‘revisionist historian’ Thum Ping Tjin coming back from Oxford helping us with coverage. He’d do it in a Jon Stewart style which resonated with the readers who came to us and said “We like the show, can you do it after the GE as well?” so that was quite interesting,” Terry said.
“Controversy is against the national narrative.”
As news sites, we’re required to be timely when it comes to the news, but sometimes, when the sources are unclear, it offer up a bit of a conundrum.
“For me it’s easy. If it’s a rumour, you don’t publish. It was quite silly to publish the posion pen letter without doing checks on the sources,” Bertha said of the incident that involved the Workers Party’s Daniel Goh. Interestingly enough, she said that he shouldn’t have replied to the allegations and instead just take legal action. Unless the source is a credible one, a source that you cannot quarrel with, then rumours and information without backing sources is a definite no-no. And if you do go ahead, Bertha said they would have to be ready to face the consequences.
While Terry said that people take a huge risk when they have to talk about something controversial because there are no laws that protect whistleblowers, Bertha said that as journalists, it is their job to be encouraging discussion and different views, and that it is “only natural in society.” The important thing is to be responsible for what you have to say, and not just spread rumours.
“Nobody said journalism is easy. You have the information, now you have to work to get the information verified,” Bertha replied.
Monetising The Editorial, and Other Money Matters
Somehow, the lowly pay of online journalists was brought into the limelight. Somewhere in the debate about verifying sources, Terry revealed how much he was being paid only to be cut short by Bertha: “It doesn’t matter what we are being paid, it’s about what the readers get to read” — highlighting that the work journalists put out should not be proportionate to what they are getting paid (shoddy work for shoddy pay).
“What is the biggest challenge the team faces?” moderator Jacky Yap of Vulcan Post asked the both of them.
Bertha quickly said, “Money lah.” The entire hall laughed.
She also mentioned private investors behind The Middle Ground who are “private people”, but didn’t reveal much — not because she is secretive, but because she doesn’t know about the money side of things — “My publisher is coming, you can ask him later!” she said. Terry revealed that for him, the main challenge is figuring out who will pay for content on The Online Citizen, a mainly socio-political news site. “Most of the time, we’re relying on people who think that what we’re doing is worthwhile and they will donate,” he shared.
“The problem with digital advertising is that advertisers put very, very little money into advertising,” Bertha said. She reveals that online sites make money but hardly enough to cover for themselves. To operate well, she believes that 10 is the magic number, but it’s going to be difficult to maintain ten employees on such a tight budget.
She added, “If you don’t pay online journalists well, you will get rubbish. For the current situation, there is not enough money being put into the landscape and we cannot rely on the readers alone. Unlike broadcast and print where you have a pay-per-view system or licensing fees, we have to depend entirely on advertising and sponsorships to bring in the money. The day that the readers are prepared to pay for the content is actually the day you get better content.”
As the session came to a close and in response to the attendee’s remarks, both panellists remained calm and composed; Bertha simply replied, “Facts must be sacred, news must be sourced, but views are free.” Indeed.