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Bye Bye Brunch

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By Andrew BIggs

This week marks the end of an era at the Bangkok Post, as we bid farewell to the part of the paper known as Brunch.

It has been my home for almost ten years, since I began writing this weekly column in the first week of 2009. But do not despair (or rejoice); neither I nor the Bangkok Post is going anywhere.

It is just a cosmetic change. Compare it to your getting a new haircut, or changing your predominant clothing color, or emblazoning a new tattoo of fire that licks up the side of your neck to your chin, rendering you unemployable at least anywhere around me.

It was the Lord Buddha himself who called on his followers to embrace change. He called it anicca. Things are constantly in a state of flux, the Lord Buddha explained, and thus one cannot tether oneself to anything in this world, including Sunday magazines with the name Brunch attached to them.

Unfortunately, to describe anything like this as merely cosmetic is not entirely telling the truth.

The media on the whole is being turned upside down by this current massive technological tidal wave, and it’s not just Shelley Winters and Gene Hackman who are feeling the brunt of it.

Every single one of us is witnessing changes at a rate never before experienced in the history of man. I just finished reading Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, a fascinating account of we humans from 200,000 years ago to the year 2018. There are events that dramatically changed humanity’s course, such as the cultivation of wheat, or the taming of electricity, or the invention of the printing press, or embarking on voyages of new world discovery.

These changes were at a snail’s pace when compared to how our lives have rapidly altered by the internet which, incredibly, had only been with us extensively for a little over a decade before this column began in Brunch.

The internet has changed us technologically, economically and behaviorally. Of the last category, in academic circles there is concern about how to educate Generation Alpha, children born after the year 2010, who no longer view tablets and cell phones as objects separate from themselves. They are perceived as appendages like arms and legs. Nor can they concentrate on anything for longer than ten minutes. Why do these children need to learn anything, when the collective knowledge of mankind is available to them at the tap of a finger?

But we are talking about changes to the media. Now that we are all connected, we have an insatiable appetite for news. And yet the traditional and authoritative news sources we have relied on for decades, or even centuries, now feel the heat.

The thirst for news has moved online. Circulation figures for newspapers in their traditional form — that is, printed on paper — is a shadow of figures from 25 years ago. When I first came to Thailand, Bangkok had 16 daily newspapers. I counted them one morning. Sixteen! The majority have gone … and yet the number of people reading news may indeed have tripled or quadrupled since that time.

I am a child of the printed medium. I was part of an intake of cadet journalists who were also on the cutting edge of technology; the paper I worked for had just been computerized. Gone were the hot metal racks of letters being lined up to print the daily paper. How modern and technologically forward we were!

Back in those days, we cadet journalists were lectured on the importance of objectivity. We tried our hardest to distance ourselves from the facts and present something that was as objective as possible.

This was fraught with difficulties. The fact we had to choose the most important part of the story to make the lead paragraph meant we had to suspend objectivity for a moment. And of course, we were all racing to get the best, most sensational story and there were many times we didn’t let facts get in the way of a good story. But at least we had that ideology. At least we had that goal.

Another important difference was this; what we wrote was passed to a chief of staff and editors for editing and to choose what should go on page one, where the most important stories were found. Such was the gate-keeping role within the media organization.

That era is long gone. The whole notion of objectivity and news selection has flown out the window. Nobody wants to wait until the morning to check up on the news when it is available, live and streaming, read by breathless raconteurs, 24 hours a day on websites.

Gone, too, is the middle man; the gate-keeping component of journalism since anybody, and I mean anybody, can set up a news website these days.

This new era of journalism is about opinions and stand-points, as odious as they may be. Fox News has cleverly tapped into the fears and bigotry within the hearts of a large swathe of the under-educated American population. Meanwhile over at CNN they are making celebrities out of their anchors and reporters, rather than focusing on their jobs of relating the news in an objective manner.

Then we have despot leaders like Donald Trump who shout “fake news” at any news organization that prints the facts about him, demeaning the traditional press, confusing the general public even further. And with such freedom in shouting opinions to millions, the insidious element creeps in; Russia appears to have infiltrated the American election via news boards and news sites, swaying opinions and leading constituents to vote in a particular way. This could never have happened in the olden days, when alcoholic chiefs of staff cast a blurry eye over the day’s copy and decided what was good for publication and what was not.

I am not against what the Buddha said. I am happy to embrace change. But I do regret some social change, and not just the move from paper to online for our news sources.

We are no longer coagulated as a society. We have stopped passing around the same newspaper to read at the breakfast table, after which we could discuss more contentious news items. We have stopped sitting down as a family to watch the same TV shows at night time, to discuss the next morning at the water cooler, choosing instead our own personal Netflix to go sit in our rooms and watch on our own. We have stopped flicking on the radio, collectively getting excited when some ear-worm jumps to number one, choosing to make our personal playlists instead.

Try as I might, I can’t find anything social about social media at all.

Last Sunday I found myself sitting in the brand spanking new Da Nang international airport in Vietnam, waiting for a flight home to Bangkok. I had an hour to kill, but luckily I had a book in my bag. Half an hour into reading it, I looked up.

I realized of those many dozens of people waiting with me in the lounge, every single one of us had our head down staring at things in our hands. Every one of us. There was absolutely no verbal interaction going on. And it was me, only me, among those dozens of people clutching a book.

Yes, Lord Buddha, all things must change. But at this rate? See you next week, dear reader, which may come a little quicker than you think!




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