The view from the other side

Alex Koo - Executive Committee member, HKJA

[Apr 2011 - The Journalist] In recent years, the number of journalists leaving the media industry has been growing. The endless rounds of farewells can be disheartening, but at the same time we feel happy that a friend has been able to find new employment elsewhere. To a certain extent we have all become accustomed to the departures as they merely reflect the working conditions in the industry.

Once in a while, though, there's a twist...old hands flock back. Two recent ones:

Elizabeth Wong, Cable TV News Reporter, who worked as a Media Relations Specialist with Hong Kong Disneyland Resort for over a year.

Joyce Ng, South China Morning Post Reporter, who worked as an Information Officer with the Information Services Department for less than a year

Ng says:ISD is not the my cup of tea

She worked for Ming Pao before joining ISD in 2007. She felt her career prospects were not particularly bright, so she applied for the post of IO. The employment process in government takes a long time, so by the time Ng was informed that she had got the job, she had virtually forgotten about it. Should she quit or not?

The main reason she chose to leave was the salary. The pay of an IO is high and attractive. It cannot even be matched by the salary of a veteran reporter. The second reason is the working hours. “At that moment, I knew I was not tired of a reporter’s work. But a reporter has to work 5.5 day weeks and work more than 10 hours per day. I had no leisure time for myself. I was too tired to meet friends, read and watch movies after office hours.”

So she joined the ISD.

Lifestyle preferences

The salary, welfare and working hours of a civil servant are better than in the media. Whether a journalist can adapt to the life of a civil servant depends on his or her lifestyle preferences.

Ng said that the skills learned before were useful. “An official may not know what a reporter wants from a question he or she raises.” However, she could interpret what the reporter wanted from question. She could explain to that official how to answer that question to prevent misunderstanding.

Ng said the main difference between a newsroom and the ISD office was the atmosphere. “The newsroom is full of live, but you can only hear TV sounds in the ISD office.”

The duty of a new assistant information office is to read and compare all newspapers everyday. Ng said she had to pay more attention to reading newspapers. “I had too much work and did not to read newspapers when I was a journalist. When I worked for the ISD, I read more seriously.”

Compared with senior IOs, she had a relatively lighter workload. “At times I had nothing to do. The only job was to watch TV news.” She admitted that she was not suitable for this work because the job nature was too different from that of reporting. She said reporters actively and independently searched for stories, collected information, arranged interviews, looked for news angles and wrote news stories but IO passively waited for reporters’ enquiries, waited for orders from supervisors which she found depressing.

She left the ISD after less than a year. She is now working for South China Morning Post. Her salary is no less than the time when she worked for the ISD. What she gave up was the stable salary increments in the future. “The annual salary adjustment in news media cannot compare with that of government”.

On 24-hour call

But Elizabeth Wong had to take a pay cut on returning.

Wong said she loved watching TV when she was a child. She joined Cable TV news as a reporter after she graduated. “Cable TV treated me well, I learned a lot from my job. However, after working as a reporter for years I had learnt almost every thing I needed to know. I hoped to explore the bigger world outside the news media.”

Wong joined the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort as a Media Relations Specialist. She was recommended by her ex-colleague who had already worked for Disney. “Reporter becomes PR – sounds normal. So I did it”.

The new challenge was unexpectedly difficult. “Disney was planning to rebrand their corporate image, so there was much work to do.” She recalled that there were only two to members of staff in the Media Relations Team at the time, the other member being responsible for answering calls for the company. “24 hours ‘on call’, you must answer at any time if something happens. Even when you are watching a movie, or eating with friends, you need to get down to work once the phone rings.”

It is nothing unusual for a Disney PR to be working on a computer for hours in a cafe during a holiday. She added that reporters probably wondered why they needed to wait for hours to get just a simple reply from the PR. “Official replies must be read and agreed to by a number of senior management first. If someone is at a meeting or unavailable, we must hold it up because that is the rule.”

She said that even on the day when you are not on 24-hour call you still need to wake up at 6am. “I read newspapers before brushing my teeth and washing up,” she said. PR staff should read all the news, note down every story related to the company or company directors, write a report which would be submitted to senior management before office hours begin.

The nature of the job was the reason Wong left Disney to rejoin Cable TV news. “I could handle my duties well after more than a year, but I realized that this was not the job for me.” She said PR just served a company, but reporters serve the public. She was also a part-time debating teacher which more closely resembled the job nature of a reporter. So she chose to work as a reporter again even though she had to take a salary cut.

She had a clearer perspective of the industry from the outside. Wong said she could see the changes in the media from the outside. “In the past, reporters had more opportunities and time to cover a news story. I had seven trips overseas in a month, traveling around the world. The life of reporter is more exciting.”

She said TV news emphasized speed now. When the reporter finishes an assignment, colleagues will help him or her to follow up, and the reporter would be off another news event immediately.

“New reporters spend most of their time waiting and holding the microphone to get a soundbite, it is difficult for them to develop.”

Wong believes getting some other experience is good. “The world outside the news media is big, you should experience it.”

Many media owners, and even frontline reporters, have expressed the belief that since being a reporter is a respectable vocation performed for the public interest, the low salaries of reporters can be justified. Wong dismissed it as nonsense. She believed that such “public interest” arguments are mere excuses for media owners to exploit reporters.

Ng believes every job is respectable as long as you work passionately and righteously. “Reporters should not think their job is holier than others, they should fight for their welfare and salary”.

Both Wong and Ng say that if the working environment in the media does not improve, they cannot be sure they will continue in journalism until retirement.