In my 30 years with the Post, the media environment has changed dramatically, but my journalistic principles remain the same
- Peter Kammerer says the Post has evolved, changed hands and moved offices over the past few decades, but why journalists do what they do should not change
On the South China Morning Post’s 115th anniversary on Tuesday, I’ve got a milestone of my own to relate: I’ve been working for the Post for more than a quarter of its existence. It’s a different place from when I began in June 1988, with dramatic changes in the reader and staff profiles, office and the manner in which news is collected and circulated.
The focus of the news has also shifted; China now takes priority whereas, back in the era of British colonial rule, it was treated just like any other country, albeit one with close connections. Of one thing there has been no change, though: the desire of the journalists for editorial independence, quality and accuracy.
I never intended to stay more than two years. My employment terms included a paid airfare from where I was then working, Melbourne in Australia, and which I would have to pay for if I left within 24 months – a time frame that became my target. Thereafter, my plan was to travel the world with my profession as my passport, as most major cities had English-language newspapers.
That was set aside, however, when a partner and children came along. I was promoted to foreign editor, and just had to see the handover to Chinese rule in 1997. Plans to relocate to the Philippines did not pan out. A break-up and single parenthood followed, along with a stint of news analysis and feature writing. And in the past decade, I have been a member of the team producing editorials, the Post’s unsigned opinion pieces.
The constant throughout was an ever-evolving newsroom. While the fundamentals of journalism haven’t changed, the way stories and photos are gathered and produced has. Given the advent of mobile internet and the fierceness of competition, the aim now is to get news to readers as quickly as possible – a great challenge when tethered to those ideals of quality and accuracy. As print sales shrink, the physical newspaper is no longer the core of operations and there will come a day when the smell of newsprint and ink will evoke not urgency but nostalgia.
Who readers were and where they were located used to be determined through surveys that I often questioned; we were told not to worry writing about issues like public housing and tram fares as readers were mostly Western and wealthy. There are now online tools that accurately pinpoint which stories are best read, and where. We talk about page views, not circulation and readership. I worry that, in our pursuit of numbers, we could miss raising issues that are not popular but still important. The rush to publish should never mean not taking time to find out the truth and keep officials accountable, the very purpose for which newspapers came into existence.
Naturally, I will defend in print the organisation that has provided my bread and butter for more than half my life. In person, depending on the locality, I could be more candid, telling what I think of this or that of the 17 editors I’ve worked for (four of whom could perhaps be counted as one, since they were an editorial committee). My values do not necessarily mesh with those of my employer, and few journalists could ever claim not to have been party to self-censorship.
Journalists come and go – I’ve worked with thousands in my time with the Post. I’ve been in five offices, from a seven-storey industrial building in Quarry Bay that shook when the presses in the basement started, to the new office in Times Square in Causeway Bay. I’ve met three billionaire heads of companies that have owned the Post, Rupert Murdoch, Robert Kuok and now Jack Ma of Alibaba. But whatever the politics of the times and the content of the commentaries, I know the journalist I was 30 years ago is, deep down, unchanged.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post