It’s no secret that journalism is facing very pressing challenges today.
The explosion of blogs and publications coupled with dwindling attention spans have made the profession insanely competitive; at the same time, the surge of fake news, clickbait and ideologically-motivated articles have made quality journalism more crucial than ever. But how does one remain accurate in the face of shorter news cycles and financial pressure?
These are questions I have tackled in a conversation with Charles Lee, former Finance Editor at Politico in Europe. Mr Lee specializes in finance and business news and has written for various publications including The Economist, Far Eastern Economic Review and South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading newspaper. He was also a Research Director and Specialist Consultant for the business-focused NGO Asian Corporate Governance Association, as well as Managing Director at CSL, his own Consulting and Communications firm.
The following interview took place in March 2017, when Mr. Lee was still Finance Editor at Politico. It has been edited for clarity.
Hélène Belaunde: To start off, could you introduce yourself briefly? Tell us about your background. Has it always been your goal to become a journalist?
Charles Lee: My father is a journalist. But I never told myself I would do the same. I tried different things first. I ventured in the field of academic research until I realized in my early twenties that an academic career would not suit me. During my Master’s I tried different things, including journalism: I wrote for the university newspaper and did a few internships after college. One thing led to another and I ended up choosing this career for myself. You could say it was the path of least resistance.
When you’re young, being a journalist is very interesting and exciting: you get to go to places, talk to people, see things, you’re in the middle of big events and you have a lot of freedom. You’re not confined to an office and your colleagues are very interesting people. It was great back then.
H.B: Not so great now ?
C.L: Less great nowadays. It all comes down to journalism’s business model. No one knows if traditional newspapers and broadcasting will survive. I work for an online publication: we feel a lot of competitive pressure. Everyone can share news now, be it via Facetime or Snapchat, information is always one click away. And people don’t pay for that information. It hurts us. We don’t make money even if people are reading our stuff. So there is a strong financial pressure.
On the one hand, it’s very good that information is both so free and readily available. People who consume news can also provide news, notably through blogging. Anyone can be a journalist. That’s good in terms of access to information and its distribution. But for professionals trying to make a living, it’s essential to rethink a new business model. As journalists, we need to stand out by providing above-average information and analysis. And if people like what we do, they should be willing to pay for it. But in our day and age, we’re used to getting stuff for free. That’s why we say that media companies are currently trying to find a way to ”monetize the eyeballs”.
And these transformations have happened really fast in the last decades.
H.B: It must have been impressive to watch your profession change so profoundly.
C.L: I’ve been in journalism since the early nineties, before the start of the Internet. Back then it was all print and broadcast. There was always a market. So yes, very impressive. A lot of prominent traditional publications have died. I actually worked for two of them: the Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek. So it’s definitely a crucial challenge for modern journalism: navigating this revolutionary change in the business model.
H.B: And we’ll delve further into these challenges in a moment. For now, could you tell us about the specifics of your work at Politico?
C.L: Before Politico, I had written for weekly or bi-weekly magazines. Politico was was my first time working for an hourly online publication. There are so many stories every hour, we post at any time of the day. We make the homepage our content.
An advantage of online media is that we don’t have to wait until the end of the day to present the final version of the news: we update the site regularly throughout the day. There are no page limits, no word limits: online, you can write as much as you want. Of course, we don’t want to make the articles too long: some will be short, some long, some in-between.
We have to be quick and responsive, of course. The news cycle is extremely fast. We report on breaking news, then provide analysis. For instance, we’ll first publish ”Attack at the Louvre,” then write a bigger story about continued terrorism in France. You mix it up.
H.B: And your sources?
C.L: News agencies, of course… the big agencies like Bloomberg, AFP and Reuters. Our competitors too: everyone is looking at what everybody else is doing.
But news also come from our own reporters, who get the news before the competition does. They uncover what we call scoops. Journalists uncover scoops through their network, through talking to people. Take what happened to François Fillon in France. His irregular financial practices were uncovered by Le Canard Enchaîné. They have been scooping everyone and this is having a huge effect on French politics. Someone is giving them the info. It’s about reporters and how they manage to cultivate a network and get exclusive information.
