Changing Career Path: Dilemma Facing Spot News Reporters

Maisy Lo - Senior Reporter, Ming Pao (Translated by Patsy Moy)

When I arrived in the Philippines to cover the hostage crisis, I was pretty sure it would be a good show for the seasoned spot news reporters to exercise their journalistic skills, brilliance and flexibility, running between the crime scene, hospitals, police station and funeral home. It goes without saying that wisdom comes with age and experience.

But there are times when veteran reporters find themselves handicapped in their work.

For instance, spot news reporters have been unable to monitor calls and messages going through the police radio communications network since it went digital six years ago. But worse is to come. Spot news reporters will become fully handicapped after this digital system is extended to the ambulance services from July next year. Most spot news reporters see it as putting an end to their careers.

Some newspapers have recently sent “ultimatums’’ to their spot news reporters: learn new skills, such as Chinese language typing, video taking, and pursuing exclusive stories – or else. However, a successful transformation in their job nature does not guarantee continued employment. This would depend on the vacancies and budgets of the newspapers. Baffled and with nowhere to go, these spot news reporters are also “condemned” as low skilled workers.

Their dilemma lies in the history of the local media’s development.

Spot news reporters can be classified into two types, messengers and writers. Basically, messengers are good at taking photographs. Back in the old days, they would dash out of the newsroom and rush to the scene after hearing any exciting breaking news over the police and ambulance service radio systems, such as someone leaping from the high-rise, or being chopped up by an assailant. Without waiting for any instructions, these reporters simply leapt onto their motorcycles and sped off to the scene as quickly as possible to shoot away with their cameras. This done, they asked around and chatted with police officers at the scene to gather background information and details of the cases. Observing the environment and people around were also their must-do tasks. Since spot news reporters mostly cover crime news, some newspapers occasionally employed ex-police officers, at times even pimps or people familiar with the triads to join their ranks. Such reporters have two major tasks: taking photographs and collecting information or inside stories.

Are such reporters required to be good writers? The answer is: they don’t need to be. There are usually professional writers in the newsroom to turn their verbal reports into written words. The writing is usually so vivid that readers can easily imagine how the whole incident played out, as if they were present and witnessing the grisly happenings. Often the writers would even spice up their words with their own imaginations. Here is an example: "The moment the bus crashed, all passengers were screaming and rocking back and forth, their belongings flying all over the place. Women lost control of themselves, screaming out in terror. The situation was utterly chaotic, as if like a battlefield.”

In the early days, these on-the-spot reporters were men. But things have changed and more young women have joined their ranks.

Tough in getting the news

Fear of job loss is most imminent for these on-the-spot reporters since they can no longer listen to police radio. At the same time, newspapers are hiring more university graduates who are only paid around HK$10,000 a month. Those greenhorns are to replace their senior colleagues to take the dual roles of collecting news and writing. It is rather obvious that the division of work of the old days will be gone very soon. I have heard from some on-the-spot reporters that they plan to get taxi driver licences to prepare for the worst to come.

A seasoned journalist sarcastically said: "I did not receive much education and find it rather difficult to turn myself into a writer. All along I have been relying on manual work [collecting news] to make a living. I will come under a lot of pressure if I were to join a different sector to find a new job."

But some hold a different attitude. They say: "My salary still remains at about HK$10,000. But I am complacent and satisfaction from my work comes the very moment I snap a good photo. I am very pleased whenever readers respond to the tragedies I have reported and they make donations to the victims.

"I am puzzled by the general perception that on-the-spot news reporters are lazy, unprofessional or rough...perhaps because we use a lot of bad language and smoke. Maybe, we also always work in a group rather than going for exclusive stories. So our bosses are not really fond of us. But a lot of comments and criticisms about us are unfair. We act collectively because we want to counter major newspapers like Apple Daily or Oriental Daily which have big teams, of more than a hundred on-the-spot reporters, that is about five times of the manpower of small newspapers like ours.”

"As a matter of fact, I am a very devoted reporter who would even run dash across several traffic lanes in heavy traffic to take photos of a car accident. When there are floods, I am always the first to arrive at the scene in spite of getting drenched. To me, running around in the blazing sun, in temperatures of 35 degree celsius is no big deal. Going without a shower or a proper place to sleep for 10 odd days, like the Sichuen earthquake, it's no big deal. All part of polishing our skills."

Years on the police trail have clearly sharpened the skills of these reporters.

Take the Change, the Earlier the Better

"However, not many people appreciate our efforts and contributions," say these reporters. Many are now prepared for the worst. Some have begun to moonlight as auxiliary police officers or freelance photographers.

“This way, we still have some income even if we get fired," they say. I have heard that some reporters are so pessimistic that they take it day by day and have decided not to devote themselves to their job as much as in the past.

Instead of sacking staff, some newspapers give the reporters alternatives of either changing their duty to covering other news or being part of a special taskforce to look for exclusive stories. The special taskforce is said to spend most of their time socialising with police officers, like having tea with them, going to karaokes, playing mahjong and going to pubs to build up strong contacts to secure exclusive stories. This may explain why a few newspapers now have exclusive crime news while others don’t.

However, we should give deeper thought to whether such a practice would involve personal interests, and whether it would also undermine the transparency of the police information system, fairness about access to information, as well as the overall accountability of the police force. All these serious issues need to be considered thoroughly and carefully.