Sarawak Tribune springs surprise amidst tide of new political landscape

Times have changed for the New Sarawak Tribune and the newspaper needs to keep up with changing times.
Times have changed for the New Sarawak Tribune and the newspaper needs to keep up with changing times.

In respect of placing DAP’s state chief on its front page, the paper says: “He’s the man now!”

SARAWAK’S oldest English daily the New Sarawak Tribune (NST), established in 1945, sprung a unexpected front page headline on Tuesday, with a colour photograph screaming, ‘Pan Borneo Highway project will continue – Chong’.

The same news item had only warranted a page 9 lead treatment in its biggest and leading rival The Borneo Post.

The shocking turn of events has come about after a lengthy history of turbulent changes in at least two of NST former editors, and a change of ownership in recent years. 

Of the two editors sacked – one had allowed a questionably negative item in a front page headline of a former Chief Minister to appear in 2010; while the other was caught up in the frenzy of that infamous Danish Islamic cartoon news reproduced from an agency in 2006.

Once the only English daily read by thousands and placed in every single government office as well as being the authoritative voice of the powers that be the paper was both respectable and profitable.

However, in recent years its declining readership and subscription has led to The Borneo Post’s dominating supremacy in the English news daily market in the state.

Readers have abandoned NST ever since the family of the former Chief Minister, and current Sarawak Governor, had taken it over a few years ago.

The NST relied heavily on mainly syndicated news, Bernama by-lines and a handful of long and loyal columnists like James Ritchie, Grace Balan Law and Vicky Fong to grace its pages.

Its advertising revenue has almost totally vanished and its political news and views slanted totally towards the government in power – both at the state and federal levels.

The surprising change in today’s headline and photo on its front page marks the first time that prominence has been given to a news item emanating from an opposition party.

The reason may be due to the formation of the Pakatan Harapan federal government and a successful run in the 14th general election (GE14) by the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in the state.

The front page news report also carried with it a colour photograph of both DAP state chairman Chong Chieng Jin and newly elected Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii, who represents the state’s most populous constituency.

In the past, there has been a virtual blackout on all news items concerning the DAP, PKR and anything to do with the opposition in the pages of the newspaper.

It had been singularly a monopoly of Barisan Nasional (BN) news, views and articles. It was as if the owners of the daily had sent a memo to the Editorial Board that such a rule is to be observed at all times.

The paper had seen a swift decline in its readership over the years. It was speculated that if not for the deep pockets of its current owners and the need to maintain an English daily in the state, for the obvious public relations reasons, the paper would have folded many years ago.

Even its printing press business has been in the doldrums as it mainly depends on government contracts.

I managed to have a word with the editor of the paper, Terry Tan, who is a very experienced journalist and has been in the industry for a long time.

Tan said that indeed times have changed, and as such they need to change with it, adding that he is hopeful that the changes will also see a gradual increase in its subscriptions and readership.

As for featuring Chong on its front page today, Tan simply said: “He’s the man now!”

It will be a good thing too if and when NST can manage to regain part of its former readership and begin to pose a real threat and an alternative to the current dominance of The Borneo Post in the local media, he said.

The Borneo Post, while still remaining the English daily to go to for up-to-date news, features and general information, will need to buck up and rely less on its slanted political news. 

It has to give its readers a more balanced and independent coverage of events both local and global.

These dailies have also to consider the rise and domination of online news portals in the market presently, many of them free, and may soon cause problems to print newspapers.