Anniversary special: Our historic journey, your story

ST turns 175: Still a work in progress

March 23, 2015.
March 23, 2015.

A PANDEMIC arrives, a printing machine fails, the rain falls or a neighbour quietly purloins your Sports section. Yet no excuse suffices. To open the front door in the morning is to expect a dry, unrumpled copy of The Straits Times. Relationships are built on such trust and habit must not be interrupted. Tea must be poured, ritual must unfold and headlines must be digested. To read the newspaper - at least a chunk of the roughly 61,000 words which comprises a current weekday edition - is to be armed for the day.

For 175 years this newspaper has been this city's companion and its guide, its mirror and its conscience, its fact-checker and its explainer. In a tone mostly serious, sometimes light-hearted and occasionally stodgy, it charts a nation's mood and records its life in detail, from the words of a Prime Minister to the scrawled menu of a new restaurant.

The Straits Times is what your great-grandfather read in his kampung and it is what you scroll through now on your tablet. It arrives in the morning and yet it updates online through the day. It ties generations and binds families, for in some homes its sections are distributed to family members and editorials are muttered at and Liverpool's rise cheered over toast.

Through the years people have found cars to buy in the newspaper and houses to rent. In January 1902 an Englishman ''of quiet disposition'' put out a front page advertisement in search ''of a young lady with a view to matrimony''. There is no confirmation if his plea was heard.

This newspaper has always been rather useful to Singaporeans, for it has lined shelves, been turned into paper aeroplanes, wrapped food and enriched generations. When Phil Graham, the Washington Post owner, acquired Newsweek he told his staff that he wanted the magazine to be ''the first rough draft of history'' and that is what this paper has striven to be.

Like a museum or a grand theatre, The Straits Times has become an institution. It has been read, respected, criticised, blamed and through all these years small pieces of it have been cut out and framed on walls and slipped into family albums. After all, it tells your story.

Journalists are not historians nor are they archivists, yet to flick through the pages of our paper through time is to see a detailed sketch of a nation's journeys. Wars were covered, the rogue actions of trader Nick Leeson reported, a scandal at the National Kidney Foundation uncovered and the delicate separation of conjoined twins detailed. In November 1935, conjuring up a most dramatic spectacle, the front page noted: ''Flying Boat Night Landings at Kallang''.

The newspaper has had its name changed - it was once called the Singapore Daily Times - and its premises ravaged by fire in 1869 , but like the city itself the paper never stopped. ''Singapore Is Out'' remains a historic headline as was the simple but profound ''Singapore Mourns'' which spoke of the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

On June 21, 1895, ''The Cholera Alarm'' was major news and 125 years later similar warnings are offered about Covid19. Crisis arrives like a wave and newspapers become instruments of information, accountability and reassurance. This year's editions have offered advice on fighting the Covid pandemic, much like January 1942 when an Air Raid Alphabet insisted: ''If caught out in the open, lie down flat or get into a drain or trench. If being machine gunned, lie down flat. Do not waste time looking for a drain''.

I've lived in five cities in three nations, including this one, and I have familiarised myself with these places and felt their moods, their rhythms, their cultures and their conflicts through their newspapers. They are not my only eyes but certainly part of my gaze. The Age for me is Melbourne, The Telegraph is Kolkata and Singapore forever will be these Times.

  • Ingredients for your daily diet

    61,000 - words

    50 - rolls of paper

    100 - lorries

Newspapers carry a city's name often and they become ambassadors and landmarks and even, for some, holy books. In his masterful 1969 history of The New York Times, The Kingdom and The Power, Gay Talese wrote that ''The Times was the bible, emerging each morning with a view of life that thousands of readers accepted as reality''. Certainly if I go overseas now and mention in conversation that I am a journalist in Singapore, people often respond, the ''Straits'' one? Yes, indeed. Sometimes a lecture on our shortcomings follows.

This past fortnight has been an education. I dipped an inquisitive toe into this paper's history as I researched this article and surfed through a nation's hard times and amusing ones. On Aug 27, 1946, the front page headline declared, ''Singapore queues up for bread - there is no shortage of flour'', while in 1902 the paper reported that an unusual visitor had wandered into the Raffles Hotel.

Wrote the unnamed reporter in 1902, evidently overcome by the moment: ''Lest anyone be inclined to doubt the veracity of the foregoing statement, a representative of this paper, who saw the dead body of Stripes soon after he was shot, is prepared to bet a new hat that a live, loose tiger slept under the billiard room of Raffles Hotel last night.''

For newspaper folk, finding these stories and peeling back the pages of time is fun because ink flows in our veins. Rather a lot of it. To be precise 370kg of black ink, 145kg of cyan, 145kg of magenta and 145kg of yellow, which is what is required for a single edition of the current Straits Times.

In 1845, Catchick Moses, an Armenian, hired an Englishman Robert Carr Woods, 29, to be the editor and The Straits Times began. The New York Times, it might be pointed out, was still only an idea. The first edition, on Tuesday, July 15 was eight pages and by the first decade of this century, ST's Saturday editions were between 250300 pages. Delivering them was presumably a sort of early-morning weight training.

It wasn't a daily paper but first a weekly one, printed on a hand-operated press with 200 copies sold for one Java rupee each. Now the presses are four-storeys high and use roughly 50 rolls of paper (each 1.3 metric tonnes) a night as they spit out 80,000 copies an hour.

