By Sarah Lacy
As I walked in the headquarters of the Jawa Pos—the flagship newspaper of one of South East Asia’s largest print media empires—I was wondering just how screwed my profession is; globally I mean.
Is the death of print a world-wide certainty or merely an American reality? After all a lot of “old economy” businesses are thriving in emerging markets thanks to Greenfield advantages and rising middle class economics. Spoiler alert: I walked out a few hours later not hugely convinced print is the future but willing to believe that in some places the death-blow of digital might be limited to a mere-crippling. How’s that for bullish?
Language difference and a preponderance of statues aside, the Jawa Pos felt like any other newsroom of a large daily. It was almost 9 pm and there was a still a buzzing, frenzied office full of people —some of whom had been there since 5 am, and some of whom would be there until midnight. I sat down with the chief editor, Leak Kustiya (below, second from right), and his deputy at a large, circular table in the middle of the newsroom—the hub of all the department spokes and the spot where the editors make their daily decisions. It could have been a scene out of an Indonesian version of “All the President’s Men.”
But when I asked how the paper was responding to the digital age, I was disappointed in the answer: We’re protecting print revenues as long as we can. Wow, I thought. Have you learned nothing from the West? Web revenues will never equal print revenues, per ad. But guess what? Future competitors don’t care. They are happy to build a business off of ads that are 20% of what you charge, because they are building a digital business without printing presses from the ground up. It’s New York Times v. TechCrunch all over again.
Or is it? Every local paper claims superior coverage of local news will save it, but that takes having a young, aggressive staff of reporters—and most of those people were the first to leave when newspapers started their inevitable decline in revenues and death in morale by a million small rounds of layoffs. I came away from the Jawa Pos thinking they might have a shot largely because of one factor: Hiring practices. In fact, the US media—including blogs like TechCrunch—could learn something from them. The company’s network of more than 150 publications and television stations is designed to avoid the exact problem that plagues old-school media: An overpaid preponderance of senior staff that doesn’t do much.
The Jawa Pos will only hire someone if they are under 25 and you must retire when you hit 50—no matter what your seniority. And those slots are coveted positions. Some 400 people apply twice a year, and 100 get interviews. Fifteen are selected, and they enter a rigorous six month training period where they learn all aspects of the reporting trade and editors get plenty of time to see how they can work a beat, generate story ideas, break news and work under pressure. Typically only five get a permanent slot. The logic here, simply put, is that news is a young person’s business. It’s like American Idol for journalists. In some senses, it’s precisely the opposite of the unions most US newsrooms have.
With 15-years experience mostly in old media, I’ve personally enjoyed the spoils of seniority and years spent paying my dues, although not nearly as much as someone who has been in the business 30 or 40 years. And guess what? There are just some things I did for a story in my youth that come harder to me now.
Dinners three-to-four nights a week, endless 6 a.m. breakfasts with sources, trolling the halls at the largest trade show conferences for a quote or a tip these are all things that give an advantage to younger, hungrier reporters without spouses or families the same way a 20-something entrepreneur has energy and a fresh look on an industry that a grey-haired veteran can’t match. Hell, after spending 40-weeks on planes, lost on back-alley streets and dining on mini-bar Pringles around the world, I’m not even sure I’d sign up to write my current book-in-progress again.
Does experience and seniority have advantages in the work place? Of course. That’s why the Jawa Pos lets you work there until you are fifty.
Given how many other countries err on the side of being too protective of workers, the somewhat draconian, Logan’s Run approach was a surprise to me. But the Jawa Pos’s policy ensures that only the best reporters are allowed on staff because getting a job isn’t a simple as showing some clips or faking an interview and it ensures that despite clinging to a graying medium of print, the staff itself is always staying young, and hence, in touch with younger readers. It’ll be interesting to watch and see if that’s enough to beat a broader market certainty that print is dead and digital is the future. And if not? At the least the task of righting the ship will be left to younger blood.
It may sound cruel, but I’d argue it’s not nearly as cruel as daily papers going out of business en masse and taking good reporters and editors with them. Maybe the Jawa Pos should look more closely at the mistakes our profession made ten years ago, but this is one big fail safe against complacency already in place.