November 10th, 2010
The Government has used the opportunity of Today‘s 10th anniversary to signal that it is not utterly opposed to critical views appearing in the mainstream press. In his congratulatory message, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the newspaper publishes “a broad spectrum of opinions and commentary” and encouraged it to “continue to report fairly, bravely and thoughtfully”.
Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong continued with this theme in his speech at the anniversary dinner. He noted Today‘s effort to offer “a variety of opinions and perspectives”. He added: “I may not always agree with them but at least they set you thinking, which is TODAY’s motto. I support the newspaper’s aim to get its readers thinking about the issues of the day. For I believe that only a thinking population who cares about the future of Singapore can sustain our growth and prosperity.”
The messages do not represent any fundamental shift in the PAP’s philosophy on the role of the press. (At its 5th anniversary dinner, Goh said he did not favour a “subservient” or “unthinking” press.) However, this week’s remarks could be read as an oblique reference to one of the most notorious episodes in Today‘s short history: its cancelling of blogger Mr Brown’s column in 2006 after the government issued a stinging response to one of his articles. Responding to public disquiet, the government said at the time that axeing Mr Brown was the Today editors’ own decision.
The intriguing question now is which Today PM Lee and SM Goh were referring to when they endorsed its diversity of opinion: the Today prior to the Brown-out of 6 July 2006, or today’s somewhat more muted Today. Exactly how its editors interpret the government’s signal should become evident in the coming months and years.
Speech by Mr Goh Chok Tong, Senior Minister, at the 10th Anniversary of Today Newspaper, 10 November 2010.
Five years ago, at TODAY newspaper’s 5th anniversary dinner, I spoke on the need to develop our own model of a responsible, lively and credible media. I also encouraged TODAY to strengthen its position within the product space between The Straits Times and The New Paper.
TODAY has since done well. It is now the second most read newspaper in Singapore with a readership of almost 700,000, a 30 per cent growth since five years ago. It has a good reach, with about 18 per cent of the adult population reading the paper daily. More importantly, TODAY has been profitable since 2005.
I think TODAY’s success owes much to its distinctive editorial approach and presentation style. It is a serious newspaper which offers a variety of opinions and perspectives. I may not always agree with them but at least they set you thinking, which is TODAY’s motto. I support the newspaper’s aim to get its readers thinking about the issues of the day. For I believe that only a thinking population who cares about the future of Singapore can sustain our growth and prosperity.
I also commend TODAY for engaging the community and promoting good causes. Last year, TODAY engaged the community to produce a coffee table book, “My Life: Then and Now” which recounts how Singapore and the lives of Singaporeans have been transformed over the past 50 years since self-rule. Singaporeans sent in some 1000 pictures, several hundred of which were selected for the book. The Singapore Women’s Award, which was hosted last year by TODAY is another example. The award, honouring a Singaporean woman each year for her exceptional achievements, has inspired many Singaporean women. More can probably be done to advance good community causes.
Changing Times: Old vs. New Media
Despite the advent of new media, newspapers are still doing well. More than 500 million people buy a newspaper every day, up 5.7 per cent from 5 years ago, and 1.7 billion people read newspapers daily. But these figures hide the varied fortunes of newspapers in different countries. In America and Europe, readership is declining. On the other hand, newspapers in Asian countries like China, India and Singapore continue to enjoy strong circulation, probably due to increasing levels of education and affluence.
There are many factors which have contributed to the drop in readership in developed countries. The most important factors are probably the widespread use of digital technology and the rise of new media. These trends have brought about many new challenges for the traditional media, and they have also had an impact on newspapers in Singapore.
Firstly, there are many more sources of news. More than 80 percent of Singapore households have broadband internet, and they can easily access the wide range of international publications available online for free. There are also more than thirty news and infotainment channels which pay-TV subscribers can access.
Secondly, there is a growing demand and supply of niche and customised content to suit individual needs. On the Internet, there are millions of sites catering to all kinds of interests. The days when Singaporeans had the choice of only two TV channels and a few newspapers are long gone. This new trend of narrowcasting has led to a segmentation of the market. Unlike broadcasting which reaches out to the mass population, narrowcasting reaches out to an audience with more specific interests. Unfortunately, narrowcasting also draws readers away from traditional papers.
Thirdly, reader-generated news is becoming more common. Readers no longer passively receive the news. They engage with it, react to it and share it with fellow readers. Internet users have begun to expand online news stories with their personal comments and links to relevant information and differing points of view. A recent example was the flash floods in Orchard Road this June. Singaporeans took photos and videos of the floods and uploaded them on news sites, blogs and YouTube. In fact, news of the floods spread rapidly on social media platforms with “Orchard Road” becoming the fourth highest trending topic on Twitter on 16 June this year, trumping even the tweets on the World Cup. The traditional top-down approach where the news provider hands down news to the audience has changed.
