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A Town like Malang

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Kirrilee Hughes

Malang, like other regional towns of Indonesia, is changing, and a market for new local newspapers is emerging. 'Local' no longer denotes the newspapers produced in the provincial capital, and sold in outlying towns, but rather an industry based in these towns. Interest in local government and local issues has skyrocketed, and is the driving force behind the papers, generating both subject matter and readership. Unlike the 'local rags' of Australia, which are published weekly and delivered free of charge, these local newspapers are produced daily and constitute a commercially viable and increasingly read media. Since 1998, the Malang Post and Memo Arema have both emerged in Malang, while the market leader, Jawa Pos, has increased sales through the inclusion of a locally managed supplement, Radar Malang. Circulation may not be sky high, with the Malang Post selling between four and five thousand copies a day (though sales reportedly increase during the soccer season) and Memo Arema, a local edition of the Surabaya based Memorandum, around 5500 copies a day. These local papers are still surpassed by the Surabaya Post and the Jawa Pos, which sell 17,000 and 36,000 copies respectively in Malang each day, but they are taking on the nation wide Kompas, which has an average daily circulation in Malang of around 8,000 copies.

These fledgling local papers have not emerged of their own accord. They are owned by large media conglomerates, which provide editorial, managerial and financial expertise. In Malang, the Jawa Pos Group is the only player. This group dominates the market with their flagship paper, Jawa Pos, and owns both the Malang Post and Memo Arema. More than half of East Java's local and regional publications come under the Jawa Pos umbrella. As one Malang Post editor puts it, 'Only one big shot has come to town.'

A perusal of these papers proves that they are not merely an edition of the Jawa Pos with a Malang masthead. Local news dominates the front pages of both Memo Arema and the Malang Post, and the Radar Malang supplement dedicates its entire eight pages to local events, issues and personalities. Memo Arema and the Malang Post do carry national and international news, but these articles are normally restricted to page two, unless they can be slanted towards Malang through consequence or effect. Like its parent publication, Memorandum, Memo Arema angles itself towards criminal news, and the vast majority of its reporters are posted in Malang's courts, police stations and jails. The Malang Post on the other hand, covers news of a more general nature, and posts reporters in all districts of Malang, including the nearby city of Batu. Local issues are aired through entire pages dedicated to local politics, education, sport and entertainment. News of a national and international flavour is lifted from the Jawa Pos New Network, a restricted network to which all subsidiary newspapers have access. This network is the only way through which the Jawa Pos directly contributes to the content of local newspapers.

The emerging local press is difficult to pin down and describe. Circulation figures are hard to trust. Indonesia has no autonomous body auditing newspaper circulation, and the papers themselves cite figures triple their actual sales to reel in all-important advertising revenue. The figures quoted above were obtained from the manager of Karah Agung printing press in Surabaya. As he handles all printing orders for Jawa Pos owned papers, he knows precisely how many copies of each paper go on sale each day. Indeed, it seems the only way to find out more about this emerging local press is to talk to the people who make it all happen - the editors, the reporters, printing press staff and the advertising and marketing reps. They're a mix of bright eyed and underpaid university graduates on their first post, and weather beaten senior employees who have worked in nearly every newspaper bureau in town. These people are the key to the future prosperity and quality of the local newspapers they work for - a fact that they are only too aware of. When asked of the greatest obstacle to the future of the local press, one astute cadet replied, 'The journos themselves'

With only a brief history of a free and uncensored press, these new local papers cannot escape the issues that have affected the industry in the past. The community still harbours deep-rooted suspicions as to the actual truth of what they read. Local media practitioners recognise that not only is it their job to inform their audience, but also to educate them about the function of an uncensored and non-partisan media, and what the term 'free press' actually means. This of course entails a disengagement of past practices, including the 'envelope culture' in which sources offer money to journalists.

Whilst reporters from national papers have comparatively large salaries to rely on, in some cases up to three or four times that of their local counterparts, local journalists must learn to strike a balance between long hours, low wages and the temptation to take envelopes. At one local paper in Malang, senior reporters are paid approximately 350,000 rupiah a month, plus bonuses of up to another 300,000 rupiah based on the quality and quantity of their articles. With one day off in every seven, no half day on a Friday, no afternoon siestas and deadlines that do not allow for 'rubber time', that's a big ask. One cadet reporter confided that she earned a training wage of 150,000 rupiah a month with no opportunity for bonuses, which was barely enough to cover her board, let alone food and petrol. When a source offers her an envelope, she often has no choice but to take it.

These envelopes, always plain white and small, are never opened until the two parties are far apart. They often contain no more than 15,000 to 25,000 rupiah. The reasons for giving this money are not always clear-cut. A reporter assigned to a business post may receive envelopes as a thank you for anticipated favourable promotion of a particular company or product. Yet one reporter told me, 'I just write the article, its my editor who chooses whether it actually gets carried. If they're paying me to get the story published, then they're paying the wrong person'. Often, sympathetic sources give envelopes to cover petrol money and other 'expenses', and these gifts seem to be a sincere helping hand from those who know how little journalists are paid for their long hours. On the two occasions that I accompanied reporters who were offered and accepted envelopes, the money was once used to buy petrol and the other time to pay for lunch.

It is tempting to place too much emphasis on these envelopes when examining the local press. 'They make me so confused,' a young reporter confessed. 'Whenever I'm offered one, its always a struggle to know what to do. To take it, or not to take it. I need the money, but I don't want to encourage it. People find out, and that affects what they think of the papers. But to tell you the truth, they are a minute part of my job. I'm more concerned about writing quality articles.' In any case, these envelopes are not thick and fast between often this depends on a reporter's post and who their sources actually are. A court or criminal reporter will almost never be offered an envelope, though lawyers, police officers and detectives will buy them lunch on a daily basis. It seems a fine line between bribery and corruption, and friendly gestures.

All local papers in Malang now carry disclaimers that their staff are not to receive 'any money or other gifts from sources', and strict in-house policies forbid employees from accepting envelopes. The issue has become a contentious one. And while salaries remain low, it's also an issue that won't disappear quickly.

Yet although wages may be low, job satisfaction levels are high. It's simple - if it was about the money, I wouldn't be working at the Malang Post, one senior reporter explained. 'With these new papers I can work in my hometown, and the increasing interest in local issues is visible. I can actually see people realising that it is not just what happens in Jakarta or Surabaya that is important. There are events and issues in their own kampung that are newsworthy. But if we are going to survive past the otonomi' (regional autonomy) era, we need to be a quality publication that the community is interested in, and that people can trust.

That is the challenge for this emerging local press in a town like Malang - to survive the euphoria of free press legislation and to persevere as interest in regional autonomy inevitably wanes. With editorial and managerial expertise on loan from the Jawa Pos, these Malang newspapers have the potential to become fertile ground for the development of new talent and experienced local media practitioners.

Kirrilee Hughes (kik_h@hotmail.com) is an ANU student who completed work experience with the Malang Post in 2001.

Inside Indonesia 72: Oct - Dec 2002

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