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Bringing news to a new level

Suthichai Yoon, seated on the roundtable (4th from right) with the core group of editors, at the newly established Nation Convergent Newsroom. (Photo by The Nation)

Publication Date : 20-08-2012

 

In the mid-1980s, it took two days for Tulsathit Taptim to cover a story on the Communist Party of Malaya when he was still a reporter at The Nation newspaper. This included taking the train from Bangkok to Hatyai, going into the jungle to interview an Army officer and returning to Hatyai to type his story, making sure he finished it before the local post office closed at midnight. There were no mobile phones then so he had to make a phone call on reaching Hatyai to set the interview, not to mention lugging along his reliable but heavy typewriter everywhere he went.

“One interview, two days,” recalls Tulsathit, now The Nation editor, with a laugh. “But now the guy has a mobile phone, I can call him from Bangkok, I can write the story on my laptop and send it through email. It’s fascinating.”

Indeed, for journalists like Tulsathit and Suthichai Yoon, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of the Nation Multimedia Group, technology has not only made journalism more engaging and interesting, it has eased a lot of the work load.

Suthichai established The Voice of The Nation (later shortened to The Nation) in 1971. As a veteran journalist, he never thought the day will come when reporters type stories on their mobile phones, how much more shoot news videos with them.

“I’m a good witness of all these dramatic changes in a very brief period of time . I started with letterpress when I started The Nation. The stories were composed with manual typesetting with a box of letters made of lead. You type the story then give it to the compositors. There were 50 of them in this dirty room that’s full of lead and ink. Most of them were young girls without any education. They didn’t understand English but they knew ABC. So they’d put together the story character by character. Manual!” Suthichai recalls.

He added that there were times the compositors would tell the desk to limit the use of certain letters like “A” or “I” because they were running out of them. “So they’d come and say, please this afternoon, don’t write too many As because we are running out of As,” he says.

Today’s modern newsrooms are a far cry from those days.

Improving news delivery
At the newly established Nation Convergent Newsroom, TV screens show several channels simultaneously while editors hold their first in a series of meetings for the day. On the circular desk referred to as the “nerve centre” or main news hub are modern flatscreen computers where the editors can access the "central basket" or database of stories, photos and videos. In a glass-walled studio nearby, a reporter and crew prepare to go on air.

Converging the various platforms of the Nation Group—print, TV, Internet and radio—was a process that began about five years ago when the company took the first step to go multimedia.

“It’s not as if it’s an overnight thing. We have been preparing for this at least five years ago when we first asked our reporters to do video clips and stand-ups,” Suthichai says. “In practice, most reporters have been doing this. Physically though, we were in the old building, so we couldn’t really put all these in one place.”

The editorial offices of the English daily The Nation, business daily Khrungthep Turakij and Thai language daily Kom Chad Leuk, moved to their new offices a few months ago and the vision to have a convergent newsroom became a reality.

Sitting around the huge roundtable, the journalists look like knights in an Arthurian legend.  Every day, this is where the editors converge.

Aside from the three newspapers and their websites, there are two television channels—the 24-hour station Nation Channel TV and the new satellite-based channel Krungthep Turakij TV.

All the editors put their heads together to produce stories for three media platforms: broadcast, print and online. It could be a daunting task, and quite chivalrous, and they are out to prove it’s doable.

“The news gathering operation is being centralised over here, separated in three pillars: international, regional news; financial and economic news; and politics,” says Thanong Khantong, who heads the international and regional desk.

Thanong together with Nophakun Limsamarnphun (business desk) and Prakit Chompukam (political desk) give broad guidelines to the media houses’ product editors, who meet around the clock, at least three times a day from morning till evening, to look at the top stories and decide on the best possible coverage. 

“Convergence works by taking the key editors of all the news organisations, put them together here and let them share their opinions, [have them] look at assignments,” says Thanong.

He says this is one way of reducing redundancy in newsrooms, saving time and cost. “Say the prime minister is going to have a news conference. The Nation doesn’t have to send a reporter, TV doesn’t have to send another. We just need to send one person whose story we can use for all the media outlets. It’s the job of the editors to repackage it.”

Nophakun agrees that it’s all about what he calls economies of scale. “One reporter for one content that’s delivered in various platforms--television first, where we air video in real time, then we update the websites, and meet the newspaper deadline in the evening.”

The convergent newsroom focuses on three to five big stories of the day.  This way, Thanong says, the media houses can provide a full, in-depth coverage of an issue and provide as many angles to a story as possible.

“For example, we have the major story about the budget debate in Thailand. So how can we go beyond the normal reporting? We provide analysis on how the government forms its budget policy, spending, debt creation, fiscal indiscipline etc. The page editors of each news outlet decide [on what to cover].”

One of the product editors, Chularat Saengpassa of The Nation, admits it is not an easy task. “Today, the big story is the budget issue. We [editors] discuss it here and it’s difficult because that is not my area of expertise.”

