Pressing Ahead 2018: Engaging the Community — A Work in Progress

By Varun Karthik (19S06A) and Loh Lin (19A01D)
Photos courtesy of Phang Yeu Yeou (19A01B) and Raffles Photographic Society

When one thinks of a student journalist, several images jump to mind: a figure hunched over their laptop poring over google documents, perhaps. Or a frazzled individual darting from person to person thrusting a figurative microphone under their noses, putting them on the spot each time. These encounters aside, the student journalist remains largely out of sight, with nothing — save for their carefully curated publications — to account for their existence. So on the silent pursuit goes: probing, discovering, writing. In the process, a necessary question arises: how do we adapt to what the community cares about?

The Pressing Ahead symposium held on 14 April brought various school presses together precisely to address this question as a collective. This unique conference saw Raffles Press play host to student journalists from Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC), Catholic Junior College (CJC), Eunoia Junior College (EJC), Hwa Chong Institution (HCI), Nanyang Junior College (NYJC), River Valley High (RV), Victoria Junior College (VJC).

The event commenced with an opening address from Press Chairperson Lynn Hong (18A13A), who introduced the crux of the conference as “Engaging the Community”. The congregation then split into the various groups that they stayed with for the rest of the day. Rather than opening with classic ice-breakers like Whacko, the organising committee attempted to switch things up with more unconventional choices of Spyfall and Sticker Ninja. The games appeared to have served their purpose of breaking the ice between so many unfamiliar faces, and had a very warm reception from the participants, as indicated by the animated interactions that were observed.

The theme of the symposium was explored in greater depth by Ms Karen Gwee, executive editor of Mynah Magazine, who shared about her experience with journalism as a student and as a current editor of a local magazine. From being involved in RGS’ Tribune publications to diving into music journalism and uncovering untold Singaporean stories, Ms Gwee’s venture into journalism was not without challenges or uncertainties — as she had wryly summed up: “you have to run ragged working for stories”.

On the underbelly of newsgathering and headlines lies not just the fundamental need to inform people, but also the need to continually navigate and engage with narratives, both immediate and removed. Journalism is driven by what people care about and avoid — both of which are usually telling of larger parochial concerns — and having to adapt to and keep up with the spontaneous nature of communities does take its toll on the journalists.

Ms Karen Gwee discusses “Engaging the Community” through personal sharings

Despite this, a common understanding was passed amongst everyone sitting in the LT that listening and responding to the community is indispensable to journalism, even and especially so in the considerably smaller school community. As Ms Gwee put it, “you’re always writing for an audience […] we try to make people care, and we inform the people who already do”. This was later reinforced by Pressing Ahead Organising Team Member Zacchaeus Chok (18S03O), who expressed his hopes that the event would be able to capture “the idea of probing further into relevant aspects of the community that we often sideline from various lenses and perspectives.” After all, the voices in a community inform the spirit of the publication, which in turn has an impact on the extent of readership.

It therefore comes as no surprise that we as student journalists tend to be plagued with the concern of ensuring we not only deliver content that is pertinent and accessible to the readers, but attempt to reach the demographic that is generally disinterested.

When asked about how best to address divergent interests in readers, Ms Gwee responded that “[this] is something writers should decode in their own writing economy, and [they] shouldn’t be afraid to change the answer whenever necessary”. What this means is that the student journalists will have to decide for themselves the group they ultimately wish to write for. While there is no dictum on the most effective way to negotiate with such factors, and certainly no definitive answers to be found, Ms Gwee’s words foregrounded the need for consistent inquiry and sensitivity to change. Much like the fluid nature of any community, presses should strive to be receptive to the shifting dynamics and concerns of the people; only then will they be able to stay relevant and fulfill their role.

The breakout session that followed demanded the joint efforts of group members to produce an article outline under a tight timeline. Participants were first tasked to generate interview questions based on the preconceived notions and stereotypes surrounding many of the other schools. They then had to decrypt obscure riddles that included pigpen ciphers and puns in order to determine the location of the group they were meant to interview. This resulted in much amused confusion as they worked together valiantly to make sense of the puzzle. According to the Organising Team, the perplexion that arose from solving the riddles was very much part of the lesson, to emphasise that finding interview targets is not always that easy.

VJC team unyielding in the face of a mentally demanding challenge

Eventually, they located their interview subjects and through much probing, got to learn about the culture in the other JCs, which challenged many of the stereotypes they each held about one another prior to this. After the interview, the students were tasked to work on and present their outlines to the other participants. Despite the time constraint that they had to operate under, the students forwarded interesting pieces, paragraphs and angles.

Participants interviewing another group about their school culture

This activity presented the participants with the long-awaited opportunity to collaborate with one another and to get a glimpse into the spectrum of writing styles and structures that each of them subscribed to. It was also interesting to note the respective approaches that groups chose to adopt in response to the specific scopes they had been tasked with. For example, VJC examined whether the prominent match support culture in HCI contributes to building a school identity the students can relate and feel a sense of belonging to. HCI in turn chose to explore how VJC’s orientation experience is shaped by its school culture, and brought up an intriguing element of the traditional orientation dance, where the custom of choosing partners resulted in the tacky “political dynamic of being asked first and last”.

A group sharing their findings and topic angle

On a deeper level, the activity aimed to challenge participants to consider their audience when planning their article outline. Bearing in mind the fact that they were writing for a school-based platform, they had to question and grapple with all the possible approaches they could take. This process has been coined “angling”, where the writer essentially aims to add value to their article by providing fresh and balanced insight into a phenomenon the readers might already be familiar with.

Throughout the course of the symposium, there were pockets of free time for the students from various schools to interact and talk about the culture and dynamics in each other’s Press clubs. This was vital in fostering collaborations and friendships between student journalists from various schools. Unlike Sports and Performing Arts CCAs where interschool interaction is more easily facilitated through competitions and events, the student journalism scene is slightly more sparse in this aspect. However, given the eager exchange of contact details at the end, it can be said that this conference was a good place to start building a community of passionate student journalists.

Prize-giving for breakout session; notebook design by Elizabeth Xu (18A13A)

Mr Patrick Wong, our Press teacher in-charge, acknowledged that “one thing [student journalists] struggle with is how to manage the dynamics of writing for themselves and having the school breathe on top of them […] so it’s nice to hear from [other schools] the challenges they face”. This sentiment was echoed by Pressing Ahead Organising Team Member Calista Chong (18A01A), who expressed that “this opportunity to […] exchange ideas and share expertise is a very valuable thing” because “on a day-to-day basis we operate as a press that just concerns ourselves with reporting events that happen within our own community”.

Perhaps the necessity for such a conference can be encapsulated by Lynn’s opening address, where she remarked that “at the heart of what the school press is, it’s really about the community and trying to make an impact on the community through whatever medium we have”. Pressing Ahead therefore exists to serve as “a sort of platform where we all gather and learn together and exchange ideas about how to make student journalism, our own work, more meaningful and more fun”.

“At the heart of what the school press is, it’s really about the community and trying to make an impact on the community through whatever medium we have.”
– Raffles Press Chairperson Lynn Hong (18A13A)

From these insights, it is evident that more than anything, student journalists do not exist in a vacuum. They are always engaged in conversation — be it with the larger community that they write for, or the more immediate one that they reside in. While every school press undoubtedly faces their own set of challenges with regards to student journalism, there is solace in the knowledge that we are united by the same affinity for social scrutiny, and our dedication to committing our observations to the written word. Pressing Ahead 2018 has raised more questions than answers, but perhaps this ambiguity is something that we ought to embrace as we strive to be a more meaningful voice for our communities.

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