December 10th, 2009
Within Singapore’s increasingly influential new media sphere, Temasek Review (TR) has emerged as one of the more controversial players. With an ambitious mission statement and vision, TR was quickly regarded as a site to watch. In recent months however, it has been mired in controversy. The blogosphere has been set alight with a flurry of discussions about TR, with some netizens expressing a curiosity about its motives while others have openly attacked it.
TR remains as ambitious as ever. “In ten years’ time, the internet will emerge as the primary source of news for many Singaporeans and we want to be a key player when that happens,” its caretaker manager said in an e-mail interview (full text below). He said the target was to register as a company, earn revenue through advertising and employ full-time journalists – something no socio-political website in Singapore has managed to do. Refusing to divulge more details, he said that the website was still “exploring the best option to take”, citing Malaysiakini and Huffington Post as possible models that his website might want to emulate.
The representative agreed to the interview on condition of anonymity, saying that this was in line with TR’s policy to “keep a loose structure for the time being” as the website was still finalising its organisational setup. Such coyness is one reason why many netizens are suspicious. Although many sites allow anonymous comments, Singapore’s most influential independent sites have founders who were open about their own identities from day one. These range from the Singapore’s first online magazine, Sintercom (Tan Chong Kee) and the grandfather of blogs, Yawning Bread (Alex Au), to later arrivals such as The Online Citizen (Choo Zheng Xi), Mr Brown (Lee Kim Mun), and even hard-hitting activist sites such as Singapore Rebel (Martyn See).
In contrast, TR has a page dedicated to the profiles of its columnists, but its leadership remains incognito. Some of its people are from Wayangparty.com, which is now inactive. A significant number of the website’s articles are attributed to nameless “Correspondents”. This shroud of secrecy has led to rampant speculation about TR’s motives, with some suggesting that the website is not quite the “independent, balanced and unbiased” Internet newspaper it has positioned itself to be.
The caretaker manager who answered our queries was not too fazed by such rumours. He said that “content is more important than the writer”, citing how other news entities like The Economist and Malaysiakini regularly do not attribute articles to any specific writer. He added that many of the website’s writers were not comfortable to reveal their real identities, but the number of hits on their articles showed that readers were not too turned off by their anonymity. Discounting what he called the “traditional view that a site has to be run by credible people”, he said that what was more important for a website like Temasek Review was to build its influence through increased readership even if that meant quality was sometimes compromised.
TR has also been accused of wanton plagiarism. Recently, an anonymous blogger set up a blog highlighting several instances where content generated by elite news entities like AFP, Voice of America and China’s People Daily were passed of as original content on Temasek Review. The bylines at the beginning of these articles attributed them to TR’s own “Correspondent”.
The manager of Temasek Review dismissed these allegations, stating that the articles quoted in the blog “all have the sources stated at the bottom which he (the blogger) had deliberately chosen to omit when cropping them”. According to him, such a copy and paste method of news aggregation employed by Temasek Review was justified, considering how mainstream newspapers like The Straits Times regularly republished international news content produced by the wire agencies. He further added that the website could not be faulted “as long as we quote the source of the news” and that “everything posted in the Internet is for sharing under a Common Licensing Scheme unless explicitly stated otherwise”.
TR states on its site that it is a subscriber to various news sources. However, it may be ignoring the fact that individual subscriptions to news media do not include the right to reproduce their content. Indeed, commercial news media explicit forbid such unlicensed use of their stories and visuals. In this age of news aggregation, most news organisations have allowed news aggregators like The Huffington Post and Google News to carry link headlines and excerpts, as long as the full article remains on the source’s website. TR, however, reproduces others’ articles on its own site. Its sources don’t seem to have taken offence so far, probably because TR is still too small a player to worry about. If TR becomes as big a player as it wants to be, however, its copy-and-paste journalism will probably attract a few lawyers’ letters for copyright infringement.
Though profits are not the ultimate objective of Temasek Review, the plan is for it to be self-sustaining in the long term. It was revealed to us that the website is currently “fully self-funded”, with the caretaker manager one of the contributors. “It does not cost much to maintain the website at this stage”, he said. Part of the website’s financial strategy is also to have advertisement revenue from its sister website East Asia Review subsidise operating costs.
The ambitious plans of the website seem to have no place for other players in the local new media scene. When asked about the relationship between Temasek Review and other independent new media entities, its caretaker manager’s answer was curt: “We are not really keen to collaborate with others. We prefer to mind our own business”.
It remains to be seen how the website can deliver on its plans to become a professionally-run commercial outfit, with only a select few of such websites able to generate enough advertising and subscription revenue to hire journalists and other backroom staff. Temasek Review is still some way off from becoming the fully-fledged online newspaper a la Malaysiakini that its caretaker manager envisions it to be.
