A Decade’s Work – Part V

STARTING YOUR OWN TECH SECTION

I’m going to gloss over most of the stuff I did as a crime, courts, and social news reporter. I’m keeping with the policy of this website not to bitch about specific people or talk about people’s private matters, and there’s a reason why newsroom matters are strictly confidential – newsmakers won’t trust you if you decide to blog about every damned thing. That’s one of the things that separates journalists from bloggers who think they’re journalists.

It’s not an issue to talk about how I started the TNP Tech section though.

It was during a 2003 retreat when the newsroom was huddled together in a hotel talking about ideas moving forward. We saw a readership survey that showed TNP readers were very tech-savvy, not a surprise considering that we’ve always enjoyed a youthful readership.

Then it struck me that we didn’t have a tech page. At that time, TNP was already 15 years old and we didn’t cover the snazzy gadgets or happenings like other publications. I later found out that other editors/journos had tried over the years, but nobody managed to sustain it for very long.

But you’ve also got to understand that until around 2002-3, tech was never a mainstream topic. It was always on the fringe, associated with nerds and people with no life. Who wanted to know about motherboards, graphic cards and RAM?

The iPod changed everything though. I may sound like I’m giving Steve Jobs too much credit, but the truth is that by getting millions of people to pick up a music player, understand how to plug it into a FireWire/USB port, synchronise music (and realise where to get the music) and then look for a good pair of earphones to replace the mediocre bundled buds, Apple pushed tech into the mainstream for good. People suddenly had to get involved more with their PCs, and gadget makers were forced to relook the awful designs of the past to compete.

Apple had already revolutionised tech with the original colorful iMacs, but back then, Macs were still selling poorly as compared to the MacBooks of today.

The iPod wasn’t cheap, but it didn’t cost over a grand. Making it Windows-compatible did the trick.

In TNP, I began to cover more tech news stories to see if they could fit into the TNP DNA and housestyle. Thankfully, they were, and most memorable was a profile story of John C Dvorak, PC Mag’s most popular columnist. He was a really funny chap, and I’ve been reading his stuff since I was 13. Thanks again, Kenneth Lam and Sri, for setting up the interview. 😀

A variety of circumstances in TNP suddenly gave birth to an opportunity to start not just my own Tech page, but an entire Tech section. The brief was that I was to do a page a week first, then beef up the frequency if it proved workable.

Within six months, TNP Tech was a daily section, and you can imagine how much my supe and I were scrambling to fill it with content.

EATING HUMBLE PIE…AGAIN

I don’t remember a time in TNP when doing anything new was easy. When I was an intern, doors kept getting slammed in my face as nobody wanted to talk to a crime reporter (especially from a tabloid).

The same went with starting your own tech section. Firstly, because there was already quite a bit of competition (sister papers, magazines, online) then, nearly all advertisers and newsmakers couldn’t give a hoot about me.

I remember taking a train all the way from Toa Payoh to Jurong East to meet a marketing lady from a consumer tech company after making an appointment. I brought along my early tech stories to try and convince her why she should send me press releases or products for reviews.

You’d think people will automatically do this if you’re from a national newspaper, but oh boy, you’d be surprised.

I walked from JE MRT in a slight drizzle for about 20 min before I reached her office. Well, I was sitting at the lobby for about half an hour before somebody told me that she had taken MC for the day, and didn’t inform anyone else about our appointment. Slow walk back to MRT lor.

Selling my own koyok was mostly what I did for the first year of the section. Didn’t help either, that all my tech stories were next to ugly ringtone ads.

I think the only people thrilled about my new section was the Filter Group, then PR agency for the newly released Xbox. Sharm said it was about time that TNP had a tech section and it was helpful in boosting my flagging morale.

The most encouraging, was Lynette from Canon. To this day, she remains to me the benchmark of all internal corp comms with her patience, professionalism and equal treatment of all press. She actually bothered to sit down and listen to my pitch and then was very forthright and helpful with giving me all the Canon materials I needed.

There were alot of other issues to had to be dealt with but I won’t detail them here. If you ever get your chance to start up your own editorial section from scratch, do think of the following

  • Should it be purely driven by reader interest (who knows that anyway?)?
  • Should it be commercial in nature and drive ads?
  • How different should it be from existing, competing sections?
  • How much content should be locally generated, or from the wires?
  • What is the long-term goal of the section?
  • How can the section add to the brand name of the publication?
  • What is the editorial style? Casual, educational, humorous, bitchy or just middle-of-the-road?

So there may be some people who think I’ve had it easy doing tech stories that seem fluffy or easy-to-do, but nobody, save my supe Ooi Boon, will know the amount of energy and time I poured in to build this from nothing and give it momentum. I remain very thankful that Gin Lee became a regular contributor and helped to shape the direction of the column.

On the flipside, I became so well-known as a tech writer that people once again forgot what I used to do – crime, courts and photography. Even recently, when my job scope was largely taken up by marketing-related matters and other editorial duties, many colleagues still thought I spent all my time playing and reviewing videogames.

That’s one of the curious bits of journalism. You can be the most versatile writer on earth, but people will always associate you with your most recent or most visible beat. For example, I respect Paik Choo and her versatility a great deal, but I cannot help but think of the seminal Eh Goondu books (circa early to mid ’80s) when I think of her.

One Reply to “A Decade’s Work – Part V”

  1. ian,

    during that time, far too many people thought that the “unwashed masses” who read TNP were too unedeucated and too tech unsavvy to be interested in tech news. But
    you, ooi boon and the rest of the TNP tech team believed otherwise.

    today, nobody holds that elitist view anymore, thanks to your efforts to give the average joe on the street a voice in the tech scene.

    props to you all.

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