“You write like an old man”, she said.
That was in August 2012, and after one of her masterclasses I shared the link to this website. Her formal teaching stint at the National University of Singapore (NUS) had not commenced, so she offered two masterclasses – on the art of the interview and of writing – to undergraduates residing in University Town. Although writing kept me in touch through the two years of National Service I felt like I had plateaued, and with her decades of journalistic experience she was an obvious authority to approach. She continued, “Your blog is not engaging, your writing style is preachy, and there are too many adverbs and adjectives”.
And these exacting standards we grew accustomed to in 2013, as Miss Bertha Henson – or “Madam” – brought us in as crew members of the now-defunct news site, the Breakfast Network (BN). On the weekdays she was up at seven, and when we woke she would have read all the papers, before filling our Facebook group with news summaries, her drafted “Chef’s Special” (her daily take on something newsworthy), and ideas for “Bites” (analyses of news reports in the mainstream media). On the weekends the BN crew was stationed at Hong Lim Park or an Our Singapore Conversation session. Every other day Miss Henson chased us for pieces and photographs, often making multiple edits to the former.
It was rigorous. And it was tough.
As we worked to meet the high expectations she had, Miss Henson was getting used to the three new freedoms she had. The move from print to digital – she shared when we met for lunch at NUS last week – gave her the freedom with content space, the freedom from editors, as well as the freedom to experiment with different writing styles. “The online space is so flexible, because I used to dread writing columns within 70 centimetres worth of space. You write and write and write, and at the end of 50, 60 centimetres when you have so few points to make with so much space you end up puffing”, she mused. “I really hated it”.
“I had to cham seong with the artists, to ask them whether they could make the illustrations bigger. I will go to sub-editors, asking them to make the photographs bigger”. This first freedom – the freedom with content space – is unique to the Internet, she acknowledges.
The Three Online Freedoms
Yet BN was not Miss Henson’s first foray into the Internet. In August 2000 “Project Eyeball” – marketed by the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) as the first integrated print and cyberspace news publication in Singapore – was launched for young, Internet-savvy Singaporeans. Describing her in his memoir “OB Markers” as the “ablest of her cohort” and a “new media advocate”, the former editor-in-chief of The Straits Times (ST) Mr. Cheong Yip Seng gave Miss Henson the job of heading “Project Eyeball”.
“I was in ST for a long while, and six months after my return to the news desk Cheong got me to brainstorm a concept. At Eyeball not only did we report on news, in print and online, which the Internet community would be interested in, but also on news about the Internet – what we would describe as viral content today”. Miss Henson spoke fondly of the “damn good crew” she had, many of whom now hold editorial positions in the mainstream media. The team started Internet radio and television, and took non-traditional angles with reports.
Less than a year later after a loss of $13.3 million, the last issue of “Project Eyeball” cited the SPH press statement which read “[c]yberspace is … not as commercially viable as originally thought”. Furthermore with the entry of the free newspapers Streats and TODAY the morning market was extremely crowded, and “Project Eyeball’s” niche distribution strategy also over-estimated the reader’s willingness to pay. “The example which was always given to me was that all these young Singaporeans could afford to drink Starbucks”, Miss Henson recalled, “and maybe I should have taken a greater hand at the publishing and advertising sides”.
Did “Project Eyeball” influence the conceptualisation of BN? Not exactly.
“BN was an experiment of tone and writing styles. I did not have the constraint of the government, and because I did not have to stick so closely to the news source or the story I could veer into commentary. Even at “Project Eyeball” I did not veer into commentary, and all we did was to raise a lot of questions”. In other words, the other two freedoms – the freedom from editors and to experiment with writing styles – were more pronounced. Miss Henson could be more critical of the government, in writing styles she thought effective.
And these commentaries from BN and her personal blog “Bertha Harian” populate different themes in “Troublemaker”. BN columns with the most number of online hits – such as “Who would have thought?” (Page 143) on the Little India Riots and “Dear Anonymous” (Page 371) on the cyber-attacks allegedly initiated by the hacktivist organisation – are included in the book, together with series like “Just how did Dinesh die?” (Page 304). With the twists and turns and questions the articles in the Dinesh series were perhaps her proudest pieces.
In this vein, “Troublemaker” is also a good way of commemorating the BN story, after Miss Henson opted to close the news site down in December last year because it was unable to cope with the regulatory requirements imposed by the Media Development Agency.
Some of her more popular pieces like “The bedrock of Singapore” (on the family which lost two boys to a horrific crash in Tampines) and “When the G should buy ads” (on the mainstream media’s coverage of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s masterplan) were not included, and hence they raise the possibility of a sequel. When I asked if she would – like her mentor Mr. Cheong – write a memoir about her time in the SPH, Miss Henson reckoned it would be “a more practical and useful book about journalism, for aspiring journalists”.
Accusations about her “agenda” because of her past employment in the SPH will persist, but they matter little. Her institutional memory, in my opinion, enriches discussions in the Internet community. If the commentaries in “Bertha Harian” and “Troublemaker”, together with our challenging yearlong adventure at BN, are anything to go by, Miss Henson will continue to contribute to socio-political discourse while keeping a critical eye on the mainstream media – for the love of journalism.
And I hope she will still dish out titbits of advice and criticisms to writers online – to the unengaging, boring, and old-sounding ones – even if they do not have journalistic aspirations.
“Troublemaker” is available at bookstores across Singapore. The book can also be purchased from the publisher Ethos Books at http://www.ethosbooks.com.sg/store/mli_viewItem.asp?idProduct=348.