Thinking Aloud

Citizens gain when content is king again

As news publishers compete for subscribers, the local media has to produce richer, more robust content to stave off competition for local audiences.

A recent slew of news and developments coming out from the global media industry offer hope for news publishers like Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which publishes The Straits Times. Even as SPH retrenched staff nearly three weeks ago, it is also mindful of the bright spots in the media industry. Let me count the ways in which the news business is looking hopeful again.


This has been noticeable in the United States following what the New York Times calls the "Trump bump". This was a surge in media subscriptions from people keen to get in-depth White House coverage after the shock election of Mr Donald Trump as President.

The rise of fake news and the exposure of websites with seemingly high traffic generated by bots, not human readers, have also led mass readers to go back to mainstream media publishers.

The NYTimes' second-quarter earnings announced in July saw digital revenues from advertising and subscriptions offset declines in print advertising.

NYTimes has been pivoting to a subscription-based revenue model. Chief executive Mark Thompson said: "We believe that the demand for quality, in-depth journalism is growing, not only in the US but across the globe... We believe that more and more people are prepared to pay for access to this kind of journalism. This is the foundation of our strategy."

Mainstream media companies like the NYTimes in America, the Guardian in Britain, and The Straits Times in Singapore, have been active in transforming themselves from traditional print newspapers into digital media news publishers. Already, all these publishers distribute content across digital platforms.

The Straits Times, for example, is going for a "first to digital" strategy, putting out news reports online instantly, and curating a print edition for the next day.

This move to credible news has been apparent for months now. What has given added hope to news publishers are reports that more people are prepared to pay for news.


Some uplifting news last week came from the Reuters Institute's Digital News Report. In the United States, millennials are flocking to subscribe to mainstream media publishers in large numbers. A range of media publishers report strong growth, typically 70 to 100 per cent, in subscriptions from those aged 18 to 34. This was the case for NYTimes, the Washington Post, the serious, high-brow Atlantic, and the business-oriented Wall Street Journal.

One reason for this? Millennials are used to paying a flat fee per month to consume music via streaming services like Spotify, and for movies via Netflix. As they come of political age, curious about the world, they are forking out money to subscribe to quality journalism.

This is a marked difference from the Internet mantra of years ago that "information wants to be free".

There is increasing realisation that "free can be fatal, especially when it comes to news", as I wrote in an Oct 8 article in this space. If you don't pay $1 a day for news, you pay for it in attention devoted every day to ads and soft-sell content conditioned to get you to click to buy things you don't really need or want. Meanwhile, the quality of information and journalism, starved of revenue, declines overall.

I am hopeful that the media sector in Singapore and the region will also see a boost in digital subscriptions in the coming years. For this to happen, however, content has to become the centre of our strategy to widen readership and audiences.


How does one make money on the Internet? It was Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates who in 1996 wrote an influential essay titled Content Is King on the company's website.

He wrote: "Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.

"The television revolution that began half a century ago spawned a number of industries, including the manufacturing of TV sets, but the long-term winners were those who used the medium to deliver information and entertainment. When it comes to an interactive network such as the Internet, the definition of "content" becomes very wide.

"For example, computer software is a form of content - an extremely important one, and the one for Microsoft will remain by far the most important. But the broad opportunities for most companies involve supplying information or entertainment. No company is too small to participate."

The Internet industry has gone through various cycles. The latest ad-driven cycle was fuelled by the rise of tech platform companies, such as Google and Facebook, which use content others provide to get eyeballs and clicks which they then monetise to marketeers to sell to advertisers. In that transaction, content providers like news publishers got a raw deal as they have little share of the digital ad revenue and are not paid fairly for the content they produce.

There are some signs that the model is shifting. Google announced on its blog early this month that it would work with news publishers to help convert casual readers of news articles, in search results, into paid subscribers.

As content moves to premier position again, news publishers skilled in generating compelling content with text, image, audio, video and interactive elements will have a fighting chance to compete in that territory.


