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© RIA Novosti. Mikhail Fomichev

The good, the bad and the illiterate

by at 19/04/2012 20:21

BALI, Indonesia – In a beautifully kept garden in Denpasar, the Balinese capital, hundreds of media editors and executives sat down to an open-air dinner at the offices of The Bali Post, the Indonesian island’s oldest English-language newspaper.

We were gathered for Publish Asia, the annual conference of the Asian newspaper publishing industry. In this quiet corner of Bali, the earthquake taking place 150 kilometers offshore didn’t physically disturb the guests – even though it caused those with 3G mobile devices some temporary concern about the possibility of a new tsunami.

In front of us was a traditional Balinese statue, complete with incense and offerings to Hindu deities. At first, I assumed that the figure was probably a prominent Indonesian politician. Instead, the bespectacled figure, semisubmerged on a dais, turned out to be of Ketut Nadha, the esteemed founder and editor-in-chief of The Bali Post for 53 years.

Not many newspapers would keep a permanent monument to their editor on their front lawn (I assume he wasn’t actually buried there, but who knows?), but Nadha had the reputation of someone who’d built a media group (including several local-language newspapers, a TV channel, and radio station) that defended press freedom under Suharto’s dictatorship, and who had stood up for the Balinese people and their traditions.

The warm and respectful feelings I had toward The Bali Post, I’m afraid to say, evaporated the next morning (well, at least for its English-language version). I realized that the newspaper had no one with more than the most tenuous of connections to the English language on its staff. (Not even a random English teacher had been roped in as proofreader, it seems.)

Most of the articles were copied and pasted from Agence France Presse, while the rest of the articles were in a strange form of gobbledygook with headlines that made little sense, including one describing the evils of abortion to no one in particular.

The Bali Post is, sadly, not an exception in the world of Englishlanguage expat newspapers. Many no doubt started out with the best intentions, but ended up on the road to expat newspaper hell.

For my sins I’ve worked on a few such publications in the former Soviet Union, including ones owned by state oil companies, Chechen businessmen, and ex-British Army officers. Many conform to a similar pattern: They looked like a good idea at the time, conveyed prestige on the publisher, but frequently have no point whatsoever beyond a spot of money-laundering.

At the Chechen-owned paper, I declined an offer to become the company’s general director. Presumably I avoided some difficult questions at the Tax Ministry, at the least, and some concrete boots in the local marina, at worst. Gray salaries were paid in hand, in a locked office, under the watchful eye of the shell-suited boss (who bore a remarkable resemblance to a certain flamboyant Caucasus leader) and his even more threatening head of security. (Much better was the British boss, who frequently handed over cash at midnight in a dark alley, only a few weeks late.)

Then there were the strange ideas that many publishers had as to what constituted suitable content. TV listings for the Chechens’ pirated satellite company filled up the center pages of one newspaper, while another insisted that ads for massage parlors and dodgy restaurants, all with misspelled English, plus advertorials posing as objective articles, would be more interesting for expatriate oil executives than real business news.

There was also the obligatory homage to the country’s political leadership. A front-page photo of El Presidente, complete with generally positive headline, was de rigeur every week at one paper. But the censors evidently didn’t bother to read past paragraph three, so as soon as the article skipped to the inside pages, we would quote the opposition and the leaders of the nextdoor country, with whom Country A had a longstanding conflict.

The Bali Post brought back some of these nightmares, but thankfully at Publish Asia there was an example of one of the world’s best foreign-language papers, The South China Morning Post. Founded in 1903, the Hong Kong-based SCMP is still going strong, with a large circulation, healthy advertising business, and a brand-new multimedia look fashioned by the world’s top newspaper design guru, Mario Garcia.

The key to this success, in my experience, is that the SCMP retains full editorial independence and employs a healthy mix of native English-speaking and local-born journalists and editors. Left to pump out propaganda or translated versions of local-language newspapers, expat-language papers first become museum pieces, and then slowly die.

The moral? It’s much better to have a lively, living newspaper with a real connection to its readers than a statue to your dead founder pushing up the daisies.

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