Joseph Conrad and Singapore newspapers

I was pleasantly surprised to see the Straits Times mentioned in Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly. It’s at the beginning of Chapter 4:

That year, towards the breaking up of the south-west monsoon, disquieting rumours reached Sambir. Captain Ford, coming up to Almayer’s house for an evening’s chat, brought late numbers of the Straits Times giving the news of Acheen war and of the unsuccessful Dutch expedition.

It’s interesting because Conrad was writing in the late 19th century about a Dutch trader living deep in the jungles of Borneo.

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Harold Evans on Murdoch, sub-editors, copy editors

Anyone who loves newspapers and magazines will enjoy reading My Paper Chase, the memoirs of Harold Evans, whose wife, Tina Brown, edits The Daily Beast.

The son of a railwayman, he became the most famous British newspaper editor of his time. He edited the Sunday Times for more than a decade before being appointed editor of The Times by Rupert Murdoch, who bought the two papers in 1981.

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Free because we blog, tweet, in an attention economy

Singapore’s Straits Times and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post are the only English language newspapers I know that do not allow their stories to be read online for free.

Even the Financial Times allows some of its stories to be read for free.

Not the Straits Times. All you can read for free on its website are wire stories, letters to the editor, readers’ comments — and, yes, its blogs. Just don’t expect to see the newspaper’s regular columnists there. You can read Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman for free, but you have to pay to read Andy Ho and Sumiko Tan.

It just goes to show the amazing strength of the Straits Times that, while virtually everyone else is giving away original content for free, it can still charge for what it has to offer.

Digital cheap

Newspapers can allow free online access because the digital medium is so cheap, says Chris Anderson in his book, Free. It’s fascinating reading. The Wired magazine editor says why readers must pay to read his magazine but enjoy free access to the website:

“In print, I operate by the rules of scarcity, since each page is expensive and I have a limited number of them… Not only are our pages expensive, they are also unchangeable. Once the presses run, our mistakes and errors of judgment are preserved for posterity (or at least until they are recycled)…

“Online, however, pages are infinite and indefinitely changeable. It’s an abundance economy and invites a totally different management approach. On our Web site we have dozens of bloggers, many of them amateurs, who write what they want, without editing…

“Standards such as accuracy and fairness apply across the board, but in print we have to get everything right before publication, at great expense, while online we can correct as we go.”

The website costs only a fraction of the magazine business:

“We pay dollars to print, bind and mail a magazine to you… but just microcents to show it to you on our Web site. That’s why we can treat it as free, because on a user-by-user basis, it is, in fact, too cheap to meter.

“Overall, our server and bandwidth bill amounts to several thousand dollars a month. But that’s to reach millions of readers.”

Newspaper publishers are beginning to ask what’s the point of reaching millions of readers when advertisers are willing to pay for only a certain target audience.

Attention economy

But money alone no longer makes the world go round, as even businesses acknowledge. Why else do they make such a fuss about brand recognition?

Welcome to the attention economy. Another reason to read Free, especially if you are a blogger or interested in the media.

Anderson explains the new economy in terms any blogger or user of Facebook, Twitter or MySpace will understand:

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Eats, Shoots & Leaves author Lynne Truss now has her own website! So what? Every writer has a website now. Hello! This is big news, reported by Reuters.

However, after visiting I don’t think any punctuation mark can do it justice. It deserves an emoticon. Like this: 😦

Truss may well riposte, “Talk to my hand!” A thumbs down from a nobody like me can hardly matter to a bestselling minder of other people’s periods and manners like her.

And, besides, the site can only get only better — it’s got so little now.

The content’s decidedly skimpy. I guess Truss hasn’t had time to fully dress up her site (if she can dare to come out with such a bare site, I can split an infinitive). The site was launched only five days ago.

I do hope she will be posting her tips on punctuation there — then I won’t have to buy her next book. As for her advice on proper etiquette, it should be clear by now I have no use for it.

Just for the record, I do have a copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves but never got beyond the first few chapters. I love my Fowler, as revised by Gowers — not the latest version revised by Burchfield. He took the fun out of it.

I know Eats, Shoots & Leaves is good fun too. But you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

And even Truss admits her approach takes the fun out of reading.

“Having been a sub-editor and a proof reader, I do proof-read everything I read and often find I am reading books to check them rather than read them. Any error just sits there and hurts you,” she told Reuters.

Not everyone likes the Queen of the Commas’ (that’s what the Guardian called Truss) “zero tolerance approach to punctuation”.

David Crystal, the author of The Story of English, condemns her for joining the ranks of ‘linguistic fundamentalists”, says the Guardian.

Crystal, who once told her a book on punctuation would never sell, admits: “‘I made the stupidest remark of my life.” Eats, Shoots & Leaves has sold three million copies worldwide, reports the Guardian, and an illustrated children’s version has just been published.

Even Crystal says,” ‘Her book is humorous, clever, clear, pretty accurate, well crafted”, but he adds, it’s “deeply unnerving”.

“Zero tolerance does not allow for flexibility,” he says. “It suggests that language is in a state where all the rules are established with 100 per cent certainty. The suggestion is false. We do not know what all the rules of punctuation are. And no rule of punctuation is followed by all of the people all of the time.”

He is right.

I needed an emoticon — not a punctuation mark — to sum up my feeings about

Crystal has a website, too, with a lot more stuff.