Thursday, September 30, 2010

The game is rigged

I try to avoid blogging about work -- honest! -- but there are times where I just have to let loose about the insanity that takes place here.

Wednesday was the send-off party for one of my co-workers, a lovely lady who is as Texan as the day is long. Our motley crew included my fellow sports copy monkey, a couple wise heads from the metro desk, three more from the international desk and a trio of young women from the "Teen" section. Stories and alcohol flowed in equal abundance, but one regular topic was the latest indignity to be visited upon the staff.

The US edition of our paper had a pretty nasty front-page error more than a month ago -- "focus" somehow became "fucus." That apparently caused no end of grief for the muckety-mucks because now the whole staff (even the design desk) has to pass a closed-book style test. Did I fall into a wormhole and suddenly end up back in junior high? I'm sure this is how school kids here get treated, and I know standardized tests are the measure of competency in this part of the world, but we're professional journalists here. Plus, there's no sense in giving a closed-book test when the whole reason you print up style books in the first place is so people can refer to them! Do these people actually expect us to know correct transliterations, currency and metric conversions and the "proper" name for each ethnic minority off the top of our heads?

Apparently so, because this came in the e-mail this week:
We have to tell you that the big boss of [redacted -- ed.] is very angry about the result of the stylebook test for Chinese and foreign employees. But we believe that you will do well next time.
The HR department has decided to provide those who failed in the first exam only a second chance to retake it. If he or she fails again in the second, one will have to face punishment. And the detailed punishment will be issued by the HR dept soon.
Let's do some spot translation. The "big boss" is none other than the Vice-Minister for Propaganda (and you all know what rolls downhill). The "HR department" is the three people who serve as minders for the big, dumb foreigners. And the "punishment?" Anything from bigger fines (they're already fining people for mistakes, even ones that don't get in the paper) to suspensions and terminations. There's even talk of not keeping some people who are still in their probation period -- i.e. me -- though I don't know if it's because of all this nonsense or for budgetary concerns.

All this from a newspaper that doesn't know who subscribes to it. All the registration and distribution is done through China Post, the national postal service which has a government contract to do so. It's been that way since the paper was founded in the early 1980s and hasn't changed. CP doesn't deliver on the weekend, so whomever subscribes doesn't even get the new Sunday edition that started in July and of which the bosses are oh-so proud (they signed up for six days a week, receiving the Saturday and Monday editions at the same time). No one here has a copy of the list of subscribers, and CP won't part with or even share the list! The new Big Idea is to put fliers into copies of the paper and have subscribers -- those who know when they subscribed and for how many editions -- send them back. Direct mail always works, right?

All this from a newspaper that is bloated with local staffers yet can barely manage original content worthy of the name (read: no rewritten press releases). Our sports section in Jakarta kicked ass with all of four people, pumping out three or four local stories every day, yet we have twice as many people in sports here and on a good day we'll have one local story and a local brief. I think that's my main concern -- that this paper has the potential to be something great and fill a needed niche (an English-language version of the Chinese perspective) but instead gets caught up in adhering to the process and not stepping on the Party's toes, leaving Xinhua and the Global Times to fill that niche.

One wise veteran at Wednesday's fete agreed, saying: "The process is more important than the end product. As long as you do what you're supposed to do, everything will be OK. The people in upper management have been doing it this way for years and don't want to rock the boat." The problem with that reasoning is that the people who actually read our paper don't give a damn about how well we followed the process. If we give them a bland, gray product filled with "news" they read on the Internet 36 hours ago, they won't bother going back to us.

In short, know of anyone who's hiring? I may need a gig sooner rather than later.

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