December 17, 2019.
Recollections & Reflections
FINALLY, after about two months of nervous and stressful anticipation due to the obvious uncertain future, the Media Prima Group has revealed to employees those who are being laid-off under a retrenchment exercise.
The journalists union at Balai Berita, home of the three newspapers – New Straits Times, Berita Harian and Harian Metro — gave a head count of 543 to imply that this was the number that will have to go from the three publications. Earlier speculative reports anticipated that the group would shed off about a third of its workforce, which means about 1,300, and a statement from the group yesterday didn’t clear up the ambiguity or confirm if indeed there would be more to come to affect the television stations.
The information that the country will be divided into five regions outside of Balai Berita, with each being covered by only two reporters, should give a good idea of how massive the downsizing is when compared to the times when every state had a branch office, with the bigger ones in Penang, Ipoh and Johor Baru being called bureaus.
With the launch of NST North in late 1986, Penang had about 14 reporters from the previous eight. Also due to the needs of the regional edition Kangar finally had one fulltime correspondent, Alor Star had at least three fulltime reporters plus one part-timer compared to two fulltimers previously, Sungai Petani had one for the first time while Prai had two reporters and two photographers where previously there was only one reporter, and with two senior executives manning the news desk in Prai and eight sub-editors where before there was only one. How’s that for comparison?
Having only two reporters covering three states is possible considering the size of the paper now
Some may find the plan to have only two reporters covering three states ridiculous but it was only a week ago that I talked about this with our reporter Zaidi Azmi to tell him it can be done, especially since the paper has shrunk to less than half of what it was during the best of times. And that’s just the physical aspect – its size and pagination – but when seen with its circulation which is believed to be hovering just above 20,000 a day some months ago, you perhaps can understand better why it’s manageable for two reporters to do the job. So long as their editors know how and based them in the right town, it’s a piece of cake.
Prai or Butterworth by the highway to Kangar is two hours away at the most; the same for these towns to Ipoh and Ipoh to Kuala Lumpur. During a major news break the final details for a story may only be available a few hours after it happens so there should not be any hindrance for the reporters to be at site in good time. The rest of the run-of-the-mill kind of stories which are used to fill in the blanks in the inside pages you rely on Bernama, although the national news agency is notoriously slow in sending out its stories. The other downside subscribers have to bear with when relying on the agency is the bad English and poor news-writing.
This latest layoff is at least the fourth undertaken by NSTP since about 25 years ago, all called by different names – voluntary separation scheme and mutual separations scheme, for example, but at the end of the day it means the same thing – a layoff.
For a company that goes back to July 1845 it is always sad for former and existing staff when something like this happens.
Despite being Malaysianised in October 1972 when Umno bought over the company from its British owners, the NST and the company’s former city tabloid the Malay Mail managed to present a balanced front through subtlety in reporting. What many of those who edited the papers from around the beginning of the 80s didn’t know was that brilliant propaganda is always subtle, which led to the often blatantly biased news coverage, with too much of the politics being allowed to creep into the contents.
During the period stretching back a few decades ago, the best coverage in terms of fairness and balance despite their political affiliation was for the 1986 general elections, with the brains behind it being its then editorial advisor A. Samad Ismail, indisputably Malaysia’s most highly acknowledged journalist. He did make it clear though to everyone that NSTP had to help the government win the elections, adding that “if BN (Barisan Nasional) loses, we will all lose our jobs!” It was not difficult to understand, given that Umno, the coalition’s most dominant party, had a controlling stake. But Pak Samad’s assignment briefs then were something almost all the reporters and some known as special writers had never seen before. No special treatment was allowed the latter who were used to spending more time in the office than under the sun.
We learnt after the elections that even the DAP acknowledged the coverage by NSTP was fair and balanced. And the rival Star too, which was also outsmarted by the Malay Mail which for the most part, a few years prior to and after the 1986 polls, was hardly into political coverage in a big way.
Today’s problems a cumulative result of the rot that started about 35 years ago
What has happened to Balai Berita is not just about today.
The rot started much earlier and got worse from around 25 years ago. There have been many revamps but each time there was one, the changes were almost entirely cosmetic, with the focus being on font types and layout. Whatever new contents introduced fell by the wayside after some months because local journalists or rather editors in general do not have the administrative discipline to keep something going for long. In short, each revamp didn’t have with it a holistic approach.
There have been many other poor decisions, although most didn’t seem to bother the management too much mainly especially when the company was making good money. A pioneering project like NST North was doing fine, adding 1,800 copies of it daily where previously the circulation was sliding and sliding in every town. But a change in the leadership of the team caused the paper to lose about 500 copies of the gain within about four months. Some months later the project was disbanded, when it fact reporters had already been recruited for NST South. Simply out, that was poor planning.
One of the worst multi-million ringgit decisions was perhaps to buy in the late 90s not one but seven KBA presses at a time when all three English titles including the now defunct Business Times were selling less and less.
A production supervisor from the Prai plant described how cold it was inside his trousers below his belt because the entire printing area had to be air-conditioned round-the-clock as required by the KBAs. The NSTP’s purchase was of the kind unheard of anywhere in the world by a newspaper group but such was the business for the manufacturer that it opened an office in KL.
Another factor was that many editors were appointed not for their skills and brains but rather for their loyalty to the bosses and the party line. A few went up the ladder only because of the long years there were at Balai Berita and not due to performance. The one thing NSTP never had, certainly on the news floor, was a human resource audit and because of this the requests kept coming in for more staff, even when the paper was going down and down.
But this is all history now.
This may not be the kind of prediction those still with NSTP may want to hear but at the rate the New Straits Times is sliding, it may not be long before the paper goes the way of Utusan Malaysia. It may last a little longer if its pagination is halved to something like 24 pages but ultimately the closure will be a stark reality, sooner rather the later.