Sunday, April 29, 2012


This week is the last for the Jakarta Globe in its current form. I am decidedly uneasy about this, partly because of the direction of the paper and partly because of who is steering the ship. Mostly, though, it's because the paper which I helped get off the ground and at which I've spent my longest tenure is in the midst of its death throes.

The first thing to note is that the new Globe is being helmed by That Man and The Pardner. The Pardner is actually a big upgrade from his predecessor, The 3-Martini Lunch, but it doesn't sound like he will have much of a newsroom role. That falls under the brief of That Man, and my feelings on That Man are well-known.

It's hard to feel optimistic when the first words uttered in the Big Meeting include "cost structure" and "the details will be revealed soon." (Note: the details have yet to be revealed, and the May 1 date for the changeover has, for unexplained reasons, been shifted to May 3.) Basically, despite having "good news-gathering and a strong newsroom" and the print product bringing in the bulk of the revenue, the Globe is going all-in on online while creating something of an "internal wire service" among the various media arms under the parent company.

We've been told that breaking news will go only to the Web site -- a plan we first heard here three years ago but have yet to see implemented -- while the print product will be for "views." Then came the first cringe-worthy moment of the Big Meeting, the use of a word that could only be the bastard child of a business school graduate and a marketing consultant. We will be Indonesia's first "maga-paper" -- that's an ersatz blend of magazine and newspaper, for you in the back.

I will pause here as you rinse the vomit out of your mouth.

Ready? Let's continue. This was the part of the Big Meeting when it started to get hip-deep. There is great interest in news out of Indonesia, we were told, so much so that the New Straits Times (Malaysia), Singapore Press Holdings (which runs pretty much all the print media in Singapore), the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Fairfax Media (Australia), the Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald all want to do editorial swaps with the Globe. No word on whether 1) we have any interest in their news or 2) if they will pay anything for our news, but presumably "editorial swaps" are cheaper than those groups putting their own people here or using a stringer.

We will get them that news, the new Brain Trust continued, and we will produce English-language news about Indonesia at the same quality of news wires like Dow Jones, AP and Reuters. How, I wondered silently, will we do that when the local reporters who could write like that have already fled the Globe for better jobs, the ones we do have spend most of their time either feeding the beast or chasing down Corporate's pet projects and the copy desk (the ones who do rewrites and bring the stories as close as possible to Dow Jones/AP/Reuters quality) will have all of five people come August? It seems the Brain Trust is planning for staffing levels that Human Resources (who, I point out again, are neither human nor resourceful) have made abundantly clear they will not allow.

And as if there was any doubt over the new direction of the Globe, this sealed it. The features section will not only be expanded but will also include "commercially driven" special sections every day. They will focus on property, automotive, personal finance, education and entertainment. On an unrelated note, I'm sure it's just a coincidence that in the past few months the Globe has been running an increasing amount of positive stories featuring real estate consultant Jones Lang LaSalle, automobile distributor Astra International, multiple banks and concert promoter Big Daddy. There will also be "events" tied into editorial content that we must "project properly" and "editorial will have to support."

Oh. My. Flying Spaghetti Monster. They're not even trying to hide it anymore -- the Jakarta Globe's news coverage is for sale. We used to have standards here. Reporters were once told not to take every freebie, gift bag and junket that advertisers and PR flacks waved under their noses. We used to actually take the adage "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted" seriously, not don pom-poms and a skirt while we cheerlead for Indonesia and our corporate friends. Now we're just one of the gang, grubbing for everything we can get and playing the game. It sickens me. Just since I returned from Beijing, we've had reporters accept junkets to Bali, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan, India, England, Ireland and New Zealand. Where once we were circumspect about such handouts, now we'll take any old freebie and it's a struggle to work in a mention in the actual story that the trip was paid for by a sponsor.

Then That Man gave way to The Pardner. Being of a business bent, The Pardner threw around a bunch of numbers, many of which were difficult to verify but worth noting nonetheless. Apparently the Globe has:
  • 700,000 subscribers to its e-mail newsletter
  • 20,000 mobile app users
  • 87,000 followers on Twitter (note: it was 93,000 or so at last check)
  • 24,000 print product subscribers (the Jakarta Post has 28,000 after 28 years in business)
  • 600,000 unique users on its Web site (a day? a month? a week? He never mentioned a time unit)
  • plus 400,000 First Media subscribers, 10,000 of whom watch the Head Swede's TV show
All told, there are 1 million or so total readers of the Globe (by The Pardner's reckoning), 70 percent of whom are overseas. That leaves 300,000 English-language readers in Indonesia -- that basically means Jakarta, though, as four years after its launch the Globe still hasn't found a way to penetrate Bali or anywhere else in this country where bules might congregate.

