Who will fill Singapore’s online media vacuum?



November 1st, 2007

Critics have long prophesied the demise of the traditional media as the internet increased its reach worldwide. Bill Gates once predicted that within five years, all newspapers would be online, and traditional media would face “tremendous upheaval wrought by technology.”

Most major newspapers and news agencies have already begun harnessing internet technology to enhance its content. The New York Times, in a much-lauded move, ceased charging for its online content on 18 September 2007, also making available free-of-charge its extensive archive of past stories.

The Singapore media, however, had been rather muted in its response, until recently.

Internet Users: The Most Influential Consumer

Media companies are now aware of the fact that internet users are becoming the dominant consumer of media content. With the explosion of the internet and Web 2.0, the youth are fast disengaging themselves from traditional media, instead wrapping their lifestyle around the computer screen.

A typical internet-savvy youth spends less time watching television and reading a broadsheet, but more hours surfing the internet. He gets his news fix on a RSS reader, listens to podcasts rather than the local radio station, and spends his free time watching anime on YouTube and ‘poking’ his friends on Facebook.

In the U.S, print advertising revenues are declining at an alarming rate. According to Bizreport, U.S.A Today’s ad revenue fell 14% from February 2006 to February this year, while The New York Times registered a drop of 6%.

This was contrasted with online advertising, which grew 31% in revenue over the same period.

Even online classifieds like Craigslist are giving print classifieds a run for their money. CNNMoney.com documented how the website had cost newspapers in the San Francisco Bay area US$50 million – US$65 million in advertisement revenue. This was attributed to the low cost of putting up advertisements on Craigslist.

Resistance to Change

The Straits Times has been slow in adopting changes. The Online edition offers a paltry amount of stories for free, while the rest of the content is available via a subscription service.

While subscribing to the online edition of ST is cheaper than the print edition, most major newspapers worldwide now offer their online content for free. The Straits Times is taking a cautious approach towards internet technology, but at what cost?

The mass migration of news consumers to the internet is unstoppable. While The Straits Times is hoping to capitalise on the online market by charging its readers, this tactic actually hurts online advertisement revenue.

By limiting content online, it is driving visitors away – to better pastures. The typical consumer would rather read free content in blogs and other newspaper websites than pay a subscription rate.

The Straits Times’ content cannot compete with the sheer amount of better material journalism available online, and free-of-charge.

The New York Times, on the other hand, has realised that it can earn much more from online advertising than revenue from subscription charges. Free access leads to an exponential increase in visitors, which advertisers would pay lucrative sums to tap into.

Perhaps the start of SPH Search signals a paradigm shift within the ranks of SPH, which aims to roll out the service by next year. Specialising in highly localised search, SPH Search will include information compiled from all major SPH publications.

If it is as good as it sounds, then we are seeing what could be the start of a revolution in the way information is accessed in Singapore.

First-World Penetration, Third-World Content

While we may lampoon at how Singapore’s traditional media is primitive in terms of web presence as compared to other countries, we must acknowledge that even the blogging scene – and the alternative media in general – is lagging behind.

While Singapore is first-world in terms of internet penetration – we are among the most developed – our alternative media is unfortunately of third-world standard compared to Malaysia

Malaysiakini and Harakah are two good examples: both are online dailies that hire full-time professional journalists. If you compare Think Centre with these two sites, there is too much of a gap. There is no equivalent of an online news daily here in Singapore.

The lack of comparable content in local alternative media could be due to the lack of support by credible opposition parties. Harakah is started by the Islamic Party of Malaysia, which enjoys strong support from the Malaysian populace.

Local blogs are run by people who happen to be free on a Sunday night – they are not professional journalists.

The Online Media Vacuum

While opposition backing may give alternative media a much-needed shot in the arm, it is not the only option. Corporate investment and foundation funding are pursuable alternatives. Perhaps the local media can learn from Ohmynews, a citizen journalism news site that secured US$11 million in funding from Softbank Corp. to help start Ohmynews Japan.

Even though political goodwill may be lacking in Singapore, money still talks. The Straits Times is headed by a Board of Directors which is driven more by commercial gain than ideology. If financial backing can be secured, then an online news daily in Singapore could become a possibility.

Singapore is now experiencing an “Online Media Vacuum”, where the lack of easy online access to credible local journalism is driving readers to the next best alternatives – blogs and foreign newpapers. The internet is unfettered by geographical boundaries and expensive printing costs. The demand for local news exists online, not just locally, but from abroad. Online media companies can now take aim at the world – in a way that could never be done before.

With no media licensing currently governing the internet, and the low barrier-to-entry of starting an online media entity, the way is now open for media professionals to exploit the online frontier. This could pave the way for more media companies to create online content, ending the media duopoly facing Singapore today.

Online Media Professionals

Be it a professional journalist from The Straits Times or a prominent blogger, there is an urgent need for these people to fill the gap that is now left wide open, to become Online Media Professionals that will provide up-to-date, credible, and thought-provoking news content to internet-savvy readers in Singapore and beyond.

While print media will still have a strong demand for years to come, with magazines like Arena and Lexean (God bless them) providing compelling reads for consumers, online media will be a mainstay for the indefinite future.

Indeed, the advantages of the internet are numerous. It provides instant reporting and instant feedback – facilitating lively political discourse in what is known as the “public sphere”. It expands the market beyond geographical boundaries, allowing media companies to exploit greater economic possibilities.

The debate should not be about whether new media will hasten the demise of traditional media; that is a fallacy. The exponential rise in demand generated by the internet will allow both mainstream and alternative media to not just co-exist, but prosper.

Major media players in Singapore must know their role in working towards a more vibrant press culture. After all, it was Goh Chok Tong who said that journalists and editors must “know what works for Singapore and how to advance our society’s collective interests.”

– Terence Lee is a freshman at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. He blogs at http://themadmadworld.blogspot.com.

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