Singapore Press Holdings bloodied and confused, part 2

I don’t think anyone has yet figured out what a viable business model for post-print journalism will look like. As Singapore Press Holdings’ (SPH) FY2017 results indicate, even while circulation is holding up, advertising revenue continues to be in freefall. The problem seems to be that print circulation brings in more advertising revenue than digital subscription. So even as digital makes up for print’s decline numbers-wise, revenue is reduced. This is true for other newspapers, such as the New York Times, as I mentioned in Part 1.

The future that such a trend suggests is one where a newspaper is going to need much larger subscription numbers to be viable, once advertising revenue per subscription is assumed to be permanently lower. This may be achievable in markets with population in the hundreds of millions, but Singapore is not such a market. On the other hand, with SPH’s main titles in international languages — English and Chinese — one can glimpse an opportunity to tap a market bigger than Singapore.

SPH chief executive Ng Yat Chung’s talk of “improv[ing] our regional reach and flagship products beyond Singapore” appears to point in the same direction, but getting there will be very hard. Given the steel balls chained to SPH’s feet, courtesy of the Singapore government, you could rate the chances at something like zero percent.

The opportunity

If you want deep, insightful coverage of China affairs in the English language, there is the South China Morning Post. But there isn’t any equivalent for coverage of Southeast Asian affairs. I can sense an opportunity for a newspaper — and here I use the word to include digital — to own this space.  The opportunity is in both English and Chinese, to cater to the two major groups of outsiders (e.g. expat businessmen, academics) with a need to keep abreast of the region, as well as educated Southeast Asians themselves keen on reporting that is independent of their own governments.

However, no newspaper from SPH’s stable will get anywhere near such a goal given SPH’s editorial culture. You cannot have deep insightful coverage without political independence, without a culture of chasing a story wherever it may lead.

Aggregator of official statements

It is perhaps otiose to repeat that SPH is way too deferential to authorities’ agenda. In the past when I read the Straits Times regularly, there were days when page after page, it was this minister said this and another minister said that. Even stories about some problem, e.g. too many beer bars popping up in a certain district, tended to lead with official assurances that the matter was being dealt with. On days when I was really frustrated, I used to call the paper merely an aggregator of official statements. SPH to easily forgets that if readers merely want to refer to an aggregator of official statements — see header pic for example — they can always turn to Channel NewsAsia. CNA has one competitive advantage. It is free. Why should people pay to read an SPH newspaper when there is a free alternative offering the same thing?

Would a culture of meekness locally stand in the way of reporting on the region? Could it not still own the Southeast Asia news space?

Yes to the first question, and thus, no to the second question.

Corporate culture is not something you can firewall one side from another side of the same organisation. After all, the stories will end up at the same top editors’ desks. Nor should we forget that the potential market is not a market for aggregating official statements from all Asean governments, but a market for deep insightful journalism. This must include investigative journalism and some sharp commentary. After all, you’re hoping people will pay for your product. You had better give them enough value.

Take for example, SarawakReport.org‘s reporting of the Malaysian 1MDB scandal. If you’ve been following it, you’ll agree it is top notch. It is exactly what Southeast Asian reporting needs, because in this region, we’re so full of venal and tyrannical governments.

Take too this commentary carried by The Diplomat, titled “What Went Wrong With Cambodia’s Opposition Party” by Ben Paviour. He writes:

“The CNRP leadership had twin constraints: it is a party that respects the ‘rule of law’ until the bitter end and is determined to avoid any bloodshed,” Noren-Nilsson said. “Never giving up on mass protests, regardless of what violence might follow — and the human cost might have been staggering — could perhaps have allowed the CNRP to stay in the game.”

There are other tools the CNRP might have put to use. U.S. political scholars Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik analyzed democratic movements in Ukraine, Serbia, and elsewhere that successfully toppled quasi-autocratic regimes in their a 2010 paper “Defeating Dictators: Electoral Change and Stability in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes.”

The academics found that successful opposition parties coordinated with civil society and Western governments to mount a variety of approaches to weaken the government ahead of elections, including leaked public opinion polls and voter registration drives. But they acknowledged that the parties had to convince the electorate to vote for them and “defend their choices in the streets — a very tall order.”

Will the Straits Times dare publish a commentary like this, suggesting the need for street protests against quasi-autocratic regimes? Will it doggedly pursue a story like SawarakReport has done? But if Straits Times and SPH cannot, how can they ever hope to deliver enough substance and value for people outside Singapore — who have no shortage of choice, unlike Singaporeans — to willingly sign up to subscribe? How to capture the millions more of paying readers to turn its fortunes around?

You may argue that the above examples are hypothetical. Well, then, check out this proposed commentary that Transient Workers Count Too sent to the Straits Times. At the professional level, the editors passed it for publication. Then at the last minute, it was pulled — by a higher level of editors. Even this innocuous article cannot see the light of day for what is likely a hidden reason.

One might argue that once SPH gets into reporting from outside Singapore, it need not be subservient to the Singapore government — at least over foreign news. This is a false hope. Imagine if it carried an investigative story that touches a foreign government’s nerve. All it would take is a phone call from that country’s foreign ministry to ours, and a subsequent call from our foreign ministry to SPH’s editors, warning them of the diplomatic consequences if they continued to pursue the intended line of enquiry. That would be the end of it. SPH can never be independent of any government is if it is not independent of the Singapore government.

‘Balanced and trustworthy’ is fool’s gold

I have one last point to make. We often hear the claim that our mainstream media (which is just a duopoly of SPH and Mediacorp) provide balanced and trustworthy journalism. In the first place, this claim is highly questionable. No objective analysis of content and style in SPH’s newspapers is going to support that assertion. Test: Do Singapore opposition leaders feature on SPH’s front pages as frequently as opposition leaders in the West on their newspapers’ front pages in their countries? Secondly, it seems to me that people in SPH have relied on this delusion to somehow think that such a property is sufficient to justify their existence and give them commercial value. It is a delusion for the simple fact that it is false, and therefore the commercial value is no more than a figment of their imagination. If they are thinking that this (and I repeat: it’s a delusion) alone will give wing to their regional aspirations, a crash is a certainty.

But even if a title has a genuine reputation for ‘balanced and trustworthy’, I think it is worth interrogating whether it is enough to sustain any newspaper; whether the commercial value extractable from such a reputation is enough to keep an operation afloat. I think not. I think people look for far more than just these passive qualities in their chosen media. People tend to want something more aggressive, more goal-oriented in reporting. Especially if they are expected to pay.

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