Diary of an RI Intern: Writing for The Straits Times

Interview by Regina Marie Lee (13A01B)

If the name Miranda Yeo sounds familiar, you might have read some of her articles in the Straits Times earlier this year. Before graduating from RI in 2011, Miranda took History, English Language and Linguistics, Literature and Math in the Humanities Programme and was Vice-President of the Boon Lay Youth Club. After graduation, she interned at Singapore Press Holdings’ Straits Times Newsdesk from March to June 2012 and is currently studying at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at NTU.

Miranda, pictured here with Boon Lay Youth Club President (2011) Wu Wai Choong Teacher-In-Charge Mr Chan Ter Yue

As some of our Year 5s head out to internships this holiday, Raffles Press talks to Miranda about her experiences. We find out whether her initial interest in journalism persisted after a challenging yet enriching internship, where she had a Hougang resident set his dogs on her while requesting for an interview! She recounts how the eight times a story she wrote didn’t eventually make the paper were “veritable stab(s) to the heart”, and how her initial ideas about “boring old Singapore” were disputed as she met interesting and diverse strangers on the job.

Why did you choose to intern at SPH?
Journalism has always held a certain appeal to me as a prospective career path. For me it was a logical progression, because I have always liked writing and I thought that to be able to write for a living would probably allow me to sustain passion for my day-to-day job longer than if I were to be desk-bound doing something I have less interest in.

The nature of the job also appeals to me on many levels. You wake up and report to work knowing you are going to experience something different every day and that adrenaline rush and excitement is not something you can find in many jobs.

I am somewhat inherently repellent to the idea of being a cubicle rat, so a job that requires me to be up and about, to think on my feet, to meet new people – all that really appealed to me. Of course, all these generalizations I heard about the job were merely second-hand recounts. I felt it was necessary for me to experience the job before deciding to enter Communications School in university, where Journalism would be one of my possible majors.

What did you do as an intern?
I worked at the Straits Times Newsdesk, and mainly wrote stories for the Home and occasionally Prime sections. Some days I would have my own stories to chase and to cover, other days I would be attached to senior journalists, helping to call interviewees for polling, to get different perspectives on issues, or to get expert opinions on a particular social trend.

We would also be on rotation each week with other interns, so we would be attached to Sunday Times every few weeks. Sunday Times operates as a separate section of the paper, and stories that go into the Sunday Times are usually of greater depth and breadth, so we work on those stories for the entire week.

Miranda with a fellow intern at SPH headquarters

What was the workplace culture like?
The entire paper is huge and different sections of the paper have distinctly different kinds of “culture”. I can generalize that the Newsdesk is consistently busy, to nobody’s surprise – we are responsible for the bulk of the paper’s fresh news after all. So late nights, pressing deadlines and multiple stories to chase are all in a day’s work. Yes, late nights are common, but I would put it down to a personal commitment to deliver good stories rather than an enforced workplace culture.

There are several levels of editors who oversee your work. Of the news editors we interact with on a daily basis, each of them oversees different beats (like education, healthcare, social issues, environment and science), though not exclusively. All the editors are very experienced and will guide interns along on what kind of quotes to gather when on the field, how to structure the story and what to lead off with. Most are affable and very approachable, though they do expect professionalism from us, interns or not. We are expected to be able to string a story together in grammatical, coherent and lucid English, and we should at least be able to pick out the strongest points of a story and suggest which areas to angle the story. That being said, mistakes are tolerated and when we do make them – trust me, we all will at some point – the editors will speak with you just to make sure you know what to do in future.

What were some challenges you faced while interning?
The job, though pretty exciting, is not all adrenaline and fun.

My first shock on the job was being assigned my first story and having no idea what procedures to follow through, be it requesting for a photographer, how to get to the venue, how to deliver what reporting I managed to get done. It was mostly my fault for not taking the time to read through the workflow procedure and for not familiarizing myself with the house style. Though we were not told, the onus was on us to make sure we knew what to do when. And if you don’t know what to do, you really should ask, or you’ll find yourself lost in your own panic. My colleagues, especially fellow journalists, were very willing to help, but they were often so busy with their own stories, I felt bad asking for their help on very basic things I eventually learnt on the job.

Many interns also enter the paper expecting to have exciting press conferences to attend, chasing criminals outside the Supreme Court, going undercover at Geylang to research and so on, but to be honest, being on the job really strips away the glamour of being a journalist.