I asked how, if at all, we planned to monetize these vast swaths of people who aren't consuming the print product and seeing all these ads for which we have sold our dignity. The rambling response I received boiled down to that we have Top Men working on it now. Evidently we get 1 percent of our revenue from online and want that to be up to 3 percent next year -- again, how is a mystery. I fail to see what kind of meaningful return the company can expect from pouring vast new resources into a Web site that only generates a sliver of profit and has 70 percent of its readership outside the reach of advertisers, but I suppose that's why I'm just a copy monkey and not a Business Person.

As for the print product: more views, less news, etc. Apparently we have a new printing contract that requires us to be off the floor by 11 p.m., back from the current 12:30 a.m. deadline. The printer has a group scheduled after us, so if we're late, we may not get printed (which may scare some people straight re: deadlines, but I'm not holding my breath). All section deadlines are moving up 90 minutes, too, so features has to be sent by 4:30 p.m. and B book (biz and sports) by 8 p.m. As you might imagine, that pretty much kills any spot coverage beyond early afternoon kickoffs.

That brings me to another rather pressing question that went unanswered at the Big Meeting. Not once did the subject of improving our content -- y'know, the main thing we have to sell? -- come up. Since we launched in November 2008, it's been a constant struggle to get our reporters to go beyond their daily churnalism of rewritten press releases, dutifully transcribed news conferences and soundbites from government ministers and other assorted muckety-mucks. It's been a near-Herculean struggle to make sure we have one local analysis piece a week in the paper, and now the whole thing is supposed to be in-depth features and analysis? I'm almost eager to see how people adjust when we flip that switch.
I also wonder how we're going to accommodate all this new analysis and opinion when the most obvious place for "views" -- the op-ed section -- has been trimmed to a page and a half. A blank page will hold about 1,400 words at the most (down from about 2,700 words now), and as I've posted previously, features and analysis tend to take up a large chunk of news hole if you want to do them justice. (I will note here that I did manage to wedge in that AP story on battered women in China -- it helped that I was double-desking it on Friday and needed to get the page out tout de suite.) We were also told the sports section would be "enhanced and strengthened" despite it shrinking from three pages to two.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Big Meeting without plenty of Business Speak. You could almost fill a bingo card with all the catchphrases and buzz words that were thrown about:
  • "we need to think outside the box"
  • "we need to be ahead of the curve"
  • "we're going to be leaner and meaner"
  • "change is never easy"
  • "there will be changes in manpower"
  • "we're going to be more people-oriented"
  • "we're creating a brand"
  • "this is a profitable niche market"
  • "we have brand value"
  • "we'll be profitable by next year with these changes"
There was also a whopper about how Indonesia's rising middle class (drink!) would find a broadsheet too big and unwieldy to open while taking public transportation. So much bullshit, so little time. 1) The middle class hasn't risen in this country just yet, despite all the smartphones you see floating about. 2) The middle class doesn't read the Globe; we have made all too clear that we are a newspaper that covets and is eager to serve the 1 percent. 3) If Indonesians find broadsheets so difficult to handle, then why has only Koran Tempo shrunk down to tabloid size so far? 4) There is no public transportation other than crowded buses and unreliable trains, and it's going to stay that way for at least the next four to five years given the mental midgets that run this joint.

So what now? Truthfully, I'm not sure. One thing I do know is that the Globe is moving in a direction I do not and will not support. Odds are I'll be told my services are no longer required once my "contract" expires in December, but if our slave labor fellows aren't replaced, I see no need to stay past August. True, I'll be sad to leave some of these folks (if not the city) behind and now is really not the time to voluntarily bail on full-time employment. That said, I still stand by my principles, one of which is the need to take pride in my work. I'm certainly not making enough to look the other way and have little tying me to this city, so if I can't be proud of what I'm doing, I see no reason to stay.

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