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Open Spaces

Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 10:39AM   |  3 comments

Blog written by Patricia R. Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and  professor of cinema and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, Ithaca College


I’m sitting in the back row of the banquet room on the tenth floor of the upscale M Hotel in downtown Singapore.

I’m freezing—the air conditioning is so crisp and cold it’s almost an electro-shock after the 93 degree heat and humidity of walking through the business district in Tanjong Pagar. 

I’m listening to speakers from Hong Kong, Singapore, France, Germany, the United States and Malaysia describe the changing topography of journalism in Asia.

Summary: the future of journalism is…business and marketing on  24/7 social media platforms.

This gathering is an intense two day working conference for news organizations and news professionals called The Future of Journalism and News Media, sponsored by the World Association of Newspaper and News Publishers (WAN IFRA), Nanyang Technological University and the Asian Journalism Fellowship. 

Go to Where the People Are

“Media are no longer about a brand and people coming to you,” asserted Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York graduate school of journalism . “Now you have to go where the people are—media are more distributed than centralized.” On vacation in Florida, Jarvis was skyped into the conference.

Over 100 journalists from Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bhutan, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, France, Germany and the United States crowd the round tables.  I talked to a lot of them at the cocktail party, which featured copious amounts of satay and sashimi. I  really liked and admired the people I met.

The  q and a sessions after each session feel more like press conferences where journalists drill into undeveloped points for clarification and exposure. It’s a long way from academics in the US who often start their questions with “let me make an intervention” or “I’d like to problematize your position a bit.” 

I like their agility in cutting to the bone of ideas. A spirit of harmony and collegiality pervades this conference.

Malaysiakini, Passion and the Internet is a website that pushed the boundaries of press freedom in Malaysia, explained Premesh Chandran, one of its founders. The Malaysian government loosened press censorship on the internet in the late 1990s when it was pushing its multimedia corridor—Malaysiakini took advantage of this opening and launched in 1999.  

With passion and commitment to breaking stories on government and business scandals, Malaysiakini focused on fast news underrepresented in the mainstream and offered diverse viewpoints. 

Chandran contends that where you publish is irrelevant now. Brand name and credibility are Malaysiakini’s number one asset.  By 2004, the website was profitable.  By 2008, it was ranked #1 for news in Malaysia.

A lot of the questions volleyed here seem to pivot around how news organizations in Thailand or Indonesia can steer through the  swift-moving rapids of multiplatformed social media. J

Journalists here wonder out loud how their jobs will change from doing stories to branding themselves as specialists across blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. 

Old Dead Tree Journalism and New Social Media Journalism

I’m jamming my notebook with percentages on everything from who reads newspapers (older people) to who uses Twitter (younger people), aphorisms about social media engagement strategies (twitter and blog and post 24/7) and exhortations to invent a new business model for journalism (make money by branding and sponsoring meet ups and trainings).

The old journalism (what some here call dead tree journalism) of a daily newspaper, loyal readers,  and highly trained journalists with authority is extinct. 

The new journalism (an endlessly swirling concoction of citizen journalism, blogs, Twitter, engagement strategies, branding, mobile interfaces and aggregation) is in Darwinian ascendance. But  it doesn’t yet have a viable business model for what many speakers call “monetization.”

Some Facts and Observations on the New Landscape

Consider the following facts and arguments offered at this conference about the future of journalism:

* Journalism is not a product but a process, and journalists must adopt an “entrepreneurial spirit” to capitalize on low cost platforms,  according to Jeff Jarvis

* The South China Morning Post, a major high prestige Asian newspaper, is now competing with blogs, contends Reginald Chua, editor in chief of the Hong Kong-based paper. Large organizations may, as a result, be handicapped in this new landscape.

* In Singapore, 1 out of 2 people trust blogs. Chew Ming, editor of the Singapore-based, user-generated site Stomp, pointed out that citizen journalism captures news as it is happening—a much different timeline than traditional journalism.  But it’s better at who , what, when, and where, than why and how.

* Creation is aggregation—use people as our agents to spread our brand, claimed Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review.

* Listen, plan, engage, amplify, optimize, urged Thomas Crampton, a former New York Times and International Herald Tribune journalist now Asia Pacific director fo 360 Digital Influence, Ogilvy, Hong Kong.  Journalism is a “three legged stool” of online, in person, and in print.

* People will pay for quality journalism, argued Premesh Chandran from

* “Leisurization” is a growing market for online news. 91% of people in a recent survey think the internet is the most effective way to get leisure information. People want and need to escape, and these desires can be “monetized” online, according to Jerome Doncieux, co-CEO of AFP Relaxnews in France.

Where do nonprofit news/public affairs organizations fit in?

Walter Lim, who helped launch the imaginative, compelling  and useful Singapore heritage project, and I are the only speakers from the nonprofit realm. His user-generated historical archive--which had several fans and users in this esteemed audience--is funded by the National Heritage Board of Singapore. 

