How an ST editor picks the news for publication

In a world of 1-click access to news and views, why would anyone bother spending time and money perusing the Opinion pages of that very 20th century product: a print newspaper?

What is the function of a commentary section in a newspaper that takes 12 to 18 hours to be printed and to get to your home, when you can get instant news feeds on Twitter and RSS, read views on your friends' Facebook pages, and get well-written essays straight to your email inbox?

And is the role of an Opinion editor redundant these days? I was mulling over these questions after ST Readers' editor Yap Koon Hong tasked me with writing a piece to answer that oft-asked question: As the person in charge of the Opinion pages, how do I choose which commentaries to run in the limited pages of The Straits Times?

The events of the last two weeks put me into the right frame of mind to reflect on what I do and why I do what I do.

The purchase of two iconic newspapers in America by billionaires who made their fortunes elsewhere left me despairing and hopeful.

Jeff Bezos of e-commerce behemoth Amazon bought the Washington Post; and John Henry, main owner of Boston's baseball team Red Sox bought the Boston Globe.

Despairing, because these respected American newspapers followed the trend of newspapers worldwide with falling revenue and profit. Hopeful, because someone like Bezos surely wasn't buying into a dying print industry out of charity, but to find a way to turn around a business whose revenue model has to change.

Just a year ago, Bezos had predicted that "there won't be printed newspapers in 20 years. Maybe as luxury items in some hotels that want to offer them as an extravagant service. Printed papers won't be normal in 20 years."

But he also said people would pay for newspaper subscriptions on tablets, which is also the experience of The Straits Times.

The entry of Bezos into the newspaper business has spawned predictions about future 1-click purchases of news and views.

Imagine the kind of powerful computing that tracks what you buy at Amazon or what websites you browse on Google Chrome, being put to bear on your news and commentary reading. Instead of a newspaper editor choosing articles, you would have bots and algorithms and data analytics doing the job for you.

A killer app user interface will package everything into neat bullet-sized summaries on your Flipboard.

In fact, Flipboard - a neat app that pulls together magazine, news, and social media content in one smart package - offers editing capabilities in its May 2013 upgrade so you can create your own magazine pulling together content from your social media and magazine sites and mobile phone.

Why even read a newspaper when you can create one online?

I can think of some reasons:

First, because we don't always have time to create or curate our own news and views. A newspaper's rich buffet of news and views offers quick grazing at the breakfast table in print or anywhere on screen.

Second, a local newspaper reflects a community and holds a mirror to its likes and dislikes.

As Opinion editor, and as a reader, I periodically scan the print or web versions of the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Asia News Network, The Conversation, the Lowy Instititute, the Harvard Shorenstein Center, Psychology Today. I a particularly enjoy magazines like Granta, the Atlantic and T3.

But nothing stirs me as much as reading articles about people in Singapore, like those by Susan Long and Wong Kim Hoh, on people who succeed against the odds or who are trying to change the world.

As Opinion editor, I look at articles about the world through a local lens, picking out those that are interesting and relevant for our readers in Singapore.

And third, newspapers keep to a high professional standard of accuracy and balance. Bezos' words to the Washington Post staff were enlightening: "I would highlight two kinds of courage the Grahams have shown as owners that I hope to channel.

The first is the courage to say wait, be sure, slow down, get another source. Real people and their reputations, livelihoods and families are at stake. The second is the courage to say follow the story, no matter the cost."

With a longer news cycle than television or online news, print newspapers have a bit more time to check information and sources. I edit commentaries written on the fly as news events happen; but also considered pieces written after the dust has settled.

But why depend on a human editor to do the curating, when bots and e-robots can do the trawling and matching for you?

Because an editor has sense and sensibility and a newspaper has access to networks bots may not have.

There is commentary and analysis aplenty online and in your friends' Facebook pages. In The Straits Times, we reprint articles from news services like the Washington Post or Financial Times. But like any good curator, we also solicit fresh, original content.

Our first source of writers are our journalists. The Straits Times has a stable of expert writers on everything from cars, sports, education, property, movies, films, technology to fashion and macroeconomics.

Not many people are as knowledgeable about turf wars between StarHub and SingTel as Oo Gin Lee or Irene Tham; or as savvy as Tan Hsueh Yun on food or Ong Sor Fern on the arts.

Certainly no one has John Lui's inimitable eye when it comes to lancing culture and movies. There can't be another writer like Andy Ho, equally at home with medical or legal jargon, who can weigh the scientific evidence for kombucha (a Japanese tea full of bacteria) and parse patent court judgments.

Second, we have access to a network of expert contributors across the region. No editor can claim expertise in all areas covered within her pages.

I learn a great deal from writers like Wang Gungwu, Narushige Michishita and Hugh White, who write for our By Invitation column, as do Kavi Chongkittavorn and Thitinan Pongsudhirak, knowledgeable on Indo-China and Thailand.

I enjoy Kishore Mahbubani's slightly droll tone in his provocative commentaries on Singapore; Tommy Koh's deft analysis of regional affairs; and find myself nodding when I read Laurence Lien on philanthropy or Willie Cheng on corporate governance.

I see my role as that of a curator of content, pulling from diverse sources: wire agencies, websites, ST staff, contributors.

I solicit and commission articles from some; say No to many; and always champion good commentaries, while probing arguments and questioning facts, performing a nip and tuck here, and an occasional brutal cut where necessary, with a smile or a polite email.

People often ask how I make my choices. I am guided by whether an article offers information, insight and instruction. The first tells you salient facts; the second offers an interpretation or perspective on events; and the third leaves you enriched, educated or edified.

And always, I look at issues through the lens of Singapore: is it interesting, is it relevant. Singapore is at a geographic and chronological crossroad.

Many issues we grapple with are global in nature and benefit from knowledge of global trends: like rising income inequality, slowing social mobility, coping with immigration, harnessing social media, riding growth while striving for equity, navigating international relations amidst a shifting geopolitical landscape.

I do have my personal opinion on issues, and voice them in commentaries under my own byline. But as an editor, I try to be agnostic and offer readers a diverse diet. I often select articles arguing points of view I disagree with, although I favour those that are clear and succinct.

But sometimes, I select long articles too, because I believe all of us enjoy a good yarn well-told.

Most of all, as an editor, I look for pieces that tease or surprise.

One such recent example was the story by senior correspondent Toh Yong Chuan about the quest he embarked on with his son, to find out about three Singaporean photographers who died covering the Vietnam war.

The best kind of newspaper commentaries offer readers food for their mind, tug at their heart-strings and stir their soul.

Or as Cass Sunstein (co-author of bestselling book Nudge) put it in a recent commentary, Amazon may figure out what you want and send recommendations your way, but they can't surprise you the way newspapers can: "Newspapers create what we might call an architecture of serendipity, in which readers encounter all sorts of stories, facts, ideas and opinions that they didn't select. Much of what they encounter seems boring, irritating, wrong or offensive, but on occasion it turns out to be surprising, delightful, alarming, important and even life-changing.

"Well-run newspapers offer stories that intrigue, entertain and affect readers who come across those stories only by happenstance, not because they ordered them in advance."

One day, the job of a commentary editor in a newspaper will be taken over by the bots. Until then, it's a privilege to be doing this job, curating content for you, the reader.

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