But Nophakun says that is exactly the idea of convergence. “If we do it independently we could not do it because there are not enough people with ideas.” That’s why, he says, the editors must be in the nerve centre “more than half of their time so they can coordinate”.

Managing operations
All the content flows into one converged platform which is the integrated editorial system (IES). The system can carry text, photos, graphics and videos. It’s where content is shared among the media houses and it shows which product is being used by whom.

The IES upgrade was the only cost the group had to shoulder. Nophakun says no additional cost was incurred for the convergence. It was only a matter of putting things together.

With the convergent newsroom, he says the group is also expecting more advertising revenues for the websites and TV stations. Social media, he says, will also play a big role as platforms like Facebook and Twitter will link content to audiences in Thailand and around the world. The nerve centre has social media editors to do the job.

What the group might be spending more on in the next few months is training for its reporters, especially the senior ones, to become multimedia journalists. Nophakun says this may not prove to be easy.

“It’s very difficult to change people especially those who have worked in the newspaper for 20 to 30 years; they don’t want to change,” he admits.

Ideally, each reporter must be able to produce text, image and video clips and do live reporting on social media platforms at the same time. The more veteran ones are also encouraged to appear on television to provide insight and analysis on the biggest news and issues of their expertise.

“We were able to convince them that this is good for the whole organisation. If we continue separately, we might not survive because the newspaper business around the world is on the downtrend,” says Nophakun.

It is still early days and the editors are still fine-tuning and adjusting to the new system. And change is never easily embraced.

The Nation’s political editor, Somroutai Sapsomboon, or Jin, had to move from the 31st floor to the 30th. The physical move was just one of the hurdles she has to overcome.

“It is a new challenge for me. But I like it,” Jin says. “The biggest challenge is that I used to handle six reporters at The Nation. Now I must handle 22 reporters.”

“It’s only been two days so it’s hard to tell. It was hard on the first day because we have yet to adjust. But it was easier on the second day,” Jin adds. “If we can perfect the system, it will be very good.”

Sucheera Pinijparakarn, or Boom, covers business and is one of reporters assigned to the convergence team. She notes that she wrote only in English before, but now she has to write the Thai version as well.

“As reporters, we must be ready with any assignment,” Boom says.

“Some said it would not work. But Khun Suthichai said the group should do [convergence] while we are healthy. We should not do it when we are weak; it might be too late at that time and we could not cope with the growing trend of digital media.”

Change in mindset
The editors expected resistance noting that every change they previously imposed in the newsroom had the same reception.

“Why should we do this, why should we edit videos… other newspapers didn’t have to do this and that. We went through this kind of resistance," Suthichai notes. “So when we came to this latest step of having a convergent newsroom, we don’t expect to have serious problems… but there will always be [resistance].”

He adds that this also requires a change in attitude.

“Most important is the mindset. That’s why we have spent a lot of time and energy in convincing our people that this is the way to do the future. We have heard of problems on the decline of newspaper circulation and TV audience share. Although we never had these problems, we have to prepare ourselves to prevent from being trapped in those positions,” Suthichai says.

However, it’s not just about sharing resources to become a stronger media company, Tulsathit notes.

“This is about the quality of the content also. We have hundreds of reporters and there was a time that they were working separately. It’s better for us to coordinate our efforts to get one story done rather than everyone going out interviewing the same people, coming back and writing the same story. This convergence allows us to deliver better content to our audience, whether it’s TV or newspaper or the website.”

“In the past, it’s like a market. But now we cook it for you first,” he says.

Tulsathit is not worried about keeping a story’s exclusivity either.

“Today, it’s all about the better-told story. It used to be that you got some scoop, somebody said something to you that nobody knew about. That’s no longer the case now. Exclusivity to me is an expanding philosophy that you tell better stories.”

Suthichai assured that in a convergent news setting, no one would be left behind as long as they learn to adapt to the changes. He cited many success stories in the company including a typist who later became a reporter and now political news editor in the Thai language newspaper, a copy boy who is now laying out pages for The Nation and a driver for a crime-oriented TV programme who has become a cameraman and host himself. Suthichai’s own driver has learned to manage his small studio at home and helps him shoot video clips.

“If you adapt, you will survive,” he says.

Suthichai adds the convergent newsroom will also prepare the company for future trends in journalism.

“Whatever happens to journalism, we will survive and we will prosper because we are ready to tackle any changes that may affect print, media or broadcast. In fact, we can produce content on any platform because people are trained to do that. Which means that we don’t have to be really worried when people start to say newspaper will die in a few years, or that people don’t watch TV anymore,” he says.

Social media, he adds, is also part of the package of a convergent newsroom. “We are everywhere and for me, this is to ensure sustainability, stability and the future for the whole group. So no one needs to worry that they will lose their job if they are ready to adapt. And we have the best brains, the best minds of our editorial department creating the kind of content the future needs,” he concludes.

The Nation Convergent Newsroom goes fully operational on August 20.

 

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