H.B: We’ve touched upon the challenges of modern journalism with the change of the business model. I would like to explore these challenges further.
We live in an age of information overload: new information is delivered at an incredibly rapid pace, everybody has a voice, a blog, everyone is making themselves heard…. readers expect quick updates, good and detailed pieces written in a compelling manner (after all, if they don’t like the first three sentences, they can just click on another tab).
How do you respond to this situation? How to best manage the flow of information, pressing deadlines and competitive market while still posting quality content?
C.L: At Politico, we want our reporters to be both fast and accurate. But we need to choose accuracy over speed. We always double, triple-check the information, but because of the time pressure, mistakes are bound to happen. For online publications in general, we see a lot more mistakes. Even for daily print newspapers like The Times and Financal Times: they have blogs constantly updated by reporters. So mistakes will tend to creep in.
And nowadays we have the whole fake news phenomenon. People are actually putting out fake news online! Anybody can do it. When consumers come across it, they have no way of knowing whether it’s real or not.
It’s precisely because of this situation that professional journalism is more important than ever: we need to be extra careful and accurate. If we make the same mistakes as non-professionals, why should people take us seriously? It puts a lot more pressure on us.
H.B: How has it affected your writing? People have become very easily distracted: if we don’t like what we see, a thousand other pages are here for us to read. How do you adapt your writing to keep people on edge?
C.L: Now we write for people reading news on their mobile phones: we are fighting against their urge to swipe. We have to write articles that don’t lose the readers after one or two swipes. If they are bored or don’t understand, they’ll move on to another story. We have to write shorter sentences in much more conversational language, and be careful not to include too many complex ideas in the beginning. It’s very reminiscent of storytelling. We need to start fast, catch the reader’s attention quickly, and then tell them what the story’s about and why they should keep reading.
Before the Internet, in journalism school, you would learn what is known as the inverted pyramid: it’s how news outlets were told to write. The first few sentences should tell you everything you need to know about the piece. Everything is at the top: then you narrow down to the details.
You can’t write like that anymore. If your first paragraph is too long, you will lose the reader. Journalism writing today is more like marketing conversational language. One must not to sound too academic or government-official.
H.B: How do you feel about this?
C.L: Well it’s part of the game. It’s the only way to survive. Long-form journalism still exists: the New Yorker, for example, makes articles that are pages and pages long. You spend an average of 30 minutes per article. There are a few publications that do it, but fewer and fewer. And they also have short blogs, which are free.
Basically, everyone is trying to figure out how to survive.
H.B: What advice would you give to young journalists who are just starting out and feeling uneasy about what is to come?
C.L: I have young reporters on my team. All of them are very smart, talented and extremely hardworking. It’s quite amazing to see. Journalism has become so difficult, we have to work harder than ever and we still don’t make that much money. But there’s still lots of young people willing to do it, and that’s a good thing for society.
Be aware the industry is changing fast and will continue to change over the course of your career. You have to be very flexible and adaptable. Don’t assume you’ll be working for the same company for thirty years. Now you have the possibility to work at company for a few years, then work for yourself. And if you’re knowledgeable about a certain topic, you can become a blogger and generate your own revenues through sponsors. You can become an expert on a topic, like computer games.
You have to be ready for all the different ways the industry can change. Be realistic on your prospects at a steady, long-term job. It’s a very tough profession, more competitive than ever. But very interesting.
H.B: Do you think it would be useful to learn other skills on the side, such as marketing copy?
C.L: That’s the field of communications. It pays better. It’s also a completely different kind of work. It’s one of the many paths available to a journalist. I have a lot of former colleagues who work in communications. Now they’re on the other side: they’re answering questions from journalists.
Communications will always be around. In the age of fake news and information overload, people want to communicate their version of the story. And there are so many channels to exploit: blogs, social media…
H.B: When it comes to freelance journalism specifically, do you have any advice?
