Talent and expertise draining away...

Emily Chan - Executive Committee Member, HKJA

[中文] [Jul 2012 - The Journalist] Talent and expertise are rapidly draining away from media ranks. Headhunters commissioned by public institutes and non-profit organisations have been very active in recent times, creaming off the top ranks, especially from the electronic medium. The headhunters are madly flashing banknotes. And there's no end in sight to this big grab.

It is not entirely a case of luring seasoned journalists away with the Almighty Dollar alone. Self-censorship by media bosses is also forcing experienced journalists to throw in the towel. More and more stories regarded as “negative” towards those in power are being spiked or put on hold, forcing experienced journalists to call it a day.

All these departures are fuelling declines in standards throughout the industry.

There is also a seemingly endless movement of reporters from one organisation to another, mainly to secure slightly higher rewards. This merely confirms the prevailing view that starting salaries are low. Most reporters who recently decamped from one outlet to another say their increases varied between 10 percent and 20 percent on moving to another outlet.

But those who quit journalism altogether say their incomes increased by 30 to 40 percent. In a few instances salaries doubled or trebled. This goes to show the worth of people with journalistic skills in the wider world.

China beat strains the rhythm at home

Money is not the only problem for journalists, especially for those are married. Many have difficulty striking a balance between family and career. There are the irregular working hours to begin with. It is harder for those on the China beat where staying across the border for long periods is the norm. But this puts a huge strain on family life, especially for those with children. It is not uncommon for the China beat reporters to call it quits after a while. Bruce Lui is one of them and he tells us what life was like out in the field.

Bruce almost became a police officer to begin with. But he got into journalism instead, ending up in Cable TV which has bureaux in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Reporters are posted to these offices for three to six months at a stretch.

Bruce has had enough of these postings and being away from his children for long stretches. He does he want colleagues to stand in or make sacrifices for him. It was a dilemma which left him with a sense of guilt. Finally he threw in the towel and became a teacher at Hong Kong Baptist University.

The break has not been without regrets. The time was bad to begin with; there are still many places in China he has not visited and he still yearns to speak up for China's downtrodden.

The timing of his departure was also bad. He believes Cable's China team has now come under a lot of attention and pressure because they interviewed Li Wangyang, the dissident who spent more than a decade in prison. Shortly after the interview Li was found “hanged” in a hospital – evidently with his feet still planted on the ground. There is now an outcry in Hong Kong, with demands on Beijing to carry out a thorough investigation.

Bruce fears his departure may have added to their loss of morale. He says his heart is still with them and he would remain a special correspondent on the China beat.

Bruce said he did not want to leave journalism completely because the job made him feel proud in front of his kids. He hopes to stay away for a short while. After his children grow up he plans to return to the China beat.

Some reporters leave because they have no choice. Others persist.

Big exodus at the Post

A former reporter for the South China Morning Post who prefers to remain anonymous says the management is quite jittery about its China coverage, and tries to discourage reporting on civil and human rights issues. There is also a preference for positive stories about China.

This reporter revealed that management put out word that mainland officials only allowed reporters to interview pre-selected people without giving any reasons. The reporter found that management did not want to make the local government angry. He could not stand such self-censorship and quit.

Another former SCMP reporter also encountered a similar situation. He had suggested covering stories about human rights and pollution in China. But the suggestions were rejected by his superior.

Also turned down were follow ups on the high-speed rail crash. There were hints that such stories would not be published, he said.

The reporter believes that this kind of self-censorship violates his purpose of being a reporter and so he decided to quit.

On June 15 some 35 editors of SCMP submitted a letter to the Chief Editor asking him to clarify the way news is handled.

According to reporters there are only 22 leftovers from two years ago in SCMP, including the CEO and the chief editor. We wrote to the SCMP asking for its response to claims of self-censorship and an explanation for the huge exodus for experienced staff. SCMP has yet to reply.

To stay or not to stay. All of us have to make a choice when faced with a dilemma like this.
But there are those who don't really have any qualms because the work has become a drudge. One former reporter who doesn't want to be identified said towards the end he found working in the media totally disappointing, though he stayed at it for some time.

Desk-bound staff feel imprisoned

At the beginning he had enjoyed working on the frontlines. However, such work is now assigned to junior reporters. Seniors are desk-bound, staying indoors as if serving a jail sentence. He no longer found the job satisfying, more like serving a jail sentence. As he wasn't getting any job satisfaction he decided to pack up.

Another ex-senior electronic medium reporter said that since the Chief Executive election, TV stations are having more live broadcasts on news events, thus greatly increasing the workload and the pressure on the desk-bound, back-up reporters.

Watching live reports occupy all the working hours of these desk-bound journalists. They need to utilize their spare time after working hours or on off days to arrange interviews and collect information. However, the management level does not care much for such efforts, so he has chosen to leave.

It is still not known how the election of a new chief executive and the election of a new legislature later this year will impact on the media. However, the problems of low wages and low morale needs to be resolved. It is difficult for media organisations to maintain quality when staff turnover remains high and the bleeding of experience remains unstanched. This question needs to be answered by the management when cutting expenses.

Table: Personnel change of electronic media within the last 9 months

3 journalists quitted, including one principal reporter and one senior reporter
Two became PR officer and one joined another media
5-6, including an assistant editor
One quitted media industry, one is studying, school, others joined other media
Cable TV
3, including one senior reporter
2 quitted journalism and 1 is taking a career break
6, including one principal reporter and three senior reporters
2 joined to another media outlets and 4 switched to the public institute or NGO
One senior editor
Joined another media outlet
3, including one principal reporter
1 joined another company, 1 joined a public institute and 1 is taking a career break
Sources: Reporters from different media