Why Indonesian journalists struggle between pageviews on one hand and promoting tolerance on the other
The recent presidential elections in Indonesia caused high tension of polarization in society. The intolerance of people towards each other is increasing. Especially religious discrepancies become wider, due to politicians who play on people’s emotions. Even apparently neutral hand gestures like the peace sign or thumbs up have become ideological statements.
For journalists Andi Muhyiddin and Elin Yunita Kristanti this is a worrying phenomenon. From a personal perspective because as Muslims they feel the militants win in power. From a professional perspective because as journalists it is hard to penetrate in the popular closed Whatsapp communities to understand what’s going on in the minds of people.
Traffic is the currency
Despite their sorrows, the media company they work for, KapanLagi Youniverse (KLY), is doing an impressive job with multiple platforms on their four pillars of news, entertainment, sport and women network. On my visit to their office, they guide me through five floors of newsrooms, with a total of around 400 journalists working on producing daily content. News platform Liputan6 produces 600 articles, of which are 30 videos, on a daily basis, reaching one-fourth of the Indonesian population. Although sometimes it feels like they’re doing ‘factory work’ instead of journalism, as they put it, the huge production rate works. “Our Alexa rank is number 6 in terms of media sites in Indonesia at the moment and we need to keep it that way in order to attract enough investors and advertisers”, tells Deputy Editor-in-Chief Elin, “Traffic is our currency, we can’t compete with media organizations that burn money to boost their content.”
Vertical storytelling innovation
In the air-conditioned office where we chat for an hour, Andi shows me examples of the stories they report on. Their target audience consists mainly of millennials, so mobile journalism is the way to go. Not only do all of their reporters work as mojo’s, but they also use vertical storytelling as a starting point. “Our innovation is vertical storytelling, we’re the first to do this in Indonesia”, Andi says proudly. The combination of photos, graphics, videos and the tapping gesture to go through a story are the key elements. Facebook still is the main platform to focus on, but Instagram is very popular in Indonesia as well. And Google’s AMP technology makes it possible to publish the stories on their own platform, which is important to get pageviews. “Most of the time one story consists of different elements. We produce a long-form in-depth article and reach out to our audience with a short form vertical story”, Elin amplifies. She continues: “Years ago people would say long-form articles don’t work anymore. But we’ve noticed a part of our audience is interested in in-depth stories and even difficult subjects like human trafficking, the plundering of gold in the Borneo forest or violence in football in Indonesia.” An engineer is added to the newsroom to transform those stories into visually attractive vertical stories.
Fighting fake news with fun
Andi just started his new position as head of the educational department of the company and trains new employees in mobile journalism and journalism skills. “I’ve noticed after my visit to the Global Media Forum in Bonn, Germany, that European news organizations start to focus more on conventional journalism skills, like how to do proper research and how to ask the right questions. The technique is something anyone can learn, but not everyone can create a good story. And building a strong network is also part of the work of a journalist”. Especially in a time where fake news has become a business model (they mention the uncovering of fake news factory Saracen) it is crucial that journalists do their job right. Elin: “We’re part of the International Fact-checking Network (IFCN) and we’ve created a special channel called Cek Fakta where we do daily fact-checking in collaboration with more than 20 other media organizations. In a Whatsapp group where NGO’s participate as well, we keep each other sharp on information about new hoaxes. Being an IFCN signatory means we’re partnering with Facebook so we can access their dashboard and help to decrease the spreading of fake news. And we’re open for the public to contact us when they find suspicious information.”
The videos in which they reveal fake news sometimes become more popular than the hoax itself. “Our audience likes the videos”, Elin tells with a surprising mimic. “We’ve witnessed that the creators of hoaxes become more creative, so we want to fight them with more fun.” Even though fake news is a huge problem in Indonesia, especially because the politicians make use of it as a strategy to win votes, Elin notices that a lot of citizens want to participate in decreasing the spreading of it: “We receive multiple emails of viewers daily, asking if this-and-that is fake news. With the fact-checking, we want to show politicians that they shouldn’t throw misinformation in the air.”
Religious intolerance grows
The three main topics of hoaxes are politics, health and religion. Especially the latter asks for balanced reporting, choosing words very carefully. Elin points out: “We promote tolerance because we’ve noticed people are becoming less tolerant. So we invite minorities as well to discuss certain topics. And where other media organizations give a platform to hate speech as part of the freedom of speech, we don’t. In the comments on social media, we get accused of anti-Muslim sentiments now and then. But hello, I’m a Muslim myself, so that doesn’t make any sense”. She explains the struggle of getting more pageviews on one hand and promoting tolerance on the other: “We could have many more pageviews if we would report with more cheesy content, but we will never trade our peace for that short goal of success”. The reason why the nation gets less tolerant is partly found in the fact that many young people study in the Middle East and return with new beliefs about their religion, the journalists tell me. “Before it didn’t matter if you were a Sunni or a Shiite Muslim”, Andi says, “but now suddenly it has become a point of discussion in society”.
It remains to be seen whether Indonesia can stay upright in an increasingly extremist digital environment. The fact that at KLY journalists work day and night to counterbalance the militant views is a hopeful sign. Even though there’s a risk of being trapped in a hamster wheel of high volume production by advertisers and investors, without having a bit of peace and quiet to tackle the topics in a fruitful way.