Balji in da house: The Independent is now the site to watch



August 9th, 2013

Shortly before the Media Development Authority made The Independent famous by requiring it to register, a friend who heads a successful news site overseas asked me if this was a breakthrough to be taken seriously. Would Singaporeans finally have a professionally-run, independent and financially viable online news site? In other words, would Singapore reach in 2013 the level that Malaysia, Indonesia and many other Asian neighbours crossed – in the 1990s?

I replied that it depends – on what role Balji would play. P. N. Balji is the former editor of The New Paper and, more significantly, the founding editor-CEO of Today. In the latter capacity, he achieved what nobody had done in a more than a century: take on The Straits Times and survive. Of course, no previous contender had the backing of Temasek Holdings, but that does not diminish his contribution to its success. Most close watchers of Singapore journalism know that Today’s heyday was under his leadership; it has not been the same since he left.

Balji’s name popped up on The Independent’s “About Us” page, but it wasn’t clear in what capacity. If he was just going to be an adviser and occasional contributor, but stay out of the kitchen, The Independent would probably continue the long tradition of sites that promise more than they deliver. However, if he was prepared to take charge and get his hands dirty, things would get interesting, I told my friend.

Today marks the official launch of The Independent, and Balji has been named as Editor. It is still a pretty modest site. There is no indication that it is able to enter the business of daily news reporting and become Singapore’s equivalent of Malaysiakini. And unfortunately, one of Singapore’s top publication designers, Edmund Wee of Epigram, seems to be limiting his role to business strategy rather than giving his magic touch to the look and feel of the site, which in its current form does not inspire confidence.

But I’ll stick to my prediction that this is now the player to watch. It is the first time that a professional news editor/publisher with a proven record in mainstream media is making a serious online foray. As much as citizen journalists like to knock mainstream professionals, the truth is that most high-impact independent news startups in the region have been led by professionals who’ve come from the mainstream – that is true of Malaysiakini in Malaysia, Detik in Indonesia, Tehelka in India, and Rappler in the Philippines.

The news may deal with generalities, but editing the news is a specialised job; and editing it masterfully requires wisdom and judgment that no app or attitude can compensate for. It requires many years of daily practice to develop a competitive level of competence to make sense of the deluge of information out there, to decide what readers need and want to know even before they ask for it, to bring the best out of reporters and columnists, and to catch enough errors, spin, legal traps and ethical pitfalls before they degrade your journalism.

These are core competencies required of editors regardless of whether the end product is a mainstream newspaper or an insurgent alternative website. Of course, the latter requires abandoning some bad habits of mainstream journalism – replacing the lecture with the conversation, in the words of citizen journalism guru Dan Gillmor; and coming out of the protective newsroom environment to think more entrepreneurially.

But, again, while citizen journalists like to cultivate the myth than only those untainted by a mainstream past can absorb the zeitgeist of new media, the truth is that, worldwide, it is often those who’ve succeeded in mainstream journalism who most keenly appreciate what’s special about the internet and what needs to be done to push journalism into the future. That is true of the aforementioned Asian sites and Dan Gillmor (a former technology writer for the San Jose Mercury News), as well as the likes of Rebecca MacKinnon (from CNN to Global Voices Online), Ariana Huffington (from public radio, newspapers and magazines to the Huffington Post), Tina Brown (from Vanity Fair and The New Yorker to the Daily Beast) and Paul Steiger (from Wall Street Journal to ProPublica). Balji has written about his own professional journey; whether he can successfully make the transition – to recycle a journalistic cliché – only time will tell.

No matter how many good journalists are willing to work for The Independent, though, its success will ultimately depend on reader support. Independent websites do attract a significant minority of the Singapore public on a regular basis. Their fans have been vocal in wanting alternative media, and quick to defend them on forums and Facebook. The big question is whether they are prepared to put their money where their mouths and eyeballs are.

To build anything close to a Malaysiakini and compete head-on with or, a site would have to budget something like a million dollars a year just for its editorial department. Since the The Independent is banned from receiving grants and loans from foreign foundations – how most independent news startups in the region were launched – it would need 10,000 subscribers paying $100 a year to sustain its editorial team. Considering how much Singaporeans will be forking out to watch the English Premier League in the coming season, or how much they pay for visits to the cinema each year, this isn’t really a lot. But try telling that to netizens who assume that “free media” should mean free of charge as well as politically free; and who think their job is done when they “like” a site’s Facebook page.

The biggest obstacle facing The Independent is thus the small effective market for independent local political news and commentary. The potential market is small enough, with less than 3 million adult citizens. And the number who would be interested enough to pay for the service is much smaller still, because Singapore remains a place where most people don’t really feel they need to follow politics, either to get by in life or to feel intelligent. Political uncertainty and instability are the best friends of political journalism, and while the post-2011 landscape is a lot more interesting than in the past, it is still a far cry from the conditions conducive for a commercially viable, standalone and professional political news site.

I hope Balji and The Independent prove me wrong.

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