Fri, 25 Apr 2003

Learning-on-the-go is the newsroom's modus operandi

Adam Schwarz, McKinsey&Company, Jakarta

When I first walked into The Jakarta Post's old (pre-air conditioning) newsroom in September 1987, three things made an immediate impression: the sound of manual typewriters clacking away, the smell of kreteks, and the heat of the air. As I glanced around, my eyes settled on Budi, the sports editor and my soon-to-be newsroom neighbor.

Pounding his typewriter from a vantage point of about an inch above the keys, clenching a sparking hand-rolled kretek between his lips and adorned in a navy-blue ski jacket, it took me some time to figure out what the first question should be.

I settled on the weather. "Budi, why the coat?" I asked, perspiration soaking through my t-shirt. "Gets a little cold in the rainy season," he answered, with the trace of a smile.

I gathered pretty quickly that the coming year was going to be a lot more about what I didn't know than what I did.

I had arrived in Jakarta courtesy of the New York-based Henry Luce Foundation, which each year sends 15-20 Americans on 10- month work assignments across Asia. Since I was the first journalist the Foundation had sent to Indonesia, I had the good fortune to arrive blissfully unaware of what to expect. There was little need to worry.

Late in my first week of work, the (even then) venerable editor Sabam Siagian sauntered over to my desk. I asked, presumptuously as it turned out, if there was any news I might think about covering the following day.

Taking an unhurried inhale of his pipe, Sabam ventured that, yes, there would be news but, no, I would not be covering it. Covering news was not something foreign journalists-on-loan were meant to be doing.

What you can do, he continued, is write the editorial for tomorrow's paper. I protested that I had only been in Indonesia a week and that I had never written an editorial before. To which Sabam replied: "I didn't say it had to be about Indonesia, and this is good time to learn. And it would be good to have it done by eight o'clock," he added: "I have a dinner to go to."

I finished the editorial on time, Sabam fixed the mistakes, and the next morning I got to read my first words published in the Post.

I soon caught on that learning-on-the-go was the paper's basic modus operandi. The second week I was at the Post Sabam asked me if I had ever read the Archipelago page, which longtime readers will remember as running in the Saturday edition and carrying a variety of feature stories from around Indonesia plus a very quirky Jakarta restaurant review written by someone using the pen name Epicurious. No, I said, assuming it didn't really matter, which it didn't. "I designate you Epicurious," Sabam said, "which means you get to write the restaurant review this week."

As with editorials, lack of prior experience was not an acceptable excuse, so I became a restaurant reviewer (and, to my friends, an envied once-a-week beneficiary of the Post's expense account.)

And so it continued through one of the most interesting years of my life. Clutching a Jakarta Post press pass, I traveled extensively across the country comfortable in the knowledge that no story was too obscure for the Archipelago page and that every story added a useful piece to my accumulating Indonesia knowledge.

I learned, not always before the fact, about the dangers of crossing the New Order red lines around so-called SARA issues. And I learned as a result the various clever ways Indonesian journalists had of saying things without quite saying them, a skill which would become enormously useful years later as I reported from Jakarta for the Far Eastern Economic Review and other publications.

As a reader of the Post for the last 16 years, I've found the paper every bit as useful and informative as I did as a reporter.

Under the capable leadership of Sabam and the excellent editors who succeeded him, the Post has skillfully navigated what have often been inhospitable waters for serious journalism.

For Indonesia's English-reading public, the Post has been deservedly considered the best day-to-day window on Indonesia almost since its inception. May the next 20 years be as successful as the first.

(The writer is author of the best selling book "Nation in Waiting". He is currently working with a major consultancy company in Indonesia)