Conversations with Toh Ting Wei

By Isabella Tian and Jian Jingying

Toh Ting Wei is a journalist at The Straits Times, an English-language daily broadsheet newspaper and one of the major news organisations in Singapore. In this article, he shares how his experiences led him to pursue journalism, his insights about the nature of his work, his positive experiences working at The Straits Times, and some advice for young people in general. Ting Wei has been with The Straits Times for two years, prior to which he has served stints with media outlets such as Agence France-Presse (AFP) and The New Paper. He is also a recipient of the Singapore Press Holdings Journalism Scholarship. Ting Wei graduated from the Nanyang Technological University, where he majored in Communication Studies.

Unlike an office job where things happen regularly, there is no ‘typical’ day—every day is a little different. For me, it tends to start late—I wake up around 9 to 9.30am—and end later, close to midnight at times. Occasionally, stories happen at odd hours—2 or 3am—so when those happen, I have to be up. Most of the time, however, my working hours depend largely on our news story for the day, what the bosses ask of us, or what events we happen to come across. Personally, I cover transport stories, which range from aviation and public transport to maritime news, et cetera.

Usually I report to our office first, then head out if I need to be elsewhere. When I do so, I speak with newsmakers (a term for interviewees) or cover events. Otherwise, my office work sees me trawling through social media looking for potential stories; Word spreads fast online. On occasion, I would also be out to meet someone—a subject expert, perhaps—to catch up or network with them or to get some input on a story.

The first step involves finding a story or having the bosses assign them to us. After that, we do background research on the story before going down to the ground, because we want to avoid wasting the newsmakers time. Having a sense of what information is publicly available also saves us time.

On the ground, we talk to newsmakers and make observations, looking out for what is of interest to readers. Upon returning, we brief our bosses and they provide some initial feedback regarding things like angle. We then proceed with actually writing the story. Things can be hectic because stories are typically published on the day itself. If we are lucky, events end around noon and we have a few hours before submitting it in the evening. For night events, however, we have very little time to finish our articles before the 11pm submission deadline (the paper prints at about 1am).

Submitted stories go to the copyeditor, who edits such things as the story’s angle, before the paper is returned to us for fact-checking. After that, it will be forwarded to sub-editors who check for language, and then to layout artists who handle the formatting of the article.

There are two levels of fact-checking. For the first, we ensure that the facts being presented are correct. For example, I once had a police press release tell me they arrested some people at a certain road. It turns out that they had mixed up “Road” and “Avenue”. I had people writing in to tell me the ‘road’ in question did not exist.

For the second level, we ensure the reliability of what you would call secondary sources by cross-referencing the newsmaker’s words against other available sources. Of course, there are many more things to check at this stage, so we try to be as thorough as possible. We look out for things like names and numbers, like age or anything money-related, which can be quite sensitive.

Fact-checking can be troublesome and tedious, but we owe it to our readers and ourselves. It is a personal and professional imperative to get things right.

Granted, I am not the most experienced out there, but I think it comes with time. Nevertheless, a good measure would be to take what is personally interesting and then extrapolate from there.

I think the best gauge is probably how the topic in question affects people. For example, anything that might affect the livelihood of some people or help them will make a topic a lot more important to the readers.

Looking at trends on social media can be useful in judging how stories and events are doing in the public eye as well. When things start buzzing around—through hashtags, Instagram stories, Twitter reposts, Facebook shares, what have you—I take notice and see if there is a story worth reporting on.

Writing on crime or related subjects that people do not usually have access to, is a sure-fire way of capturing their imagination. It is a break from the run-of-the-mill daily news.

Human profiles are also quite popular. People like reading stories of others who have noteworthy experiences. For example, with the current situation on COVID-19, people enjoy hearing from frontliners and those who have recovered. The “Generation Grit” series is another example. People love stories that allow a reprieve from the humdrum of daily life.

I enjoy and have fun at my job. The flexible hours are a huge plus. Also, because I do not like routine or desk-bound work, being a journalist means I have some freedom to choose between being in the office or hitting the streets. Every day, I interact with plenty of different people, and whether it is someone successful or someone going through a hard time, the experience never fails to humble me and present me with new perspectives.

