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Tue, Jun 15, 2004 - Page 27 News List

The 'Taipei Times' grows up

Five years after launching, the paper has raised the bar for news culture in the country, but not without its share of obstacles along the way

By Laurence Eyton

"We're on," he said. "The Liberty Times are going to do it."

So it was back to the pub, this time to brainstorm about whom we might ask to join us. We knew just about every foreigner with any journalism or writing background. Who could we entice, and who was worth enticing, to help in a project that only got more complex the deeper we got into it?

Soon, as well as the pub meetings, there were coffee shop meetings, at which Antonio, Anthony and I first met the Liberty Times' appointees to form a steering group to manage the launch of the paper.

We first walked into the newspaper's "office" at the beginning of November that year. I add the quotation marks since at the time it contained just four desks and a phone. From such modest beginnings we had the paper up and running in seven and a half months, by which time we had a staff of about 100 and by far the most modern office, in terms of equipment, of any paper in Taipei, English or Chinese. We should have had a great sense of achievement. Actually we were so bedeviled by interminable problems with the utterly dysfunctional computer software used to edit and design the paper that the actual launch seemed more like an unnecessary distraction in a Sysiphean task. We were at least blessed with an excellent design from Alicia Beebe. Not only did it look vastly better than anything else in the region, it was almost indestructible in that anyone possessed of a few simple guidelines and a modicum of visual sense could, without a huge amount of prior design experience, turn out decent-looking pages; it still saves us on a daily basis.

Others in this supplement will talk of the paper's successes over the past five years, and they have been significant. But there have been problems, too. One of them is staff. For local reporters, there is a limited career ladder at an English publication, and with their English skills and a good-looking clippings file, there are too many opportunities available for it to be easy to retain talented staff. For the copy desk, the problem is that the result of having to maintain a rough parity between what Taiwanese and foreign employees earn -- any company that doesn't do this, such as the now defunct Eastern Express in Hong Kong, will soon find itself with huge problems -- is that experienced editors can earn in Hong Kong twice what they can earn here. So we are forced to rely a great deal on talented youngsters looking for a rung on the ladder. This mixture of youth and staff turnover weakens that collective historical memory that is the backbone of a newspaper of record. People cannot put the necessary background into stories simply because they don't know it. Often they don't even know what they might usefully look for in the archives. This makes producing material of the depth and quality that we originally envisaged a far harder task than we anticipated, especially when senior staff have so much time consumed in routine but constant training of newcomers.

Another limit that neither Anthony nor I anticipated that evening in Neihu is the journalistic culture of Taiwan. People often complain of a lack of balance in stories but much of this is a function of the news culture here. In the US or the UK it is common to think that anyone attacked has a right of reply and that their view should be solicited before a story can be thought of as complete. It is also common for reporters to develop their own stories based on tips and personal contacts. News in Taiwan gravitates to a great extent around the press conference. Reporters go to press conferences, write down what they hear, ask very few if any questions -- which are seldom if ever hostile -- then come back and write their stories. If the press conference has been called by group A to criticize group B, then only A's version will be reported. If B is to have a say, they call their news conference the next day and an equally one-sided story is produced from the opposite angle. We have, of course, tried to encourage our reporters to break this mold, but they are limited by the collective culture of the news business, decided as it is by the vastly more numerous reporters for Chinese-language media. We have found that aggressive questioning by our beat reporters is more likely to get them banned from news conferences than change the way the business works.

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