CLOSURE of the once influential Malay publishing group, Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd, has brought forth a multi-dimensional debate encompassing journalism, newspapers, the newspapering business and society itself.
Utusan Melayu, publisher of the popular Malay daily Utusan Malaysia, its weekend edition Mingguan Malaysia, Kosmo! and Kosmo Ahad, recently went into liquidation under the pressure of debt, declining circulation and poor revenue.
The company sent home all its remaining workers and sold its printing licences to a party owned by billionaire Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al Bukhary.
Its closure, seen as a drastic move by critics, first sent shockwaves to the journalists’ fraternity as even its rivals viewed the move as being hastily undertaken. Many attempted to dive into factors that led to the closure of the eight decade-old Malay institution.
Not a few blamed its editorial policy, saying in recent times Utusan pandered too much to the then ruling government, especially to Umno, at the expense of its once strong journalism.
In its staunch defence of Malay rights, Utusan was also seen as a far-right newspaper, an editorial decision which those among the advertising fraternity say ultimately drove advertisers away.
But Utusan cannot be entirely blamed for choosing its editorial policy.
At least, rightly or wrongly, it made a decision although on hindsight, at a very heavy price.
Which brings forward the question of journalism itself.
Newspaper editors make hundreds if not thousands of decisions every single publishing day.
Some of these decisions actually run counter to the sacred journalism truth discipline but made with other considerations including, pathetically, survival of the editors or the newspapers themselves.
Former managing editor of The Chicago Tribune, in his book News Values writes that a newspaper’s editorial position, its frankly stated opinions on ultimate questions of value, play a central role in establishing the linkage between a newspaper and the community.
But the relationship is not simple, for it starkly raises the question of whether a newspaper should tell people what is good for them or what they want to hear.
Whether it should lead or follow. While a newspaper must be attentive to the views of its readers, nothing subverts a community’s respect for a paper’s editorial position more than the sense that its editors are basing it on what will be popular.
One of the worst accusations an editor gets from angry readers is that he has done something only to increase its circulation or avoid hostility from some powerful group.
The thing with journalism is that it is a profession full of ideals and one that is easier to comment on from the outside than in the newsroom itself.
This is where the elements of the profession and that of ownership and patronage of newspapers often collide.
Ask any rookie reporter why he joined the profession and the answer will almost always be for the want of being a watchdog for society.
In that instant, it would seem that he would be prepared to fight to the death for his right to keep society open and informed.
He probably would have heard somewhere in a journalism school the much celebrated reporting by the pair of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post on the Watergate scandal which brought about the downfall of former US president Richard Nixon.
But no later than he can be called a mid-career journalist, would he have discovered that there isn’t such a thing as absolute freedom, even in the press.
There are restrictions, even if not in the form of editorial content and legislation, in the fact that in the greater scheme of things a newspaper is a commercial enterprise.
As more newspapers become corporate entities, the pressure has shifted from solely helping society master their world to satisfying the shareholders.
Not many reporters, save for those on the company and corporate news beats, know what animal is EBITDA (earnings
before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation); NTA (net tangible assets); and shareholder return.
Even now, in an era where the Internet has somewhat mounted a serious challenge to traditional media platforms, journalism is struggling to find a foothold.
Somehow, many journalists tend to equate journalism only to printed newspapers.
The arguments to support this has been deep, ranging from the supposedly shorter attention span by those reading news on screens compared with newspapers, the widespread unverified garbage disguised as news on the Internet, to the potentially hazardous risks associated with eye fatigue from overly staring into the smartphone.
But the fact remains that while news is still being consumed, worldwide newspaper circulation has dropped significantly over the past decade.
Which then truly brings forth the business aspects of newspapering.
No business owner in his right frame of mind would want to see his enterprise incurring losses year after year.
No shareholder would tolerate that either and hence the widespread cost cutting measures in newspaper companies around the world in recent years.
These cost cutting measures cut right into the hearts of the traditional journalists who while seeing society’s shift towards consuming news on the Internet, now faces the prospect of operating on shoestring budgets because to the publishing company owners, while strong and responsible journalism in the printed form may be needed, it is expensive and society is not willing to pay for it.
Can traditional newspaper journalists then bring the same professional level of journalism online and save the company newsprint, printing and distribution charges?
Somehow, traditional journalists despise this scenario and only time will tell whether the argument that written journalism should remain only in the printed form or keeping it there was just for sentimental reasons and nothing else.
And the determinant to all this will be society itself.
For now, all we can say is regardless of how it will evolve, in its truest form, journalism was, is, and will always be needed and the written instruments of general information, in whatever form, must survive, for they are the means by which tomorrow’s society will understand events of today.
The writer is Media Prima Bhd’s news and editorial operations executive director