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A Look at the Self-Media Era: Interviews with Fan Chi-fei and Alex Lin

Fan Chi-fei

Fan Chi-fei
 

In an era of flourishing new media and “self-media” (or “we-media”), there are many chances and many moves, much information and many pitfalls. How do people operating in this field maintain their self-discipline against the temptations of click-through rates? In a bewilder­ingly varied media environment, how can consumers tell fact from fiction? In this issue, we invite two self-media founders—Fan Chi-fei and Alex Lin—to chat about media, their attitudes, and their objectives. Their answers to our questions can perhaps help us find our footing in this age of intense media competition.

 

Fan Chi-fei

Fan Chi-fei worked as a senior special correspondent in the US for TVBS and SET News, living in the States for over 20 years. Originally she returned to settle in Taiwan as part of her retirement plans, but then she struck out on a new path, starting her own media company and becoming an entrepreneur in middle age. She is considered the doyenne of the industry, and the boldest media figure when it comes to trying new things and innovating.

Industry trend: A new era of transformation

You spent a long time in the US. What did you learn from changes in the American media industry?

The biggest difference between Taiwan and the US is market size. The US is a capitalist country where both traditional media and new media are continually trying new approaches. Those that don’t work are discarded, and failed ideas are rapidly weeded out. Because the market in Taiwan is small, there is a relative lack of innovative spirit and ability to give life to new ideas, but this is a product of market scale. Broadly speaking, Taiwan is about ten years behind the US. If you want to know the future of media in Taiwan, you can look at the US today.

In the US today, the big media have transformed themselves and found a way to survive, but they have also altered their past reporting model. This is a result of lessons learned from the 2016 presidential election. At that time, because the big media had a poor grasp of local information, fake news was prevalent in rural areas, and there were even places where underground broadcast stations became mainstream. The election outcome made the big media realize the importance of field reporting. Field reporting costs a lot of money, but you just can’t do without it. But I haven’t seen this happen yet in Taiwan.

Innovative spirit: Old wine in new skins

There is so much content one can watch online. What new methods do you use to try to catch viewers’ attention?

My former colleagues all ask: Aren’t you just doing news compilation and translation? Which is to say, isn’t what I do just watching foreign media reports and then restating them for people who watch my show? It’s true, that’s what I do. But I feel I have added something new, using new methods to tell stories to the audience, such as using LINE as a carrier. Even the program I do at Global News is not traditional. We mix in American jokes and animation; the older generation may not get it, but young people like it.

Another different element in my shows is that I insist on having young people on screen. When I first started doing self-media, my hope was to get more young people interested in international affairs, so I’ve always arranged to have people of the same age group talk to them.

Self-media means having autonomy and freedom. But don’t you worry about that leading to bias and an echo-chamber effect?

I’ve certainly thought about this problem. But I think the vast majority of Taiwanese still care a lot what others think, so writers will rarely take a position that completely ignores public opinion. Mostly I don’t interfere in the reporter’s angle on a story; I only speak up if there’s a clear and obvious bias.

The people I’ve been working with for a long time, including Chang Chia-ling [a.k.a. Dohui], Kylie Wang, and Sandra Ho [a.k.a. Roll Your Eyes], all have a big online following, and they have a lot of experience in debating issues. I even feel they are better at staying on top of the news than most television reporters. And sometimes they have a better understanding of certain issues than I have—for example, Sandra Ho has herself been a campaigner for marriage equality. So in fact they understand and meet the basic requirements of news reporting, and I don’t have to worry too much on this score.

An insider’s look at how to watch the news

Right now there is a lot of fake news out there, and the quality of news reporting is very uneven. How do you select news sources?

Just now I was talking about how important field reporting is. Basically, I only look at media that has reporters going out to gather news on the spot, so I only look at traditional media. My first read in the morning is The New York Times; this has been a habit of mine for many years. I also read The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. I don’t watch TV news much, unless it’s for breaking news, such as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic or a big fall in the stock market. But I listen to radio a lot, especially US National Public Radio. I don’t often look at self-media; I only read it when there’s not sufficient info to be found in the mainstream news media. For example, I read “K-News Online” [a self-media news platform about Korea] because the reporter is right there on the spot, and he can compensate for the lack of field reporting by the mainstream media.