Fourthly, digital tools have made the delivery of news more immediate and dynamic. In the past, we read the news in the morning papers and watched the same news on evening television channels. Today, breaking news is sent to our e-mail addresses and smartphones in real-time through services such as Google News. If I were to announce tonight, say, the date of the General Elections, I am sure some of you in the audience would immediately receive a news alert, even as I broke the news to you. In addition, readers now receive news content accompanied by video and audio, making the news much more engaging and absorbing. Each news article is supplemented by links to other articles or websites, and of course, advertisements. The boundaries between the different traditional formats such as print and video have become blurred, and this has changed how audiences want to receive their news.
These trends have led some observers to predict the end of newspapers as we know them. Australia-based futurist Ross Dawson, wrote on his blog that newspapers would cease to exist in the US by 2019, and by 2021 in Finland, Greenland and Singapore. He also said that newsprint would be “insignificant” in 52 countries by 2040, where it would be replaced by technologies such as lightweight, interactive digital paper that could show not only video, but could also be rolled and folded.
Meeting the challenges
The challenges posed by the new media to print media are real. But I believe if our newspapers continue to upgrade and adapt to stay relevant, they can retain strong support among Singaporeans. Let me elaborate.
First, all of us value accurate, balanced and credible sources of news. I am glad to note that local dailies continue to be a trusted source of news and information. A worldwide survey conducted by public relations firm Edelman last year revealed that 68 percent of respondents in Singapore found newspapers to be the most trusted source of information. This is in stark contrast with the 34 percent of international respondents who thought that newspapers were trustworthy. In another survey conducted by Nielsen Media between 2008 and 2009 in Singapore, 75 percent of respondents selected local newspapers as their preferred source of news. These surveys testify to the credibility of the Singapore media, and the trust and confidence they enjoy among Singaporeans. This trust was hard-earned by generations of Singapore journalists who provided timely and accurate reports. It is all too easy to lose this trust if our newspapers descend to shoddy journalism and sensational reporting.
Second, our traditional media will do well if they continue to feature strong local content which resonates with the Singapore public. This calls for an intimate feel of the pulse of our society, a good understanding of the aspirations and concerns of the different communities, and a clear sense of what our national interests are.
Third, besides strong local content, a good newspaper needs highly skilled professionals in the newsroom. The reporters and editors must have the skills to package news stories accurately and in an easy to read manner. Over the years, Singapore newspapers, including TODAY, have built up a good pool of local journalists who understand the constraints, vulnerabilities and fault-lines of our country and the sensitivities present in our multi-racial and multi-religious society. It is good that the newspapers are recruiting young journalists who are better educated, energetic and more in tune with the aspirations of younger readers. However, they do not have as much experience as seasoned reporters. So their insights and analysis tend to be somewhat intellectual at times. Hence, the editors and senior journalists will have to actively guide them and ensure that their idealism is not misplaced, while ensuring that their passion for journalism is sustained. The media companies must also try and retain them so that the better ones will remain to assume senior positions later.
Fourth, traditional newspapers will need to keep up to date with the latest technology, and adapt to how people want to access their news. As we have just heard, TODAY has created an iPad application to cater to news-hungry, tech-savvy readers. This is a timely development.
Role of the Media
The emergence of new media and narrowcasting will give rise to an increasingly individualistic, or what I call an “atomised” society. In such a society, people have access to a vast spectrum of views and programmes online or on the television. They share fewer common experiences and can live in a virtual world of their own. We see this happening in some families. In the past, there was only one television set in the house and everyone watched the same programme. Family members could talk about a popular show or the news as they shared a common reference point. Nowadays, each member of the family can view his or her favourite programme on different televisions, computers or iPads, and there is much less discussion about what they had watched.
This trend will make it more challenging for policy makers to reach out to the citizens and build consensus on important issues. It will be increasingly more difficult for the government to do so in an “atomised” society where people are tuned to a thousand different websites and channels. The authorities will have to compete for eyeballs with the countless other sources of information, ranging from Facebook updates to tweets to blogs to frivolous on-line chatter. In order to develop a consensus, everyone needs to have a common, accurate set of facts and sound analysis to deliberate and base their decisions on. But in this new digital era, there are so many voices on the Internet, and it is difficult to separate truth from fiction and facts from falsehoods.
Therefore, national newspapers such as TODAY play a critical role in disseminating information, providing feedback and building consensus. They have to convince readers that while the Internet may provide a wide range of views and entertaining chatter, the traditional media remains one of the most dependable sources of news, information and commentaries.
Role of the Readers
We, the consumers of news, whether in the traditional or new media, also have a role to play. It is important that we develop a habit of thinking about and verifying what we read or hear. As a principle, we should always check hearsay and what is purveyed on the Internet. As this is not always possible or practical, we need national newspapers which we can turn to for objective, reliable information, insightful analyses and balanced comments.
At the same time, we should not restrict our reading diet only to news and opinions which confirm our own biases. We should explore different views, consider them carefully and come to our own conclusions.
Over the last 10 years, TODAY has kept Singaporeans informed with up to date news and commentaries. Going forward, I hope TODAY and the other local media organisations will continue to be mindful of Singapore’s uniqueness as a country, and help to build a stable, prosperous and cohesive society.
I wish TODAY a happy 10th birthday.