I take pride in putting out a good story. I am passionate about news and discovering stories, so pursuing journalism was a natural choice. I am also keen to make a difference where I can, and doing so through journalism is something I find satisfying. For example, a colleague wrote about the dismal conditions of foreign worker dormitories and it sparked discussion, contributing in part to the public’s awareness of the dormitory situations today. With stories like these, people learn about things they do not always see, hear, or know about. The responsibility as a journalist—the power to spark real change—is something that I keep in mind.

Balancing perfectionism and meeting deadlines is a real challenge for us. The pressure to be the first to publish is always there. Being slow off the starting blocks on a story can impact readership numbers and responses greatly—especially on social media—when compared to our competitors. Case in point: when my supervisor and I worked on PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Good Friday speech on Facebook, we chose to rearrange the speech for ease of reading. While working on it, one competitor went ahead to publish the speech in full, 15 minutes before we did. That contributed to them having three times more views than us on social media.

An additional hard truth about this job is that sooner or later, every reporter will likely converse with those who suffer a recent bereavement. The conversation is always a difficult one to have. In these cases, sensitivity, grace, and tact are—more than ever—paramount, and I do feel that being considerate to the people we are interacting with, is the most important thing in such cases.

Work-life balance can become an issue too. Given how our work requires that we avail ourselves to cover stories at any moment, the last-minute cancellation of dinner and supper plans, for example, can be quite common.

I grew up liking football, and I thought it would be great if I could one day become a journalist and go cover the matches and the sports season. Also, English was a subject I did well in academically, so when it came to choosing my course of study in University I gravitated naturally towards Communications and Journalism.

I chanced upon the Singapore Press Holdings’ scholarship and applied. At that point I thought all I wanted was an internship. But I guess, in the back of my mind, I really did not know what else I could or would do besides journalism, so I gave it a shot.

In my opinion, internships are especially important for journalism because they can provide you with an opportunity to figure out if you truly enjoy this line of work. Journalism can be uniquely challenging, because of the nature of the job—approaching and talking to people all the time, the working hours, the time pressure etcetera. So, responses to being a full-time journalist tend to play out as “either-or” scenarios: you either love it, or hate it.

Internships are thus valuable chances for students to get a taste of the job before deciding whether or not to pursue and commit to journalism as a career. My internships with AFP and Singapore Press Holdings—as well as the time I spent editing a student newspaper for NTU—helped me to be more certain that I wanted to do this as a career.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists have been allowed to leave our homes for work purposes. We have been cleared as an essential service. Someone still has to put news stories out there so people can keep up with current affairs, beyond the four walls of their homes. Even though I have been largely working from home for the past two months, I still head out occasionally in search of people and stories. Our work goes on. This is especially true for many of my colleagues, who keep track of important events with vital information—such as government announcements—and get their stories out to the people as soon as possible.

Having a language or arts background definitely helps, but it is not a hard requirement. People with backgrounds in the sciences or law do pursue journalism too.

More importantly, I think developing the right qualities plays a bigger part in becoming a journalist. It is all about being pushed out of one’s comfort zone—both in dealing with people of all walks of life and in trying to manage some form of work-life balance, among other things. Being adaptable is a must: on the job, we learn things that we simply do not learn in school. We might be proficient with our complex undergraduate essays, for one, but journalism requires more accessible writing for our readers. It is a matter of learning new frames and unlearning some old habits.

Journalists also have to be curious and fast thinkers, especially with the limited time frames we have. Be inquisitive and think about the why and how of things to get the full picture. Do not take anything at face value: question them and challenge assumptions. Thinking on our feet allows us to maximise the short times we have with people and newsmakers.

Apart from using internships to get a sense of the job and reading the news to be familiar with how it is written, I would recommend picking up photography and videography as well. These are skills that work hand-in-hand with writing news, and we do not always have photographers by our side. In such situations, being resourceful and taking our own videos and photos can help our work greatly.

Yes, definitely. Of course, some technical knowledge is exclusive to journalism, but many other skills are transferable. The photography and videography skills I mentioned earlier, along with the experience of interacting with people and understanding readers, are skills that will serve well beyond journalism. In public relations, for example, having photography and videography skills definitely makes for a more attractive hire; this is a big plus for firms, as they do not have to hire more people to perform the various multimedia tasks which one person is capable of doing alone. Moreover, having a knack for talking to people and writing stories can translate into our ability to connect with professionals and clients, thus value-adding to a firm’s public relations efforts.