The Surreal World of Jakarta Malls: A Photo Essay

Jakarta malls are strange places. They’re islands of air conditioning in a town of near-slums. They’re the only thing to do if you have any money in this deeply unequal town. They have laughing Santas and Starbucks and skin whitening cream. I find them deeply disturbing.

24 Starbucks

At Christmas, all the malls had decorations in them. It was a big thing. Little Muslim children lined up to sit on Santa’s lap. Whenever I asked, people shrugged and told me that Christmas wasn’t really about religion in Jakarta.

Jakarta Santa

On Friday nights, the malls are packed. The fashionable kids, speaking a mixture of English and Indonesian, flood the white marble floors. The malls have very loud music, and sometimes DJs.

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A Two Block Walk on New Year’s Eve in Jakarta

I saw the blue sky today for the first time in weeks, though the smog is even thicker than usual this afternoon. There’s something tense on the street, something more than the usual noise. I can feel it instantly when I step out of the restaurant air conditioning.

Indonesia’s first democratically elected president died last night. It’s been a turbulent decade.

The air smells like exhaust, food, people, and kerosene from cooking stoves. Bright orange three-wheeled bajaj taxis are lined up on the street, many more than usual. The sidewalk vendors are thick today, everywhere selling cheap cardboard horns. Their nasal wail pierces the traffic every minute or so. Some people are dressed up and obviously on their way out, though it’s early yet. The street is bustling. I walk as best I can down the sidewalk which is crowded by vendors and food stalls and motorbikes taking shortcuts.

It’s 30 degrees and oppressively humid. It’s always 30 degrees and humid.

Nobody stops at the crosswalk so as usual I have to time my crossing to miss the turning motorbikes. The trick is not to stop. Try to dodge them and they’ll hit you as they aim for where you wouldn’t have been. The haggard prostitute on opposite side gives me a little nod. At night she sometimes grabs me as I walk past. I pass her and make my way through a series of street restaurants built out of carts and plastic tables and awnings over the sidewalk, then turn.

The little alley twists through the innards of a huge block, and it quieter here. It’s lined with small houses, and open sewers a meter deep. On bigger streets the sewer trenches are covered with slabs of concrete, but not here. It smells bad. Children play. A fruit vendor prepares his cart for the evening, arranging bags of cut mangoes around blocks of ice. This is a pretty nice neighborhood, actually. The houses are concrete and right in the center of town. A man casually throws a piece of litter into an empty lot filled with garbage. Skinny cats wander.

I step out of the alley into Jalan Jaksa, the restless and slightly scummy packbacker district. The blowdart seller is talking to two pale young Europeans. He’s been working the street for 28 years. The old drunk guy is sitting on his usual corner in his usual clothes, nodding off. The local fixer nods at me, smiles his best, and thankfully doesn’t ask me again if I want a massage. It doesn’t smell as much here. A man sorts through a pile of trash on the street. From a story in the newspaper, I know that scavenged bottle caps go for about 50 cents per kilo, when sorted. I’m paying $25 US dollars a night for a clean room with air conditioning. A poor expat, a rich Indonesian.

And out of the chaos comes the evening call to prayer, the muezzin’s clear voice ringing out from the little neighborhood mosque. In the fading light it seems a moment of peace.

A motorbike with no muffler shatters it. Traffic resumes. I walk through several more food stalls, including my favorite juice place. In the evenings after work I like to order a fresh starfruit juice.

There’s going to be a big party tonight. Hundreds of thousands of people. It used to be at the center of town around the huge phallic monument but the police have moved it this year, saying that the revelers always trash the place. You can feel the surge of millions toward the center, you can already hear the odd firecracker popping out the last few hours of the decade. There’s nothing to do but make noise in this noisy city, to press ever closer together and celebrate.

Night begins to fall, fast.

A thirty-something woman in a very short skirt saunters down the sidewalk with nonchalant confidence.

I’m almost at the door of my hotel, where I will shower and change.

The proprietor of the coffee stall across the street sits at his one table reading a newspaper, waiting.