I’ve been collecting information on this problem lately. Right now we have over 200,000 followers on our fan page, from all over the world, including many media colleagues. I’ve drawn up a list of names, and if something happens someplace, I can directly ask their opinions. This is better than me observing events from here and talking about them from here, and it’s more credible. We are also thinking of doing crowdfunding so we can go to the US to report on the elections coming up at the end of the year. In fact, beyond financial considerations, this is also a way of raising awareness. What’s important is getting people involved, because if you get involved you’ll be more interested in the issues.

Fan American Time

Living in New York, on the front lines of media competition, Fan observed how traditional media were withering away and endeavoring to transform. This experience gave her a sense of crisis. While still working as a reporter she dug into her own pockets to launch the self-media program “Fan American Time,” and since returning to Taiwan has been involved in other projects, including a talk show on the cable news channel Global News and a world news program on LINE. The aim of her brand is to “get more people interested in international news.” Although her criterion for choosing what to report is that it be “important hard news,” her relaxed and humorous style has successfully attracted the attention of young people.


Alex Lin

Alex Lin
 

Alex Lin

Alex Lin spent the first half of his life in the US, only returning to Taiwan to take a job after graduating from university with a degree in advertising. He learned from fashion photographer Joshua Lin and documentary director Yang Shou-yi, and later established himself as a director of commercials and music videos. He eventually launched the self-­media channel “Taiwan Taike Story” (a.k.a. “TKstory”), to rediscover his homeland through filmmaking.

Industry trends: Free expression, why not?

Before stepping into the media industry, did you have any training in journalism? Can you talk about your ideas on this subject?

When I was in university I took a course in journalism. But running self-media and being a YouTuber is to me more like being an artist. For example, when I make documentaries, I don’t emphasize “objectivity”; what I emphasize is “my own” opinion. As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as objectivity, everything is subjective. But the main point is whether or not one’s subjective ideas are helpful to others. If they are, then express these ideas through videos. If your opinions suck, then keep your mouth shut.

A list of favorite YouTubers

There are so many people doing self-media and new media. Please share some YouTube channels that you enjoy watching.

I often watch channels like Vox, whose films contain a great deal of information and focus on the latest current issues. The titles raise interesting questions, which are answered scientifically. I most admire Casey Neistat and Dan Mace, espe­cially Dan Mace, whose editing, soundtracks, and camerawork are all very meticulous. Because I normally think in English, I will watch those YouTubers who have the kind of eloquence in Chinese that I like but don’t have myself, like Froggy Chiu and Brian Tseng. By blending these together, I’m gradually coming up with my own style.

Innovative spirit: Using visual vocabulary well

You studied advertising and have directed music videos, commercials, and TV programs. Have these experiences affected your approach to self-media?

I did my degree in advertising, and in advertising you often have to come up with many ideas just to get one good one. The way we film TKstory is very much like making adverts, with me and my colleagues brainstorming and discussing ideas. The process is what matters most. For example, we recently completed a video about the importance of planting trees along beaches. One of the ideas was to shoot the building and then work with an animator to simulate flooding. Another was for me to immerse myself in the sea, wearing a suit. This is a kind of visual communication.

You’ve said that filming TKstory is like making documentaries. But most documentary makers film other people’s stories from a “third party” perspective, whereas I’ve noticed that in your films you often use personal experience as an entry point, which is very “un-documentary-like.”

The issues I make videos about are ones that I find interesting, and want to experience for myself. For example, when discussing the issue of staying healthy, I personally tried a ketogenic diet and fasting. For me, having fun during the filming process is the biggest benefit that I get from this. The process is the most important thing.

However, in fact some documentary films are very personal, for example that super-popular documentary about McDonald’s, Super Size Me. The only content in it was the director himself recording his diet and weight gain. To some degree, TKstory takes a similar approach in that it’s a mix of documentary and personal experience.

Taiwan Taike Story

Fewer and fewer people are watching television, so Alex Lin targeted Taiwan Taike Story at young people who access media through their cellphones and tablet computers. He has made Taiwan the subject of his field research project, personally covering the entire island from the mountains to the seas, from city streets to small lanes. Starting out from his own experiences, he meticulously records all kinds of details of life in Taiwan, and has made it his mission to “help Taiwanese love Taiwan even more.” This positive attitude has attracted more than 620,000 subscribers.