The Straits Times vs The Online Citizen

The following is a feature I did with my classmate Jane, and is posted as part of an assignment for my Journalism Reimagined course.

Our introductory video to our project

Comparing The Straits Times with The Online Citizen

Map of alternative media in Asia

For many countries in Asia, the mainstream media is controlled by the government. Alternative media has grown as a response, and many aim to provide a different perspective from the mainstream media to the socio-political situation in their countries. In this map, we highlight some of the alternative media around Asia. Click on the marks to read.

View Alternative Media in Asia

One goal, two ways

As he strides to the coffee table for the interview, Mr Choo Zheng Xi is dressed in a well fitting black shirt, a pair of jeans, with impeccably styled hair. A brown sling bag completes the look. 24-year-old Choo looks like the average Singaporean. That is, until he starts talking. With his voice rising in excitement as he launches into his favourite topic, the bespectacled third-year law student transforms into an activist journalist, the empty space on the table being the stage for his animated hand gestures.

Watching the news during the elections in 2001 and 2006, Mr Choo had become increasingly disquieted with what he saw as inadequate coverage given to the opposition candidates in the mainstream media. Two-dimensional cariacatures, isolated incidents – the lack of depth in the coverage did not sit well with him.

Though only a law freshman at the National University of Singapore in 2006, he already had a keen interest in Singapore politics and toyed with the idea of starting a blog to share his views.

That idea has since blossomed into The Online Citizen, a website that works through contributions from the public. The news organisation is now widely recognised as an alternative news media in Singapore, just three years after its birth. The site gets up to 10,000 hits a day, coming from around 5,000 visitors, making it the most popular socio-political site in the country.

In a country where the mainstream media is commonly viewed as being in support of the status quo, dissenting voices are not hard to come by on the internet. Many blogs have sprouted in recent years, producing either political satire like Mr Brown or commentaries on socio-political issues like Mr Alex Au’s Yawning Bread.

But going beyond commenting and setting up a news producing outlet is a step that few have taken, like Mr Choo. The Online Citizen, he hopes, will be a platform that engages an active citizenry in pushing for press freedom and a more transparent government.

Mr Choo has an unlikely ally in these goals – assistant editor Ben Nadarajan in The Straits Times.

Decked in a loose white shirt and brown pants, Mr Nadarajan initially does not talk much but smiles as he leads these student reporters around the newspaper’s Toa Payoh headquarters. His yellow employee pass is scratched and faded; his photo cannot be seen anymore. The seven years in the media conglomerate may have taken a toll on his card, but not his goals.

Mr Nadarajan has a mission that some may see as ironic, given that he is part of the national newspaper – to fight for press freedom.

The 32-year-old is quick to admit that he is not a People’s Action Party (PAP) supporter. For him, the turning point also came during the elections, albeit four years earlier in 1997. After the elections then, PAP leaders won a defamation suit against Worker’s Party candidate Tang Liang Hong. He was made a bankrupt when he could not pay up, and fled to Australia, where he has remained ever since.

“I just didn’t like the way they went out to get him,” said Mr Nadarajan. “They basically ran him to the ground, made him a bankrupt.”

“He made sense. He talked sense. So they were generally afraid of him I guess.”

While both Mr Nadarajan and Mr Choo may share the same political views, they are on two different tracks when it comes to the way that they want to bring about the change. The differences in their methodology are not surprising, given their standing on diverse ends of the media spectrum here.

The way to do it

Being entirely based on the web, The Online Citizen is free from the shackles of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, which requires printed publications to hold printing licenses that are renewed every year, among other rules. The Online Citizen writes hard-hitting articles and commentaries on government policies and media practices, ranging from the pay of the Prime Minister to the coverage of the recent David Widjaja case in the mainstream media.

Objectivity, said Mr Choo, is a myth. Instead, he believes that there will be alternative versions of the truth, and these should be allowed to compete. “The point is to be honest with your principles, to be honest about your positions and then you let your readers decide,” he said. That is why The Online Citizen has adopted a no holds barred approach to its articles, though he is careful to check pieces that are potentially defamatory or relate to race and religion.

The Online Citizen’s blatant disregard for objectivity disturbs Mr Nadarajan. “I believe in press freedom, but it doesn’t mean that I go all out and whack and whack and whack,” said Mr Nadarajan. “It doesn’t work that way.”

While he admits that articles on The Straits Times may not be totally objective, in his view, the liberal slant of the articles on The Online Citizen is not one that can be associated with journalism. Journalism practices require that articles hold not only one view, but also balance between differing viewpoints, he said.

For him, the way to push for press freedom is through “little, little things”. Grinning as he explained one of his “tricks”, he said it is as simple as using the authorities’ aversion to media reports that they refuse to comment on certain issues. Although just a matter of writing a sentence like “‘when asked this, they did not reply”, such reports reflect badly on the ministries and make them unhappy.

“It’s a way of reminding the government that we are asking the question and if you don’t reply, then you’ll have to face the consequences,” said Mr Nadarajan.

Learning from each other

The two may disagree with each other in their methods, and both media have received their fair share of brickbats. But one thing is for sure – both Mr Choo and Mr Nadarajan do see strengths on the opposite side that is worth emulating.

To engage its readers, The Straits Times has undergone at least two makeovers in the past five years. Its website was also part of the latest overhaul conducted last year. Mr Nadarajan recognises that sparking off discussion from the news is one skill that The Straits Times can learn from The Online Citizen.

Articles on The Online Citizen tend to attract a lot of feedback, said Mr Nadarajan. “I suppose we can examine why is it that they have more comments.”

Similarly, Mr Choo has recognised a need to boost the reporting skills of the contributors on The Online Citizen. The public reads the news for information, and so The Online Citizen needs to provide that, he said.

Because the website relies on contributions from the public, Mr Choo admits that it has a lower threshold than The Straits Times. “We want the material, and we can’t afford to be picky,” he said. That is why he, together with three other editors, will edit the stories and check the facts.

Once a month, the chief editor also sends out a memo to his editorial group, noting the good and the bad. And he has help from another source – his readers.

“The beauty of citizen journalism is that you have a very direct feedback process to help you guide your writing,” he said.

No matter what, Mr Choo concedes that The Online Citizen will never be as good as The Straits Times. But that does not mean it is not valuable in nudging the newspaper that he perceives has become too comfortable in its position as the main broadsheet here.

“I see it as a bit of a service to the country, if they improve because of me. I’m not in this to run them out of business,” he said. “Because if their journalism improves, it’s something that changes my life and everyone else’s too.”

Looking forward

Mr Choo will be graduating next year. The law undergraduate, however, might not be going to the bar. Journalism is an option that he is exploring.

“Law can make me money, but it doesn’t make me happy the way journalism does,” he said. “Journalism makes me feel alive.”

Working at the Straits Times, however, is out of the question for him. Changing things from the inside is an impossible task to him.

“It’s very, very structural. It’s not something one person can change. Even Lee Hoong (Straits Times’ political editor) has a boss, and even that boss has a big boss. And the biggest is Tony Tan (Singapore Press Holding’s chairman). You see, it’s structural, it’s fundamental. It’s your Newspapers Presses and Printing Act.”

For Mr Nadarajan, pushing for press freedom from within The Straits Times may be a tall order, but not an impossible one. “I believe that in my lifetime things will change,” said the self-professed idealist. “I still believe that it will, after seven years. Press freedom and all that. And the day I don’t hold that belief, I will resign.”

“There are different ways of changing things; maybe we just disagree on the ways.”

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