The city draws a breath–

Newsroom vs. Web Culture Clash

“No one cares what you think,” said my reporting instructor at the beginning of term. He repeated it slowly. “No one cares what you think. That’s not your job.” I had to think about this for a while, but as I got the hang of writing classic wire service copy, I began to see the logic. Reporter as conduit. Objectivity, whatever that tricky word means. So in my story about Google Goggles, my editor obliged me to kill a paragraph stating something I knew to be true.

“Even if you know it’s true, someone else has to say it,” she said. “Your story mixes news and editorial.”

I’m not saying she made the wrong call. She’s a very nice woman and she knows a lot more about editing a newspaper than I do. I’m saying that after four days in the Jakarta Globe, I’m beginning to see how deep traditional newsroom culture runs. And I think it’s probably not the right culture for web media.

Classic newsroom values: don’t use material that your competitors came up with, and don’t speak with your own voice. Emerging web values: linking to other people’s work is honest, efficient, and valuable, and each of us is expected to add what we know to the conversation. No wonder there’s been a war brewing between “old” and “new” media.

Another example: yesterday was briefly hacked to point to a screen which claimed that the “Iranian Cyber Army” was behind the attack. In my self-appointed role as the interim technology editor on the Jakarta Globe web team, I felt that we should cover it. Our online readers (and Facebook and Twitter followers) are big into social media and they’d find it interesting. Our options were:

  1. Write an original story on the topic, perhaps making some phone calls to get original quotes.
  2. Run a wire service story on the topic (AP and AFP and probably others had already reported the event)
  3. Reblog or otherwise link to a report elsewhere.

Writing an original story is really time consuming, and duplicates effort — something that an industry facing deep revenue shortages from the loss of their advertising monopoly cannot afford. Web media thinking says 3 is the right answer: find out who has the best coverage and send readers there. But that violates classic newsy values, which say that you should avoid acknowledging the existence of any other publications if at all possible. We went with running the AFP story.

Again, I’m not saying that this was the wrong move, but it does illustrate a classic newsroom practice that doesn’t translate well to the web.

Non-journalists are probably not familiar with newswire services. These are organizations like the Associated Press (AP), Reuters, Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse (AFP) and so on that maintain huge international staffs of reporters spitting out stories as fast as possible. It’s really quite amazing to sit at a terminal and watch the news roll in over the wires, a new story every minute or so from all over the world. Newspapers subscribe to these feeds for thousands of dollars a month, both for the information and for the license to rerun stories.

It’s actually an efficient scheme — how many local papers can afford a Botswana correspondent? Running a wire story is sort of like reblogging for the old media world.

Where this scheme falls down is rewrites. “We spend a huge amount of time chasing wire stories and rewriting them so we can put our own name on it,” a reporter for the International Herald Tribune in Hong Kong told me earlier this month. “It’s stupid.”

And this is part of why wire service stories are dry as toast: the newswire company promises anonymous prose that is easy to rewrite and rebrand. Not only is this a waste of time, but the voicelessness of wire copy is a big problem for the web.

First of all, wire stories are plain text. No links at all. This is not only inconvenient for the user who wants to know more, it’s a transparency problem. The reader can’t tell what the reporter’s references are, or where they are coming from. There is no way to link this story with others by the same person, to get a sense of the author’s experience, knowledge base, and point of view. That is the difference between linking to a blog which has a public identity and history, and running a wire service story which is intentionally anonymous and therefore opaque.

Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post has summed this up masterfully by saying that the web “abhors lack of voice.”

So what’s the “right” approach? Exactly what the blog media have been doing: do what you do best and link to the rest. There are only two useful things a newsroom can do:

  1. Put new content online by doing original reporting
  2. Filter the internet to tell users where to find other good stuff.

I think a news organization has to do original reporting in some form to be worthy of the name. To develop authority and convince its audience to listen, it probably has to let its reporters expertise shine through. What newsrooms don’t seem to understand yet (and Google does) is that filtering is just as useful, if not more so. Running or rewriting wire copy does serve to inform the reader, but linking is far more efficient for the newsroom and far more useful to the reader. Any organization that wants readers to come to its site first can ill afford to pretend that the reader doesn’t want the rest of the web too.