One thing that’s certain is that if it wants to register itself as a firm in Singapore, it will have to change its name. As the old name for Singapore, “Temasek” can’t be used by just anybody. If TR tries to register it at bizfile.gov.sg, it will get the automated reply, “Your name is considered undesirable for use in a business entity.”
THE FULL INTERVIEW
On who’s behind Temasek Review
Your ‘About Us’ page offers readers quite a comprehensive view of TR’s vision as well as a general scope of the type of news you cover. However it does not delve into the origins of the website. What spurred the proprietors and contributors of Wayang Party to set up TR? What was it that you felt a news website could do that a simple blog could not?
TR is an evolving project and we are still quite far away from our eventual goal of becoming a full-fledged internet newspaper like Malaysiakini. We see a lot of potential in the growth of this industry in the future which TR is already in a pole position to take advantage of it. The print media is a sunset industry. In ten years’ time, the internet will emerge as the primary source of news for many Singaporeans and we want to be a key player when that happens.
Quite a significant amount of content on TR is attributed to ‘Our Correspondent’. Could you tell us the rationale behind this anonymity? Wouldn’t it be more credible for your writers use their own names?
The content is more important than the writer. In fact, many established news magazines and websites do not attribute their articles to any particular writer, e.g. the Economist, Malaysiakini, The Malaysian Insider, Asia Sentinel and even the Straits Times. This has been our practice all along and it had not stopped readers from visiting our site. Of course if we have paid journalists on the team one day, they are expected to pen their names down for every article they write. While there will be some readers who are put off by anonymous writers, most will not care a hoot about it.
TR has no Chief Editor currently. Why is this so? Who then is overall in charge in TR and who is ultimately responsible for the editorial integrity of the website?
We used to have one managing editor, but she is not doing a good job. Right now, we are still searching for one, preferably a trained journalist who share our vision. It is more important to find the right person rather than just to get somebody to fill the role.
What roles do Mr Abdul Gafoor and Ms Tashia Dixon play in TR?
Abdul Gafoor runs his own academic column autonomously on TR as he is a researcher himself. Tashia Dixon is currently taking charge of a project we have spun off. She is not involving in the editorial work.
TR has a page with the profiles of your writers. Judging from their profiles, your writers seem to come from quite a diverse backgrounds. What is your recruitment process like, how do you assess that the writers have what it takes to write for TR?
They just simply drop us an email and offer to write for us. We want to have as large a pool of writers as possible from different backgrounds in order to add diversity to the content of the site.
Could you briefly outline your policy on moderation of comments on TR?
We have four administrators as of now and each has their own guidelines. In general, all comments touching on race and religion will be censored as well as vulgarities, offensive and potentially defamatory comments.
Anonymous commentators on the blogosphere have been speculating about the financing of your website. Perhaps you might want to put the rumours to rest. Who are the proprietors of the website and could you outline all of TR’s sources of revenue?
We are entirely self-funded and I am one of the contributors. It does not cost much to maintain TR at this stage, but we will need to secure more investments if we are to go further.
With regards to revenue, I caught a comment by an ‘admin’ that your sister website the East Asia Review is essential in getting advertising revenue for your future company to stay afloat. What is the current status of East Asia Review? How successful has TR and East Asia Review been in attracting advertising revenue?
As you should know, the revenue from google advertising is pathetic.
There have been accusations of plagiarism. There’s even a website set up to highlight this alleged plagiarism. There seems to be a lack of distinction between news aggregation and actual generation of original content: the ‘By our correspondent’ at the start of these articles has the effect of misleading readers. Your comments?
All our world articles are aggregated from other sites which we will always publish the source at the bottom like the Straits Times. As for the blogger who took the trouble to set up a blog to accuse us of plagiarism, we must really thank him for the publicity. The “plagiarized” articles he quoted all have the sources stated at the bottom which he had deliberately chose to omit when cropping them. Our regular readers will know that there is absolutely no basis in his allegations at all. For netizens who are not aware of our site, it will only make them more curious to know about us. Readers can judge for themselves whether the articles we produced on TR are plagiarized from elsewhere. They will not be so stupid to believe whatever the site says. We can’t survive for so long on plagiarism alone, can we?
You seem to be saying that it is OK to copy and paste as long as you credit the source at the bottom. You also use pictures that you don’t have rights to. Is copyright a non-issue to you?
Of course copyright is an issue to us. Everything posted on the internet is for sharing under a Common Licensing Scheme unless it is explicitly stated otherwise like Asia Times and Financial Times. As long we quote the source of the news, I don’t think anybody can find fault with us. If you look at the Straits Times, most of its world news are republished from AFP and Reuters and they don’t even bother to print the source at the beginning of the article unlike us. South China Morning Post republishes articles on China from Reuters as well. If you check out our featured gallery, you will realize we publish the source of every photos we took from elsewhere.
