In addition to being blessed with an aptitude for words and a nose for a good story, a journalist should feel impelled to present his readers with information that is not only in context and in the public interest, but also takes account of public opinion, according to veteran journalist Eric Chan, the associate publisher and chief editor of Hong Kong Economic Times (Holding) Limited.
Mr Chan started out as a reporter on a small local newspaper, after graduating from the Chinese University of Hong Kong majoring in Biology in 1979. His employer only paid him a paltry salary - for which he had to churn out, single-handedly, nine stories a day - and, he notes, in order to make himself presentable for important occasions, he had to splash out on a suit at a second-hand shop. However, such was his interest in pursuing a career in print journalism that he took up other freelance assignments to make ends meet.
In the early 1980s, Mr Chan joined the Hong Kong Economic Journal, and a year later he was promoted to chief reporter. A year later he joined Radio Television Hong Kong as a financial journalist. After a few more years of experience outside the newsroom, largely in the finance sector, he was recruited by the Hong Kong Economic Times in 1988. Since taking over the helm as chief editor in 1996, Mr Chan has overseen all the different aspects of the business, but mainly focuses on editorial direction and marketing strategy.
Curiosity and initiative
"A career in journalism can be highly rewarding, for one meets with the opportunity to come across some of the greatest minds in society"
Apart from good writing skills, says Mr Chan, a journalist's key attributes include initiative, intellectual curiosity and interpersonal skills. One must also be well-rounded and knowledgeable about the arts, humanities, sciences, business and the law. "The job of a journalist is to educate and engage the readers, to help them understand what the story means to them," he explains. "It is not enough to report the results of a meeting or to analyse operating costs, for each story should be framed in its proper context."
Mr Chan also believes that, as the "fourth estate", the media has a key role to play in shaping public debate and refers to the classical liberal theory that the press provides a check on government. He adds that it is therefore important for a journalist to have a social conscience, know right from wrong and be cognisant of his duty to defend the public interest.
In this vein, he applauds the gradual move away from sensationalism in recent days. "The job of a journalist is to provide a cogent and balanced view of news events," he says. "There are many voices in society that are waiting to be heard and the challenge is to find the proper and balanced ground that best reflects true public opinion."
Go the extra mile
With the economic downturn and the impact of SARS on key local industries in Hong Kong, competition for jobs is keener than ever in the newspaper publishing business. Clearly, it must be more challenging for someone just starting out to make a living as a newspaper reporter. Yet Mr Chan insists that this is a viable career option for young people who are willing go the extra mile.
He notes that aspiring journalists must be proactive about finding internship opportunities with local newspapers and getting some experience with student publications. They should attend seminars and other public functions and seize every opportunity to talk to those already in the field. In particular, newspaper reporters in Hong Kong need to be conversant in both English and Putonghua and be knowledgeable about Chinese politics as well as international affairs. "A career in journalism can be highly rewarding," he concludes, "for one meets with the opportunity to come across some of the greatest minds in society."
As the Chinese government runs the news media, mainland news publications cannot hire foreign journalists. Those published in foreign languages, such as China Daily, Beijing Today, CCTV9 and China Radio International, can only hire foreign experts who are native speakers as language-polishers, says Simon Song, editor-in-chief of the Beijing Youth Daily website.
According to him, opportunities exist in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, where high-quality lifestyle and leisure magazines are published. "Most of these magazines are co-published with foreign publications and require editors who have exquisite taste and can meet readers' needs. Hong Kong people, thanks to their east-meets-west culture, are very suitable for this kind of job," he says.
A number of entertainment magazines are published in either Chinese or English, with no news or political content. These are distributed free of charge and target the trendy, young middle-class. Hong Kong people could find good opportunities with these magazines.