Confessions of an editor

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By P N Balji
Editor, The Independent Singapore

Photo courtesy: Yahoo Singapore

A reluctant editor, I have been called a newsroom chameleon and now find myself a digital virgin.

The transformation is not by design, but by accident.

I have spent 35 years in the print media, am a father of two daughters and grandfather to two little boys… and now a virgin?

I may have been promiscuous in print, having worked for several newspapers (The Malay Mail, The New Nation, The Straits Times, The New Paper and Today), but I am a newbie in new media.

What prompted me to take the plunge? Because grizzled newspapermen, unlike old soldiers, nowadays don’t fade away; they turn into “newsosaurs” – dinosaurs with printer’s ink in their blood.

They continue to want to have their say on cyberspace, or what some call the Wild, Wild Web. Not that you will see anything wild on this website because The Independent Singapore will be governed by its three ideological pillars — responsible, intelligent, robust.
Sure, we are the new kid on the block, some may even call us Johnny-come-lately, but there’s a time for everything – and now is the time for The Independent Singapore.

We are kind of dazzled to have the spotlight thrown on us even before our launch. You must have read or heard of the statement issued by the Media Development Authority saying that “the Government has received specific information which gives us cause for concern over foreign interest to fund The Independent.”

Our shareholders’ agreement, reached three months before the statement was issued, expressly prohibits foreign funding. The board and core team behind The Independent consists of Singaporeans.

We hope this assurance is enough and believe the matter will end there.

We are gratified, of course, by the interest shown, with many Singaporeans and former Singaporeans writing to us from as far afield as Australia, Britain and America. Some of their articles appear here.

Even more satisfying are the calls from friends and well wishers showing support, with one even saying: “I want to put in some money, not much,into your project.”

I did not expect anything like this when I got my first newspaper job, as a reporter for The Malay Mail on April Fool’s Day, 1970.
My parents, especially my father who was a poet and a writer, were thrilled. I started on a salary of $250 plus a transport allowance of $60 a month. That pay slip is still in my file with my letter of appointment signed by the former President of Singapore and at that time the editorial manager of Straits Times Press.

Subsequently, I moved up the ranks at The New Nation and The Straits Times, got married, bought a house, had children.

The New Paper

And then, as I said at the start of this article, I became a reluctant editor. I still remember the day in 1990. Peter Lim, then chief editor of The New Paper, wanted me, his deputy, to take over.

I balked at the responsibility. The New Paper was only two years old. It was a burdensome job, I thought, which would require me to spend long hours away from my family, tending a literally new paper.

Also, a couple of years before that I had a medical scare which needed me to seek treatment for a heart ailment. I asked my wife, Uma, to decide.

It was not an easy decision. She thought long and hard for three days before she said: yes, take the job.

Now playing with my four-year-old grandson, I am reminded of those early days as editor of The New Paper. It was like bringing up a child. It was still finding its feet, taking uncertain steps, getting its bearings in a sometimes censorious world.
The original New Paper with its bite-sized stories was dismissed as a fluffy little rag by Singaporeans accustomed to the heavy-reading Straits Times.

Changes had to be made. The stories got longer but continued to be told like stories. The language remained crisp, the style informal, as if the reporters and columnists were not giving news and views but talking to the readers, sharing insights and other information. The reader-friendly stories with arresting headlines and eye-catching graphics went down like chilled beer in a heat wave. Circulation soared past 100,000 copies a day.

We did make mistakes. In a horrendous and embarrassing error in 1996, The New Paper reported that former deputy minister Toh Chin Chye, driving a pick-up, had been involved in a hit-and-run accident. The real culprit turned out to be a much younger man with the same name.
It is still painful to recall the unfortunate incident and its grave repercussions. The acting editor and the news editor were demoted and, with a heavy heart, I had to let the reporter go.
He was young, talented, famous for his scoops, but the news is a harsh business; journalists have to pay for their mistakes.

It took a while but the newsroom managed to get over the shame of that mistake and the pain of losing one of its good reporters.
There were momentous events (like the Gulf War) and the 1991 General Elections (when the PAP lost four seats) to cover.

It was heady, stimulating, but ultimately the thrill was disappearing. By the end of the ‘90s, I was feeling jaded, looking for a change.

I approached Cheong Yip Seng, then editor-in-chief of the English and Malay Division of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), and asked to be sent as a correspondent to India. But he wanted me to stay on at The New Paper.

Today

That was when the call came from a headhunter. MediaCorp was looking for someone to launch a newspaper. I could not say no. I could be daddy again! Bring another newspaper to life.

Some called me a traitor for leaving SPH. But this was making history. For the first time in decades, a newspaper was being launched that did not belong to SPH. The monopoly was about to be broken with competition introduced in the newspaper business.

There were sceptics who wondered if I was the right man for the job, thinking any brain-child of mine would be another New Paper.
But I knew a New Paper double would not work. Since Today was a free paper (the SPH publications till today refer to it derogatively as a freesheet); its only revenue stream was from advertising. And a downmarket paper would not attract the kind of advertising dollars to make it successful.

The readers had to be offered something different.

Today was different. It did not tell stories like The New Paper did, was not crowded with infographics. It told the news straight, like a pithier version of The Straits Times. What made it different was the way it mixed reporting and analysis, especially in the main front-page story. When readers are pressed for time, they should be told what’s happening and what it means in the same story, I think.

Three years later, in 2003, with my contract expiring I decided it was time to take a break as CEO of MediaCorp Press and editor in chief of Today.

Soon after I left Today, SPH acquired a stake in the newspaper in 2004. So there’s no more competition in the print media. But I was recalled by MediaCorp and had to oversee Today again from … November 2006 till October 2008 when I finally left the conglomerate.

The Independent

I have been writing online off and on for some time now, but the seeds for The Independent were sown only sometime in February this year – at Yakun Kaya in Junction 8. I was having coffee when I met Kumaran Pillai, an IT businessman and former editor in chief of The Online Citizen. One thing led to another. He introduced me to Alfred Dodwell, a lawyer, and Leon Perera, the CEO of an international research and consulting agency.

It was amazing how we all saw the same vacuum in the media landscape waiting to be tapped and occupied.
It is a middle ground which offers the best vantage point for an independent analysis.
With an over-responsible mainstream on the side and the over-critical online media on the other, we felt the timing was perfect for a news website like The Independent Singapore.
We chose August 9 to launch this offering. It is the 48th year of the birth of our nation. Singapore has come a long way, yet many fear for the future.

We are progressive in many ways, yet are old-fashioned or over the top in our discourse. We are an economic miracle, yet the spoils are not reaching every body.

We have many think tanks, yet the thinking is not happening.

The Independent Singapore wants to analyse all these and other issues as the country looks forward to the next 48 years.

We want to put the think back in the tank. And we want to do it in a responsible, intelligent and robust way. With the skill and sharpness of a journalist’s pen…or should I say the keyboard?

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