On bad days, you may have to go door to door around estates searching for that one quote that will make your story that much more credible and sound. I once had a homeowner in Hougang set his dogs loose on me because I tried to distract him from his very engaging game of mahjong. I spent another day walking five blocks of one-room flats in search of the ideal interviewee – which I didn’t find despite my best efforts. Oh, and don’t forget the angry shouting public relations executives yelling at you over the phone and demanding to speak with your boss because our story angle puts their company in bad light. And the dreaded polling that all interns will have to take on at some point or another, calling entire lists of people or companies, or walking the ground getting people to fill in survey forms while they frantically avoid you like the plague.

Of all my quibbles about the job, the one that got me down the most was having my stories cut from the paper.

For a total of eight times (I remember the number so clearly because each time it happened was a veritable stab to the heart), I spent the entire day, sometimes a few weeks, working on a story which eventually didn’t make the paper for some reason or other. It happens every day – there is limited space in the paper and only the stories with enough weight get published. Still, that knowledge is little comfort when you see a story you’ve worked on all day go straight into cold storage. Still, I learnt to take these in my stride and as a fellow journalist shared with me, adopt a “live to fight another day” attitude. New stories come every day and, as a journalist, it is important to move on and cover fresh new ground. You can always keep the old stories in view or wait until something happens to bring it a fresh news point.

What were some experiences you enjoyed while interning?
Despite all my hairsplitting over the job’s unglamorous field work and the stress and late nights of being a journalist, it is these very things that gave me some of the best experiences I’ve had all my life. It is when you are out in the field meeting strangers that you get to interact with the most interesting and diverse kinds of people you will find in “boring old Singapore”. As many times as I have told myself “I am going to quit tomorrow” after a long and unproductive day, something would draw me back to the job. It could be a stranger’s warmth, an email thanking me for a story I wrote, or hearing a gem of a quote from someone I met on the street.

I met some of the most giving astronomy enthusiasts while covering a story on Venus crossing the sun. To anyone else it was simply a speck of black on the Sun’s face but for them, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for anyone in Singapore to witness this phenomena. Yet the moment they caught sight of the phenomena on their telescope, they opened it for public viewing, letting the snaking queues of people around them admire the view before they even had a chance to take a closer look.

Another time, I met an elderly and deaf man, Mr Ang Hock Guan who lived alone in a one-room flat. He had so little to himself – nothing more than a bed, a cupboard, a table and a bookshelf. I befriended him and found out he was intelligent and believed in humanism, a theory that mankind does not need religious structures to form a sense of morality. He wrote essays upon essays, annotating his yellowed copies of philosophy books – but I was his only reader. He said his last wish was to join the Humanist Society of Singapore, so I managed to arrange a visit to his home with the society’s president. That day, he held my hands and told me I was an angel. But that very night, he passed on.

Visiting the late Mr Ang Hock Guan, 96

It is these experiences, unseen on the daily paper, which allowed me to live and breathe Singaporean life and see things from the laterals of our society. I rethought most things I knew about my own world and discovered I subscribed to too many over-generalizations. Labels like “mainstream media”, “state-controlled press”, “lower bracket of society”, “needy”, “public good”, I realized, were often unfairly used as blanket terms.

As for those experiences I got out of seeing my stories on the paper, they left an impression on me too.

One of the stories I helped to write about bathtub volunteerism, where people spend less time on community service after graduating from school, managed to inspire a dialogue session by the National Youth Council. The two of us writers were invited as speakers for the event. It then really struck me that everything that goes into the paper will be read by someone somewhere and can make a huge difference in shaping what is current and what is not.

Miranda with Ms Laura Lye from Voluntarius Singapore who organised the bathtub volunteerism dialogue session, and Feng Zengkun, her fellow journalist

I learnt to be very aware of my surroundings because I was always on the lookout for possible story ideas. It gave me a heightened sense of awareness and interest in my immediate community and I had never felt so “tuned in” to happenings around me.

What advice do you have for anyone looking to do an internship?
Make sure what you want to do is something you’re interested in as a prospective career. Don’t expect to be handed the learning experience on a silver platter. It really is up to you how much you learn from your experience. For those who want an SPH internship experience, go for it. Have an open mind and be prepared that it is not all fun and excitement.

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