C.L: I have met a lot of freelancers in my career. I have been one myself. But I don’t know many people who have stayed freelancers for very long. We freelance in-between staff writing jobs. It’s very difficult to be a freelance journalist long-term. Those I’ve met who have been freelancers for five years or more usually had one major freelance contract that accounted for more than 50% of their income. The rest came from other publications.
It’s a good strategy to lock down one or two steady employers. Then in the remaining time, you work for different companies or people. It’s easier to be a freelancer once you have enough income. Those who succeed usually have one or two solid clients. They know they will get paid regularly and well.
H.B: Here comes the very cliché, but always relevant question: what are the critical qualities one needs to be a reporter according to you? A sociable personality, insane curiosity, crazy self-discipline?
C.L: Curiosity, interest, you have to like talking to people, be an outgoing person… I don’t really have anything new here… (Laughs). You need to be intellectually curious about the world around you, of course. And there’s motivation, always. It’s about the satisfaction you get from chasing news, breaking news, writing about news. It’s not really about money or how respected you are. You want to make sure people get the right information.
H.B: In the end, you would say it’s an ethical career choice.
C.L: Yes, now more than ever. Seeing how easy it is to access information, it makes a huge difference to provide information that is well-analyzed. We have a big responsibility.
H.B: What has journalism taught you personally and professionally?
C.L: It teaches you a lot about how society works. You get to see up close how things are done, how decisions are being made, how people react to different situations.
When people watch something on the news, when they hear politicians speak, it’s hard for them to figure out what these politicians actually mean. But when you’re a journalist, you’re behind the cameras and you know what’s really motivating these people and these events. Of course, you try to make this known in your reports. But sometimes you’ll deliberately omit stuff that you can’t check or prove.
After doing this work for a long time, you become a bit cynical about human beings. (Laughter.) Yes, you really can. We see and hear so many things. For example, think of journalists who report from war zones: most of us watch the images on TV and promptly forget. But when you’re covering a war, when you’re in there with the soldiers and the victims, it changes your perspective. When we read about the Syrian civil war, it seems very abstract. And in business and political journalism, we get to know how these worlds really work. We don’t want to become friends with the people we cover. It’s better to just be amicable.
H.B: How do you remain objective when reporting on a particular event? We all have own worldview. How do you prevent it from seeping through?
C.L: Newspaper policies will separate op-eds from news stories. When it comes to news stories, the rule is to make sure you’ve spoken to both sides of the story. That’s basic journalism. We have our own views, biases and sympathies, but we have to keep them out at least in news stories. If we want to express our views, there are op-eds for that.
Of course, it’s harder to be objective: today it’s easy to identify a publication’s views. For instance, Trump supporters will watch Fox News, non-supporters will turn to CNN…
H.B: And publications used to be much less obvious when it came to their political views?
C.L: When I was growing up, there was no CNN or Fox News. Just three major networks that were considered mainstream, centrist and objective. Now they’ve become one of many voices. In a way, they have lost influence.
H.B: The next question may seem a bit tricky. Out of all the jobs you’ve had, which one stands out the most? Of course you’ve worked at different publications, and I imagine each experience was very enriching and compelling in its own way. What I’m wondering here is if there is one in particular that has left a deeper impression…
C.L: I see. Well… my time at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong was very interesting. I started working there in 2002, five years after the hand-over. Most of my colleagues were Westerners. And there was a peculiar atmosphere: we all felt we had to be a little more careful. Because Hong Kong was now part of China. Officially the media was still free, and we wrote a lot of critical stories about Chinese and Hong Kong leaders. But there was this vague, tacit feeling that we had to be a little more careful.
An example: we would not use China and Taiwan in the same sentence. Do you know why that is?
H.B: Because Taiwan is considered a ”province” of China.
C.L: Exactly. So we had to write ”mainland” and Taiwan. It seems like a very minor detail but it shows that we had to be careful, that we weren’t completely free. This left a deep impression on me.
There are reporters all over the world who are being attacked and killed for their work. My experience at South China Morning Post was, of course, nothing like that. But I felt it was like a small taste of what it’s like to work in an environment where you don’t have freedom of the press. And it made me appreciate that freedom even more.