On relations with other blogs
What kind of relationship do you have with other bloggers or news websites like TOC? What kind of relationship do you think exists between independent new media practitioners in Singapore? Is It collaborative or adversarial and why?
We are not really keen to collaborate with others. We prefer to mind our own business.
What do you think sets you apart from TOC? Is there a conscious effort on your part to build a comparative advantage over TOC, especially since the your audience is similar to theirs? What is TR’s unique selling point?
We have never compared ourselves to other sites or set out specifically to build an advantage over them. We are pretty clear about the end-point and everything we do must bring us closer to the eventual goal. The rest doesn’t matter.
On the tiff with SPH
Your recent spat with Geoffrey Pereira of SPH regarding the alleged DDOS attacks on TR is an issue of contention in the local new media. Judging from the comments of readers with knowledge about the technicalities, such an allegation by TR was misplaced because it cannot be definitively confirmed. How has TR resolved the issue and do you still stand by your initial allegations?
We had never accused SPH of attacking our site from the very beginning. It was Geoffrey who chose to obfuscate the matter and turned it into an attack on our credibility. In the end, he still hasn’t answered the key question if SPH has “grabbed” content from our site. We have since banned all SPH IP addresses from accessing TR which will resolve the problem once and for all. As far as we are concerned, the matter is now closed and we don’t see any need to dredge it up again.
On turning professional
What are TR’s plans for the future – short term (2010) and long term?
There will be major changes along the way including a complete revamp of the existing site and the addition of other sister sites. The next step is of course to register a company after which it will make it easier for us to employ journalists. Right now, we are just republishing news from elsewhere. We want to start producing original news of our own. Only then will we be able to take the next leap forward.
Very few websites, whether news organisations or independent sites, have been able to generate enough advertising or subscription revenue to hire journalists. What’s your strategy to succeed where thousands around the world have failed?
I can name you three successful websites run by full-time journalists off-hand – Huffington Post, Malaysiakini and Merdeka Review. There are two others which may not be considered as very successful but have managed to keep themselves afloat for quite sometime – Irrawaddy and Asia Sentinel. Right now, we are still exploring the best option to take. We do not really need a large team of journalists like Malaysiakini. Just one or two will be fine. Though profit-making is not our ultimate motive, we do hope to keep the sites self-sustaining in the long run. That’s why we have to get the right people in. If you are in it for the money only, then you are going to get disappointed because there isn’t a lot of money to be made in the first place.
Although many professional media carry unsigned articles, no professional media hide the identities of their editors and management teams. Some of your leaders, however, prefer to remain in the shadows. In this respect, you behave more like amateur blogs than like professional websites. The way you lift others’ content also makes you more similar to amateur blogs than to professional sites. Yet, you claim that your end-goal is to be a commercially viable internet news site. How do you plan to earn the trust of advertisers and investors if you remain in the shadows?
Temasek Review is still an amateur blog and we are not afraid to admit that. Because we are amateurs, the standard expected of us is lower than professional sites and we are given plenty of leeway to explore and make mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable in the process without which we cannot identity our weaknesses and rectify them. In a way, TR is an ongoing experiment, it will continue to evolve and develop with time. It is not fair to accuse of us of “lifting” contents from elsewhere. The Straits Times does it everyday. Even some of its opinion pieces are replicated from Project Syndicate, New York Times and other sites while we write our own articles, so do you consider us to be more “professional” than Straits Times in this aspect?
Our past experience have shown us that the content of a news site is what that matters most, not the identity of its editors or owners. You can have a team of known PhD journalists blogging on a site, but it won’t make it a success. Take for example the P65 site, it was run by the PAP MPs and has the support of the government and mainstream media, but why didn’t it take off?
We have many freelance columnists who are not comfortable to reveal their identities, but they write very good articles and we often publish them anonymously. Yet these are the articles which attract more hits than those written by known writers on our site.
The traditional view that a site has to be run by credible known people is grossly outdated. In the online media, readership is what counts – the more readers a site has, the more influential it will become. Quality journalism deserves an audience. Beggars can’t be choosy. TR has to work within its constraints to build up its readership first sometimes at the expense of quality, but without readership, then we can’t even sustain the site in the long run.
In order to attract advertisers, we need to have a business model in place first to liaise with them which is what we are trying to do now. Of course they will know who they are dealing with. They can’t be talking to “shadows”, can they?
Finally, any parting comments to your readers with regards to the recent controversies surrounding the website?
They have already dissipated. We can’t control what other people say about us, we can only concentrate on our work which is to provide an alternative source of news in Singapore. These controversies / speculations will not hurt us a bit. On the contrary, they have helped to boost our readership instead. That’s how the internet works. It is impossible to discredit or demolish anybody or website without giving it free publicity. Tongues may wag for a while, but it will all be forgotten soon. We are quite flattered by the attention given to TR. Nobody will take notice of you if you are just an unknown.