Inside every edition are words, photographs, cartoons, graphics, all assigned, debated, checked, by an eclectic newsroom army of artists, grammarians, nit-pickers, essayists, humorists, swearers, fast writers and bad dressers. At its heart are the reporters, who stream out every day to dig, probe, ask, examine, sitting in courthouses and walking through galleries and correctly spelling the Latin name of a new species of orchid.

All of them get told a version of what Ben Bradlee, the legendary Washington Post editor, told a reporter who was doing a delicate story: ''Just get it right, kid.'' Mostly this paper has and through 175 years its stories have come through persistence, skill, luck and sometimes at an unfortunate cost. In 1956, when the paper argued against the Anglo-French invasion of Suez, the editorial writer - as Cherian George wrote in ST in 1995 - received threats and the paper's managing director was spat on at his club.

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Our pages through the years tell a tale of a city evolving and a paper altering. Together they are reshaped. Prime Ministers change and so do mastheads and each has their own style. A newspaper reflects national change but sometimes takes a while to rectify its own house. Only in 1956, 111 years after it began, did The Straits Times find its first Asian editor and finally and fittingly it became a newspaper run by its own people.

NEWSPAPERS CHANGE

From dress codes to fonts, newspapers change inside and outside over time. Fifty years ago the newsroom was awash in paper, smelled of ink and smoke and echoed to a music of hammered typewriter keys, clanking telexes and voices raised just to be heard above the everyday din.

Fingers stained by carbon copies pounded out stories quickly for typewriters were few and reporters could hear the occasional ''hurry up'' from those waiting behind. Red pencils corrected copies and a reporter remembers quietly begging a typesetter for a larger byline.

Now the newsroom is slick and fast and has the hum of a modern machine. Televisions belch out news and a large monitor lists data on popular stories. A team does creative magic with interactive graphics, a TV studio illuminates one corner and multi-tasking reporters upload stories, send Tweets and post videos with the flick of a button. The phone is now mightier than the sword.

The best newspapers expand their ambition and respect their audience by offering them more. In the first edition of The Sunday Times on Dec 20, 1931, among the 16 pages, was one reserved for women, though the headline on the main fashion article could have done with some work: Women Enjoy Going Backwards.

Editors have shrugged off parochial attitudes and correspondents were posted abroad, for we are an island yet not detached from the world.

In the old days a reporter listened to the BBC to track foreign news, but now fresh stories arrive from our reporters in 15 overseas cities.

Tastes have widened and sections have evolved and there are writers on books, the human body and the latest BMW. Lee Siew Hua takes her elegant travel writing to distant shores, Christopher Tan offers educated rides on Transport issues and Salma Khalik wanders the corridors of Medicine. Cartoonist Lee Chee Chew provokes a smile, Kevin Lim sees the city through a distinctive lens and Wong Kim Hoh reaches into the insides of the city to find another interesting life to showcase.

In her book Dateline Singapore: 150 years of the Straits Times, the historian C. M. Turnbull wrote that initially ''the English-reading public was very small'' and that ''there were only 336 European men, women and children in 1845''. But now this paper belongs to everyone, to an entire city and every race, helping to bind a nation into a large, multi-dimensional community. A paper that has authority but is accountable, conservative but credible, which people can read and also be represented in. A place where the voices of a city are heard.

Readers are now invited to the newsroom and letters from them have always found a place in our pages. Civility has mostly been the tone as matters large and small are debated. In 1947, a patient wrote in defence of Kandang Kerbau hospital and insisted that during his stay ''the menu was entirely satisfactory''. Others have felt less kindly like a reader who insisted that ''The Straits Times will continue to be viewed as partisan''. We disagree but we printed it.

Technology almost has an element of magic to it for in a new century the newspaper is not built only of paper. It can be unfolded on a phone and flipped through on a tablet. The Straits Times, which went online in 1995, is a 24-hour enterprise in a newsroom where people sleep in turn because news never does.

People digest news differently and this paper has to be as alert as an athlete - to not keep up is to fall behind. And so a modernised newsroom buzzes with podcast chats, technicians editing videos, radio interviews and debates in our TV studio. A Singaporean of The Year is chosen by the paper and the resilience of young folk applauded in our series titled Generation Grit. There is no time to stand still and so the city is now invited to the ST Run.

Information is vomited out by the Internet but, as sources of news multiply, the Straits Times holds its own advantages. In a time of ''alternative facts'' and global websites that quickly upload thin threads of unverifiable gossip, the newspaper matters for it acts as a reliable, articulate filter, offering news that is checked and corroborated. Reputation, The Straits Times knows, is slowly constructed but easily squandered.

The Straits Times should be proud of its history but 175 years does not come with a prize. To have endured so long is a validation of journalists of the past and a challenge to reporters of the future. In a time of growing prejudice and misinformation across the globe, there is time only for scrupulous and meticulous journalism and none for self-congratulation.

There is no time to preen because there are always stories to upload online and the next day's edition to assemble. Stories are being assigned as you read this, layouts drawn, commas inserted and headlines with idle puns deleted. A major story will break and a current of urgency flows through the newsroom.

In one corner of the city, the presses will whirr at night and before dawn 100 lorries will take the newspaper to 180 drop points across the city, from where a platoon of workers will spread out to distribute it. In another corner, fingers fly at 3am in the newsroom as a story on a vaccine, or a tragedy at a mine, is edited and minutes later can be found on straitstimes.com.

The Straits Times app is a tap away on your phone. The newspaper is waiting quietly outside your door. We're 175 years old but we know what ''woke'' means. We might frame our history on our walls but we're concerned with the future. We're city's old friend, always searching for something new to tell you.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2020, with the headline ST turns 175: Still a work in progress. Subscribe