JANUARY 2016—Alan John joined the AJF team in 2015, shortly before he retired from The Straits Times, where he was Deputy Editor. He began as a reporter at The New Straits Times in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1976, and moved to Singapore in 1980. Alan headed various key sections of Singapore’s main English language newspaper during his career, and also wrote personal columns over the years. A collection of his columns is being published as a book, Good Grief!, due out in February 2016. He is also the author of a book about one of Singapore’s most gruesome child killings, Unholy Trinity, which is being republished in February 2016 to raise funds for Pave, a family violence agency. Here, Alan shares his thoughts about journalism and AJF.
Q: You’ve stuck with this profession for four decades. What is it about journalism that kept you engaged for so long?
AJ: Journalism is never dull, no matter where you practise it or what rules may exist to make life difficult for journalists. I’ve been a news reporter, feature writer, sub-editor, and for most of my life an editor leading teams of reporters and writers.
At first, I loved my own byline and then, for the longest time, I loved other people’s bylines – and they included wonderfully talented writers, artists, photographers and designers I worked with, in a newsroom that did not stint on devoting people and space to good stories. Every day that I went to work, I hoped for just one story, picture or clever headline that told me it was worth being alive that day. If I found it, I returned to work the following day.
Q: There’s a lot of pessimism surrounding the industry now. Do you think it’s harder for journalists who are in their 20s or 30s to get the same kind of fulfillment that you managed to find in the job?
AJ: Journalism has become more exciting than ever before. I see journalists working harder and faster, doing journalism in new ways, connecting with readers instantly. It’s a new thrill to know right away if people are reading and seeing what you do, responding or sharing your work or talking about you.
There’s a greater pressure than ever before to do journalism well, to show that what we do is worth paying for, and to demonstrate how journalists are different than the online crowd that can be reckless and disregard facts and the need to check, check, check.
Fulfillment comes from inside you, not from your editor. Journalism is about love, not fame or money. You have to ask yourself six times a year: Why am I here? Do I still love it? If you find yourself saying No too many times, get the hell out. Become a monk, or go climb a mountain.
Q: One well-received session you conducted for Fellows in 2015 dealt with the challenges of being an editor. Do good reporters automatically make good editors? If not, what preparation do they need before taking on supervisory roles?
AJ: Do good reporters become good editors? Hell no. We all become journalists because we love ourselves, and excelling as a writer or artist or photographer is an incredibly individual pursuit – which is why journalism attracts such peculiar individuals. Then one day someone says: “You’re a terrific reporter, go lead that group of other terrific reporters (or artists or photographers or sub-editors).”
Typically, nobody gets any training before becoming an editor, so we make the most terrible mistakes crushing other people’s egos, saying the most awful things as we discover that other people aren’t as terrific as we believe we are. Before your first day as an editor, pray. And never stop praying because you need God on your side to do this job.
Q: Fellows come from many different countries—each has its own unique culture, politics and business environment. And Singapore, where the Fellows gather, is unique as well. What do you hope Fellows gain from this diversity?
AJ: I’m a foreigner who became a Singaporean so I sometimes cheer a little harder than other people, though I mean everything I say when I tell you I love the Orchard Road pedestrian mall or the forest trail though MacRitchie Reservoir or coming home to Changi airport. I will show off the Bishan River even though last year’s AJF fellows from India giggled as the guy from Bangladesh burst out laughing and said: “In my country that’s not a river, that’s a drain!”
Singapore may seem shiny on the surface, but there is plenty to discover about the place and the people if you care to look. The AJF is a great opportunity to come and see for yourself, and maybe change some of your views about this place, or reinforce what you thought about it, good or bad. The diversity among the participants is precious because we are all part of this huge continent, and it is so rare to have three months together to learn about each other and our countries and realise we are “same-same but different”.
Q: The Fellowship applies stringent selection criteria to try to get the most deserving and suitable journalists. But there’s also an x-factor that is hard to define or measure. What do you think is the attitude or frame of mind that a Fellow needs to have to make the most of this experience?
AJ: First, show me the love. Do you love being a journalist despite the crap that comes your way? Do you delight in discovering and telling wonderful stories that only you can tell because of who you are, where you work, what you see and what you’re prepared to put up with in order to share that story with the rest of us?
The AJF gives you time out to reflect on why you do this life. It’s essential to be open to understanding how journalists from very different places in Asia do journalism, coping with a wide variety of challenges. The most enriching part of this fellowship might well come just from being a part of this group, living and learning together.