Global trends in the media sector, and rapid tech developments, will all affect the media scene here.

While Singapore can ring-fence print media production to some extent via licensing and newspaper printing laws, it can't ring-fence users from exposure to news, information and entertainment available online, streamed into homes, and onto tablets and mobile devices.


Citizens here are lapping up the rich engagement experiences online. A younger generation raised in the no-holds-barred arena of Internet discourse becomes acclimatised to free debate and expects to engage in similar discussions on local issues.

The local media risks losing these audiences for good if it does not broaden the parameters for such discussion on its platforms.

The Singapore Government should continue to encourage, and enforce, legal and social norms in public discussion, such as enforcing strictures against incitement to violence or hatred, and protecting individuals from harassment.

Local media publishers are also responsible companies that will hew to the public interest and can help build a national consensus on important issues.

But the state cannot and must not hold back mainstream media companies from engaging fully with the competition for attention and subscription dollars that is reaching our shores. To do so is to hobble the local media even before the fight begins.

The NYTimes this month announced that it has opened a sales office in Singapore for the South-east Asian market. It is gunning for 10 million subscriptions, up from about three million print and digital subscribers now.

Nor is it just NYTimes that wants to eat our lunch. ST editor Warren Fernandez, who is also editor-in-chief of SPH's English/ Malay/Tamil Media Group, met executives of Quartz and Wall Street Journal during a recent trip to America and found them upfront about their bid for Singapore audiences. As he wrote last week in this space: "The competition in the media industry is now increasingly digital, increasingly social, and increasingly global."

The challenges facing the local media do not apply only to The Straits Times, but across titles and companies.

At The Straits Times, one of our strategies to face the competition is to boost our content to raise digital subscriptions locally and in the region. This is why the paper wants to hire more "foreign correspondents", which refers to correspondents reporting on an overseas region for a media company, not to foreign journalists.

As for Singapore coverage, The Straits Times as Singapore's news publisher for 172 years knows Singapore best. We must report on it honestly and unflinchingly. To do so, we need creative, capable and courageous journalists and editors .

When it comes to issues surrounding the future of local media, I think the interests of citizens as readers, the commercial interests of the media publishers, and the interests of the government are aligned. If they are not, they should be.

Journalistic standards must be kept high, but editors should not be viewed primarily as gatekeepers. Instead, their role is to marshal resources to produce compelling content that resonates with readers in Singapore and beyond, and to drive reader engagement. Good examples of such content that The Straits Times produces regularly now are the profiles of people who succeed against the odds by my colleague Wong Kim Hoh and stories of resilience among ordinary folk from Theresa Tan.

Singapore benefits if it has a local media staffed with journalists and editors who are able, willing and given the room to push the boundaries.


We want readers who understand Singapore's unique constraints yet demand we raise our standards, thus keeping us on our toes. We also need a relationship with stakeholders that allows such robust content to be created, and a state that does not use its considerable influence, resources and enforcement powers to box the local media into a corner.

A timid local media will fight a losing battle to gain readers' respect and their subscription dollar. The result will be a gradual fragmentation of the national consensus, as more and more young Singaporeans turn to foreign media outlets to get their news and information.

Can a local media publisher compete with global titans and win? For an answer, look to the prestigious Editor and Publisher EPPY Award 2017, which last week announced that the best website infographic award goes to The Straits Times for its Anatomy of Cancer infographic. It features 3D human models which can be rotated on screen, allowing viewers to click on body parts to zoom in on information on the top 10 cancers in Singapore. Not bad for a newspaper company rapidly transforming itself to be a regional digital news publisher.

When it comes to the future of local media, I think the interests of citizens as readers, the commercial interests of the media publishers, and the interests of the government are aligned.

If they are not, they should be.

Each group should strive for richer, more robust content that is compelling to local and regional audiences.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 29, 2017, with the headline 'Citizens gain when content is king again'. Print Edition | Subscribe