I guess I represented what we in the US call “public media,” that range of works that open up concerns and debates about civil society.  I asked the audience to consider shifting from considering business models to the conceptual, philosophical and ethical models of this new social media landscape—all of which are unresolved and thorny issues despite the euphoria over twittering in Iran. 

My colleague Cherian George, himself a former Singapore Straits Times journalist who is now a professor at NTU with a Ph.D., invited me to speak about an on-going research and theoretical project I am collaborating on with filmmaker , writer and non profit arts administrator Helen de Michiel called the Open Space Project, a theoretical model of collaborative, participatory relational practice that pulls in community rather than pushes out ideas.

I must admit, I wasn’t quite sure how this model for nonprofit social media mobilization might mesh with the rhetorics of business models, entrepreneurialism, branding, and pushing out ideas to capture eyeballs for advertizers.  

I didn't want to alienate the audience, but to invite them into a slightly different conversation. Open Space media, in our model, is where technology meets people meets places.

Social Media in Asia and the US: Similiar and Different

In the end, I’m struck by how the pumped-up-pitch-man rhetoric, the engagement strategies,  the euphoria about new media, the multiplatforming, the evangelism that the old forms are dead and the new forms need our embrace,  and even the adoption of the “indie rock model” to commoditize ancillary products at live events, is almost identical to what I heard  from the nonprofit social media pundits at the National Alliance of Media Arts and Culture Commonwealth Conference last August in Boston. 

The only difference was that the nonprofit NAMAC crowd shuffled around the term sustainability, while the for-profit WAN IFRA group lobbed the term monetization.  An uncritical optimism about social media  coupled with horror-film like warnings about ignoring it pervaded both the WAN IFRA and NAMAC gatherings.

At NAMAC after hours, at the hotel bar, nonprofit administrators described how they spent most of their time chained to laptops sending out Tweets and  being clever on Facebook updates and  pumping out e-blasts and building dynamic websites. They shared they were exhausted by it all and missed the days of engaging audiences  and ideas more directly. 

At a WAN IFRA luncheon where I ate lamb laksa and fish curry, I listened to seasoned journalists from four different countries in southeast Asia worry that younger journalists never leave the newsroom or make phone calls—they google and surf the internet and then remix what they find.  They have not done the “death knock”—where someone dies and you interview their family or friends.

The Future Needs Restructuring

Both conversations give me pause. 

It seems like social media is actually not social—in the Habermasian sense—at all.

Perhaps it has created a cordon sanitaire around ideas and news that matter, trapping nonprofits, for-profits, and entrepreneurial freelancers from both sectors in a digital quarantine. As a result, the traumas, pain, messiness, and conflicts of the powerful and the powerless--defining features of journalism, public affairs, documentary, and nonprofit public media around the globe for at least two centuries--are cordoned off, outside, far away, unnecessary, neutralized.

So maybe the future of journalism and nonprofit media in Asia and the United States are the same: a tectonic restructuring of the relationships between producers, users, institutions, technological platforms, labor, and business models . 

And maybe the future of journalism and nonprofit media everywhere should also include some vigorous discussion of the whys and hows of ethics.

And what it means to get away from your iPhone and into the streets again, interacting with, uh, that old platform which is always new, called real people.




I'm not quite sure how journalism's move into social media and monetisation can come together, but the truth is the mere existence of social media has probably made journalists' jobs a little, or perhaps even a lot, tougher.

Let me focus on instantaneity of news and the live updates:
I remember a couple of weeks because, the Straits Times (@stcom), Singapore's main English newspaper, for the first time (or at least the first time I noticed) tweeted 'live' from a press conference (, and I thought to myself, "finally, the ST is doing something right". A few days later, @stcom also tweeted 'live' from the budget statement ( Independent "journalists"/bloggers/twitterers have been tweeting/blogging 'live' events/media previews for a long time but newspapers, such as the ST have only recently picked it up.

Looking back at Singapore's social media history + the reporting of news, pne of the most important events is probably the AWARE Saga that happened last May. Journalists were turned away during the extraordinary annual general meeting, and reporting was left to the members of the meeting, who tweeted throughout the over-7 hour long meeting, making the AWARE saga the no. 1 trending topic throughout the twitterverse. People who were unable to attend the meeting, but was still interested in the outcome of the event (like me), were able to stay tuned through live updates via Twitter and blogs such as The Online Citizen. Here, it was social media and not the traditional, paid media that brought us the latest news.

Also, another case in point is the earthquake tremors last september, where the first news of tremors felt were 'reported' on Twitter and tweets and it was only more than half an hour later did @stcom finally report the tremors. (that said, ST probably needed to verify it first).

I think people who are really into social media have been spoilt by the instantaneity of news (though, admittedly, sometimes, the power of social media has caused propagation of false news, like in the very recent case of the supposedly death of Singapore's most renowned politician- that we expect news agencies to follow suit and match up with their live updates and such. Thank gdness i'm not going to become a journalist.

I like the posting,keep up the good work.

Great site, and a well-written post.

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