By Suthichai Yoon
When I was asked to talk to members of the Radio and TV Reporters Association recently, the suggested topic was something along these lines: Now that everybody can be a reporter, how should professional journalists adapt to survive?
I changed the subject to, “Yes, now everybody can be a (watch) dog!” in the hope of provoking angry reactions from the audience. The only reaction was from a non-journalist who stood up to make a general statement about the lack of ethics among journalists. The ensuing silence was deafening and scary.
I was scared because my presentation made clear that the future for Thai journalists is bleak because there is very little concrete attempt to get out of the comfort zone of daily routine reporting, despite warnings that emerged as early as a decade ago that a “business as usual” attitude among reporters would spell doom for their career.
I expected some journalists in the audience to prove me wrong – to point out that the new generation were at least using social media in their work. I was hoping I was mistaken – or that I had lost touch with developments in the local media scene. I was even more frightened to see heads nodding while I predicted that things would get worse before they got better.
The general quality of editorial content, especially on television, I pointed out, was declining markedly. Yet just a few years ago, when it was announced the country was going digital and that analog TV was to be replaced by 24 new digital TV channels, hopes had been high.
That historic move was designed to put an end to the “monopoly” of content and advertising revenue for the six analog stations. With new, more transparent competition, the field should have been wide open for the best and brightest in electronic media to fight their way to the top with quality journalism.
It was also hoped that on a level playing field, all the new TV stations would devote their budget to training the best personnel, both on and off screen, and let the best win out.
The first major blow to these hopes came when the National Broadcasting Commission, empowered to oversee the changeover, was blamed for failing to provide the necessary technical support to enable the whole country to access the digital channels.
Then came the real disastrous misstep. Most of the new digital station owners didn’t have any real plans to train a new batch of TV personnel in the whole range of expertise needed – from reporting teams, anchors and producers to editors, technicians and so on.
Budget planning was haphazard at best. Having fallen prey to an obsession with viewer ratings whose accuracy and methodology had always been questioned, most TV operators went all out to bid for rights to foreign content, including movies, game shows, series and live sports broadcasts.
Instead of nurturing their own talents on screen, the broadcasters opted to raid other stations for personnel. Instead of concentrating on improving the content by raising the professional standards of their human resources, they spent heavily on software programmes to produce “immersive” graphics that didn’t necessarily improve the ratings.
If you had expected the content quality on digital television screens to rise by 24 times in line with the number of stations, you were in for a major disappointment. In fact, by my own estimate, the average index of quality has fallen so much that you could say it has been divided by 24 instead.
Of course, competition was fierce and brutal – but not over quality content. The fight was for ratings – and the daily ratings reports were the only yardstick that TV executives were using to make decisions on their programming. The result? Dumbing down of all news programmes by going for blood, murder and rape. The “what bleeds leads” practice has come back to haunt most TV producers and reporters.
Talk of “reinventing” the newsroom has surfaced here and there, but real actions in that direction have been few and far between. The call to “disrupt yourself before outside forces disrupt you” has in most cases fallen on deaf ears.
Of course, most people in the news business realise they are no longer “the only dog in the soi”, as was the case for decades. They realise change was inevitable. They may be waiting for some real action from higher up the ladder – which hasn’t been all that clear or direct. There is confusion, fear, and the false hope that things won’t be as bad as the doomsayers say.
The old watchdog that is getting increasingly nervous and barking up the wrong tree isn’t likely to offer a real solution.