SPH vs Yahoo! was about content vs tech, not old media vs new



October 2nd, 2013

The lawsuit that Singapore Press Holdings successfully filed against Yahoo! News has been routinely described as a battle between old media and new media. The subtext: that Yahoo! had been trying to champion the future, against a tired incumbent resistant to change.

That may not be a wholly inaccurate description of the companies, but it is a misleading way to frame the case. The dispute – over the barely disguised lifting of scores of SPH stories by Yahoo! staff – was really about how commercial media enterprises (new or old) should value the labour of professional journalists.

Yahoo!’s initial defence amounted to a dismissive negating of journalistic effort, as if stories are just a bunch of facts that fall into place by themselves. If the internet giant had prevailed, the losers wouldn’t just have been SPH, but also Yahoo!’s own journalists, whose original work could then have been ripped off with impunity as well.

Of course, most of the time, it requires almost superhuman effort to muster sympathy for SPH. It luxuriates over a market protected by the government’s press licensing regime. Even when its papers do good work, many Singaporeans resent the lack of choice. Which is precisely why Yahoo!’s entry into the news business was a breath of fresh air. And why many instinctively rooted for it when SPH sued.

Yahoo! occasionally tries to be a little edgier than the national media. More importantly, as part of its corporate strategy, it has localised its service and invested in Singapore content. Bear in mind that very few of the global media giants that have set up shop in Singapore have bothered to do this. Singapore taxpayers, through MDA and EDB schemes, have had to subsidise the likes of HBO and National Geographic Channel to induce them to produce local programming. In contrast, Yahoo! has been serving the local market with local content on its own steam (for which they’ve been rewarded with the threat of new government restrictions; go figure).

But we needn’t exaggerate its underdog status. This is not some non-profit grassroots project we’re talking about, but the arm of a global corporation that made more than US$3 billion in profits last year.

Because it is not primarily in the business of content creation, it tries to keep its editorial manpower costs subsidise wn. As a result, Yahoo! fields less experienced reporters and editors to compete with SPH and MediaCorp. When Yahoo! is able to hold its own, it’s a testament to the gumption of its newsroom, which has only a fraction of the capacity of The Straits Times, Today and other daily papers. It has young journalists who have risen to the challenge and done the profession proud.

But there is a limit to how much a company can squeeze its editorial staff before corners are cut and things go horribly wrong. That’s the real lesson of the SPH vs Yahoo! case. The internet company has blamed the fiasco  on “a small number of Yahoo Asia Pacific employees”, who have been duly “disciplined or terminated”. This is too pat. First, it doesn’t explain why Yahoo! initially denied the allegations. The examples that were made public were such glaring cases of wholesale plagiarism that no self-respecting media content company would have tolerated, let alone defended, them.

Second, it doesn’t address the conditions that the culprits were working under. Such systematic plagiarism is unlikely to have taken place without pressure from the top to pump out content at a rate far in excess of the team’s capacity. This smells of a management failure. Even if the company cannot admit this publicly, I hope that it is reviewing its newsroom staffing and targets – and that it will then invest more heavily in its editorial manpower.

Whatever criticisms one has of SPH, it at least hasn’t completely forgotten that it is in the content business, and that original content doesn’t come cheap. Its investments in hiring and training journalists are certainly not paltry by global industry standards.

Yahoo!’s lack of regard for SPH’s intellectual property represented a tech/advertising company trying to hitch a free ride on a content company. If it had been allowed to get away with it, it would have been bad news for journalism, whether in new media or old.

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