Features

My media habits: Kevin Lam, Sinclair executive director

Sinclair’s executive director Kevin Lam laments the loss of serendipity thanks to the recommendation engines that now dominate our lives – and provides a blueprint of the media he makes sure he never misses – in an in-depth conversation with Mumbrella's Dean Carroll

Lam likes serendipity in his media consumption

What are your must-read news sources you can’t live without on a daily basis, and why are those particular media titles so important to you?

“I read at least one English and one Chinese media platform on a daily basis. In terms of titles, I have a list of must-read sources that I change on a regular basis in order to get different views and perspective.

“Apart from the BBC, CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, People’s Daily and other well-known titles, I have a few special recommendations. Chinese language publication wallstreetcn.com (no affiliation to The Wall Street Journal) provides insightful analysis of both Chinese and global economic trends and policy.

“The comment section is worth a read too. In English, Nikkei Asian Review is a great addition for a unique perspective. Truth is like the parable of the blind men and an elephant. The only way to be closer to the truth is by being open to different perspectives.”

In terms of news consumption – do you prefer print, television, radio, websites, newsletters, social networks, blogs, apps or something else entirely?

“Different channels are restricted by the format of the platform itself. And so, presentation and key target audience varies.

“I enjoy a mix of print, television, websites, social networks, apps, newsletters and even radio, which is perfect to listen to while I’m driving.

“I’ve recently heard quite a lot of people say that sharing news and comments on social networks is unacceptable. People have been doing this for years, but until recently we’ve had no way of knowing what others think.”   

Do you prefer long-form or short-form content?

“Long-form at home, short-form when travelling. Short-form is obviously less time-consuming, so I turn to this when I’m on the mass transit railway system in Hong Kong and on a short flight, as it gives me a good overview of what’s happening in the world.

“But short-form is like a movie trailer. I’ll select some stories that I think are most impactful to the world and my industry and dig deeper with long-form pieces when I’m relaxing at home.”

Can you name your favourite journalist and set out what makes them great?

“Storytelling skills are more important today than perhaps they ever have been. How do you present a news story to be easy-to-understand and relevant, but still with enough information for audience to think about larger issues at play?

Steve Kroft from 60 Minutes

“I’ve watched 60 Minutes since I was in primary school. Steve Kroft is a long-time favourite, as I could follow stories he presented even I was young.

“Japanese journalist Akira Ikegami is another excellent journalist, a master at breaking down complex news into a digestible stories that still hold my attention.”

What piece of journalism has changed the game in recent times, in your view?

“In the age of over-information, I think it’s not only traditional journalism that can impact the game, but citizen journalism, especially in the political realm. We call this ‘self-journalism’ in Chinese.

“An example we are all familiar with is Donald Trump’s infamous Twitter account — it doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with his tweets.

“Everyone, in particular politicians and CEOs, can share first-hand information through their own social platforms which then have the potential to go viral due to the innately shareable nature of social media.”

Are there any titles you have paid subscriptions to?

“There are few, like The Economist. Some of those that I previously subscribed to have recently changed from paid to free, such as the South China Morning Post.

“As an ex-journalist, I try to support all media as much as I can. It is the responsibility of the reader to support media groups who in turn support quality journalism.”

In terms of films and shows, is your preference for terrestrial television or streaming platforms like Netflix?

“I have found myself using streaming platforms more than terrestrial television over the last few years as it is more flexible. However, I’m not a fan of streaming platforms that recommend similar entertainment options to me.”

Are recommendation engines a good thing or do they cancel out the joy of serendipity?

“They absolutely cancel the joy of serendipity. They only help us delve further into our own pre-existing perspectives. What would the world look like if we were surrounded by a lot of information, but just one point of view?”  

What was the best film you saw of late – and can you describe why it made an impression on you?

A still from Document 72 Hours

“I generally enjoy documentaries more than movies. Cinema these days is lacking in creativity. I highly recommend the NHK series Document 72 Hours.

“Every episode summarises 72 hours in a single location, such as a convenience store or a restaurant, showing the hidden stories of common people. These real, human stories can be quite touching.”

And what shows do you consider to be event TV, those programmes you just have to watch and can’t contemplate missing?

“My busy schedule means that I can’t really do event TV. If I sit in front of the TV (actually a laptop), it’s because I want to watch football, the NBA, or some tennis.

“In terms of must-watch TV, I’ve just started the second season of Narcos on Netflix. I enjoy series like this that arouse my interest in other countries or cities. I’ve even been inspired to read a few books about the history of Columbia.”  

In terms of devices, how do you access content most often – on mobile, desktop, tablet, laptop or television?

“It depends on the kind of content. If it’s a documentary, movie, sports event, I use my laptop as the monitor is bigger. For news, mobile is king – it’s quick and easy.”

And moving on, what’s been your favourite book in recent times?

“I read at least one book from three to four different categories at the same time including but not limited to history, fiction and social science. I choose based on my mood on the day.

“The most recent addition to my shelf is The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton. Although Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy isn’t a very recent read, I highly recommend it.

“This book is based on true stories of ordinary North Koreans; the plot seems more fictional than fiction.”

So Kindle or hard copy?

“Hard copy, 100 per cent. I like the texture of paper, and I find that physically holding a book also holds my concentration, so I have no problem reading for even several hours.

“But using technology, like a Kindle, I can’t hold it for more than an hour. To be fair though, Kindle is very easy to use during a flight.”

And now to music. How do you buy and consume music?

“Usually through an app because it’s convenient. But I still enjoy shopping at CD stores, because, you can often find something you did not know about. But on an app, you search by what you know already.”

Which musical artists appeal to your tastes right now?

“I am not a big fan; I don’t really have any favourites.”

Social networks: hero or villain when it comes to giving you access to content?

“Hero, because that’s how I use it. Social networks are these lawless spaces in which there is little scrutiny on credibility of content sources, so you need to be able to understand where your information is coming from.”

And are social networks like Facebook and Twitter actually media companies these days in your view, even though that is something they deny – perhaps to avoid further regulation?

“This is a tricky one. Social networks like Facebook or Twitter do function more like media platforms, but something like Tencent is actually creating content and functions as a multimedia company that produces videos and news stories.

“There’s a grey area though with social networks that don’t create content, but prioritise certain news pieces or stories through their algorithms. What we see as hot topics can be highly influenced by them. In an ever-changing digital landscape, regulation all over the world is so outdated.”

In the digital world, algorithms rather than humans are the media gatekeepers. Do you miss the old days when the likes of journalists, critics and broadcasters played that qualitative role, or have we simply evolved to a better quantitative system?

“I believe the quantitative system will keep evolving to respond to the changing needs at specific points in time. It’s not necessarily better, but more about fitting to current needs.

“In a world with more choices, the likes of journalists, critics and broadcasters still have a role to play, but perhaps they’re not as dominant as before. I don’t think we can entirely depend on algorithms.”

Finally, what does the future hold for the media space in your view – will artificial intelligence and virtual personal assistants take over to the point where we just trust the machines to tell us what we want to consume, in terms of news and entertainment?

“It depends entirely on our relationship with these machines. Originally, they were built for making life easier and more convenient. But unfortunately, I see many people who are controlled by the algorithms and just follow recommendations. 

“Although we need to remember that there are many options: we can still go to stores and read physical books, we can still put pen to paper and write letters rather than messaging. It is all in our hands.”

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