Journalism, like any other trade, has been hit hard by the digital age in the past five years, with newsrooms everywhere struggling with shrinking resources.
For Singapore press such as SPH and MediaCorp, the trends are no different. This has meant several changes in news making.
“Most newsrooms are not in expansion mode. Their duties, however, are expanding. A reporter has to file three stories instead of one,” said managing editor of The Straits Times, Ignatius Low.
Speaking on a panel at Marketing magazine’s PR Asia conference with PN Balji, editor of The Independent Singapore and founder and former CEO of MediaCorp’s TODAY newspaper, Low spoke about the ripple effects of the shrinking newsroom.
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Rapid news, rapid responses
One obvious change is how reporters now file stories, as people consume news from all sources. For example, news is now expected to be filed on the same day it happens.
“In the past, if there was a press release, let’s say about the COE prices coming down, the correspondent would take his time, call dealers, call analysts, come up with the story at eight o’clock and it goes to print. Now, he has to file a full story one hour maximum after the news breaks,” Low said.
“When the reporter calls you for a response, you no longer have the luxury of waiting. If you don’t give a response, the story would go without it. You have less time to respond.”
However, he added that giving a different and new angle could help the PR professional get more coverage the next day because the reporter would need something new then.
“If you have a crisis situation in your industry and you have to issue a press release – issuing a press release for the next newspaper is no use because the news is already breaking,” said Balji, citing the Little India riots that broke on social media, and the fairly delayed statement that came from the Ministry of Home Affairs.
“People are already making up their minds about the situation – you would have to engage the journalists immediately.”
While the issue often lies with management not being able to release all details, the key is to move fast and update as the situation moves, he added.
Also, with editors and journalists having less time, they may not be able to look at stories as closely. “If an editor has many stories, he will pay attention to the more important ones. Things can go wrong and as media professionals you must give attention to detail,” Low said.
Handling a younger and less experienced newsroom
The next thing that arises from shrinking resources in the newsroom is a younger and inexperienced workforce. PR professionals will find they are working more with younger reporters who may not be as well-versed in the background and context of the issue. But there is a great opportunity here, said Balji.
“If you can take the young journalist into your confidence and offer him or her as much background as possible, they would appreciate it a lot, and you would have your story,” he said.
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Alternative news sources: Are they all “evil”?
“People used to say the ST is a monopoly. Yes we are close to one when it comes to print, but there are also several news sources in Singapore itself. We are dealing in a world with more newsrooms,” said Low, referring to the proliferation of online media.
“They all have differing rules of engagement. Some of these media agencies are trained – they write responsibly, fact check, etc. There are some news sites that are younger and they are more interested in getting eyeballs, the story being shared. As such, things can go out without being verified. And information is spread quickly.”
While traditional media outlets tend to demonise alternative media, the situation is not black and white.
Added Balji: “It’s easy to accuse online media of being rubbish, that it does not check its facts, etc. I think generally it is not the case. I’m not in defence of it – they also have a lot of manpower issues – but I am quite sure the online media has in some way benefited not just mainstream media, but the society.”
He gave the example of NParks’ Brompton bicycles case, which was first run by the mainstream media. “It was a straightforward story. The price was given. The online media took that story on and ‘investigated’ the issue and finally, HardwareZone came up with a story, with pictures to show the person who was involved in giving the tender, and the close relationship of the parties involved. The final result was the government called in the practices investigation bureau and the officer was fined.
“The online media is not all bad: there are gems that come out of it.”
Mainstream media looks at online media to see what is getting traction, and then covers it. Online media reads traditional print such as The Straits Times to give stories a life of their own. Each feed off each other, he added.
Consolidation of news
Finally, another effect of shrinking newsrooms is that one sees a consolidation of news sources. Globally, as newsrooms cut their foreign bureaus, there is a move towards news wires such as Reuters, Bloomberg and AP for news, with more news organisations subscribing to these for content.
This happens on a local level with organisations such as SPH and MediaCorp as well.
Within SPH, this results in increased content-sharing across all assets. A story done by someone on The New Paper, for example, may be used in another of its publications and vice versa, said Low, calling it a “buffet table” of shareable content, where the publications can pick off what they need.
MediaCorp also picked up a “central kitchen” concept where its reporters became multi-platform journalists several years ago, though the current practice is not clear. In both scenarios, what this means is that instead of working with four or five journalists in the past, PR would deal with only one.
This also could mean that a single mistake or bias would be amplified across all platforms.
This throws up the question for PR professionals – how does one build relationships? How do you gain trust with the right people to write your stories?