May 21, 2008

This article was orginally published on 18 May 2008 at 12:40 am


I am sure all of you have read Miss Chua Lee Hoong’s lament concerning the Mas Selamat debacle online?

And who could possibly forget, le piece de resistance: Ong Sor Fern’s paramour,

“I HAVE never, nor will I ever, read blogs.”

You know what I resent most about these articles don’t you?

Apart from the condescending tone, the message to readers is blunt: “you will learn one way or another – our way – or hit the highway!” To add insult to injury, the newspapers pledge nothing in return.

Of course, I understand the impulse behind all this nervous energy only too well – newspapers are hemorrhaging revenue – they haven’t been able to prosper since the net made its debut etc. They’ve lost too much of their monopoly on the cultural authority they once commanded. No one I know, these days even aspires to be a journalist any longer. And judging from how even those who remain in the industry these days aspire to land comfy teaching job; it all makes a forgettable case for a poor excuse as a career choice.

But what really lies at the heart of the compact between news producers and consumers?

What if I said, all this is just an attempt to strip away the whole idea of the independent reader and squeeze his understanding into the factory-farming model of gobbling facts on the state assembly line? Too radical right? Yeah, but even you have to admit that’s a racy read.

Back to the cold cuts; if any thing, these manifestations reveal a characteristic failing of our newspapers: to assume if something is going wrong, like we’re not reading, then it has to be either the fault of the consumer or an supervening event like the net, not the news provider. Usually in the toss up, the evil net gets fingered; and just in case we might even forget it’s truly a land of the morally bankrupt. A steady stream of anti-net propaganda is regularly doled out, just so we never forget.

How convenient?

Tell me. If a restaurant found that its customers rarely ordered chicken, would it revise their chicken-menu, or ditch them?

Precisely, you get my point don’t you?

But when droves of readers abandon our beloved rag, they resort to compulsion, fear mongering and just plain hypnosis, rather than asking if there is something really wrong with the service they have been providing?

For instance; why is the Beijing Bureau so fat? Who the hell cares whether two hump back camels can’t find a decent bush to knob each other in the Gobi desert because of desertification?

Hey, you know what? No one gives two shits, what’s really happening in China!

Very strange indeed; if you consider the imperative is to captivate, yet none of the economics even suggest this is being seriously put to good and productive use.

But to accomplish this feat of customer satisfaction, our newspapers don’t need freedom as Cherian frequently likes to trout; rather all they need to buy into is the old fashioned idea of paying heed to customer service. Wat most of us really need to ask is this. Are we really getting value for money?

You know what? I don’t think so.

But the ongoing problems which frequently mire the relationship between its readers and news producers are only a symptom of two deeper trends that have been unfurling since the advent of the internet. The first is the growing disconnect between what consumers want and what is regularly been churned out. These days when one reads the ST, what’s not mentioned or written about is real news and what’s fleshed out is simply stuff most of us aren’t really interested in. I can’t speak for the vast majority of readers, but for me, as much as I want to continue reading the ST these days. I really see no compelling reason why I should even my time trying to wade out the shit from the nuggets – after a while, it just doesn’t make any sense to do so.

As a result most of my news these days comes from a patch work of foreign press usually in bits and pieces montages on the run on my Nokia Communicator; this I do quite well only because I have personal history of having once regularly read the New York Times, Independent and Guardian simultaneously; but again. My point is its hardly linear reading as much as it remains Jack rabbit hop here and there reading.

This worries me only because kids can’t do what I do these days. The only reason I acquired this skill was because during my university days; I genuinely enjoyed reading my derelict free copy of the Times, which I usually picked up in the tube. People who say littering is a crime should get their heads examined, it’s nothing short of a public service and beats navigating around KFC carcasses any day. My point this evening is simply this, without a solid foundation of what is really good news; its conceivable it’s impossible these days for youths to even develop the foundational skill sets to consistently winnow the truth from lies.

In the absence of captivating press that can be entrusted reliably to be the purveyor of the truth – against the endless choices presented by the internet, there will always be an incredible sense of release to go wild online and to confect their own version of a bent reality. But – more worryingly – these youths would never have once even learned how to structure thoughts. They haven’t taught themselves how to use a mix of newspapers, libraries and arguments to spot out, distinguish and even to differentiate what’s real from false. They will flail about and even lose their bearings – I fear.

The solution doesn’t lie in inuring the internet with a higher level of truth; my feel is all the G-15 bloggers need to seriously get their head examined; no one in their right mind proposes a plan to plough the sea; anymore than he could possibly hope blogosphere should mirror the news producing agencies of the real world; the internet will always be the domain of the amateur, diarist and at best an imitation of reportage. Rather the solution lies in investing in critical thinking skills in our schools and institutions of tertiary educations – youths these days desperately need to taught the skills sets of how to winnow the truth from lies.

Against the back drop of this reality, it’s not our press who should be making greater demands on their readers. It’s readers who should be making greater demands on their news producers – to provide a service they can really believe in and if possible even captivate them. Rather than a staid service they want to shun away from.

Incidentally, today is the first day; I hung out a post it on my door to the newspaper uncle; it read. “No more newspapers from today please. Tolong!”

Let’s see how it goes. I’ve keep you all updated, but don’t hold your breath.

The only cold turkey, I know is the one that’s set on prema freeze somewhere in my freezer.

Darkness 2008

[Compiled by Harphoon – The Brotherhood Press 2008]

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