The joys of breaking into journalism

Tanna Chong - Reporter, South China Morning Post

[中文][Aug 2011 - The JournalistOn May Day afternoon while lunching with my family, Journalist Association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting was speaking on television about the latest pay survey. Ms Mak said they interviewed journalists’ median income lies on the HK$12,001 – HK$15,000 group, where three-quarters of the respondents earn less than HK$20,000. Only seven percent of them earn more than HK$30,000, but 30 per cent of them plan to leave the media industry within two years. My mother put down her cup of coffee, troubled: “Just why those bosses have to exploit reporters to this extent?”

Tanna on Lecgo Building 
One month then passed but the same amount of confusion and anxiety surrounded my mother. “Those figures were horrible”, “how could people feed themselves and their families with that amount of money” were her catchphrases of the month. It went beyond doubt that the newspaper I work in –South China Morning Post – offers a better pay. But I am sure she meant nothing offensive, as her next line was: “There is virtually zero pay rise even for those who have 10 years of experience. There is no prospect. Let’s quit.” Then grandmother chipped in: “True! And I prefer you working an eight-hour office job!”

Two rebuttals popped up: journalism brings one immense satisfaction and sense of commitment to the society. But I did not utter them to start a debate, as I knew they would then say in annoyance: “Just save your effort to argue.”

My journalistic career at the Post began after I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in June last year. Last month, I received an email invitation from the company for lunch with the Chief Editor and to share my expectations of my job.

My immediate reactions were mixed. I was no longer a “newcomer”. For the past 10 months I had been just a casual, daily-rated worker. Not being on the permanent staff I did not have my own working pass, although I went through the same company gate every day as the rest of the staff. Nor did I have my own business cards – I needed to hand-write my particulars on blank cards.

I was only promoted to be a monthly-paid permanent staff in April. Eventually I was given a pass with my headshot on it, received paid annual leave and a year-end appraisal. I almost cried thinking about all these. But I ended up asking myself: “Why was the road so steep for me in order to be recognised by the company? My incapability?”

I am among those who are almost a part of the “Post-90’s” generation. Having heard a lot of criticisms against the lax and arrogant working attitudes of the young people in this generation I tried my very best to satisfy my boss’ demands – I was just panicky that my seniors might consider me cocky and inept. Whatever the bosses wanted – whether daily or packaged stories – I never said no. Even when I was extremely tied up I would say: “Let me do it at home tonight”. In my early days I took piles of papers home, put them aside for a quick and then buried my head in them before staying by the computer till late into the night.

So, did my output increase? No, those works were mainly tedious information input. Was I passionate about work? Sort of. But the real reason was simply lack of job security.

Yes, I was afraid of getting the boot.

I am quite sure my mother would have been more hopeful if I was fired, as it would have meant leaving journalism. But I am more certain I would not find another job from which I would learn as much, and enjoyed as much.

Having one’s horizon widened is one of joys for a new journalist. But the setbacks are equally frustrating. Stories are massively edited or simply spiked without any prior warning. I understand the need for a newcomer to be broken in, but I sometimes cannot help thinking if I might have been too dumb and incapable. I once dreamt of a story of mine being drastically changed. I woke up in a cold sweat.

I totally agree with the view that fresh journalists have to be patient and humble, before one can turn in stories that win the respect of both interviewees and the society. But I sometimes think about this as well: “How about basic respect among workmates? At the very worst can't I be notified when my story has to be drastically altered or spiked? Please?”

In the end, however, the joys still surpass the nuisance during my freshman year as a journalist. Now, as I work the political beat I cannot be more grateful for the care from seniors as well as my undergraduate classmates. I am also thankful for the endless guidance given by my experienced colleagues – no matter how hectic they were when I approached for help. This February, I joined the company’s talent show with three of my dear colleagues and our team was voted the top team…I am among the luckiest reporters who have the best starting year! This is despite the suffocating work and family pressures I face every day.

So a fruitful year has passed. I see my own shortcomings and am trying every means to improve. I also realize the need to learn the art of communicating with my superiors. Not only should I avoid falling short of their expectations, I should also avoid being overwhelmed by fatigue. “It is a long battle to be an outstanding journalist,” so I was told by university teachers and seniors.

I wish all young reporters the best. We should all strive hard together.