03 November 2017

The realities of Singapore's online landscape

Bertha Henson and Daniel Yap have announced the impending closure of The Middle Ground (TMG), revealing that the news website had failed to meet the challenges of sustainability. Earlier last month, the trio of Dr Thum Pin Tjin, Kirsten Han, and Sonny Liew announced the setting up of "New Naratif" and rolled out their vision, accountability, and subscription model.

Bertha Henson has done a great job with TMG and will be back with Bertha Harian
These developments may fit the establishment's Wild West model of Singapore's online news media, where newcomers can rise out of nowhere to carve an empire of their own, then fall just as fast or settle into also-ran status. On a less simplistic level, the online media landscape is dominated and controlled by Singapore's regulatory framework to such an extent that no full-fledged news site can be economically viable. Where the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act empowers the government to shutter presses as it pleases and more insidiously and demand presses award shares to entities it chooses, recent Media Development Authority regulations empower the government to demand any news site it chooses to cough up hefty monetary guarantees, and to demand forfeiture of that guarantee at its discretion.

Singapore's regulatory framework is a deterrence against the setting up of online news sites, and indirectly incentivises bloggers to stay small and stay within the government's OB markers.

Due disclosure time!
I have written a piece for The Middle Ground in its first year, on medical policy in Singapore.
I have reviewed PJ Thum's Living with Myths public seminar series.
I have worked with Kirsten Han during the Free My Internet campaign.

TMG's objective media model

The Middle Ground has taken a politically centrist position since its inception. I would never have written for Bertha and Daniel had I smelt even a whiff of partisanship during my coffee sessions with them. No doubt they never would've allowed me to discuss writing for them, let alone accept a piece I submitted, had they smelt even a whiff of partisanship from me. I was not interested in fixing the establishment or the opposition, and neither were Bertha and Daniel.

TMG was interested in professional and competent fact-based commentary, analysis, and reporting. And increasingly during its tenure, it became clear that the traditional media, the so-called MSM, was losing its competence in these areas. TMG and Bertha increasingly ran pieces pointing out What It Should Have Been, correcting and pointing out flaws and failures in The Straits Times issue of the day.

It is this same dedication to objective analysis that also led TMG to take a firm and principled stand against the People Action Party's forced racial presidential election. And TMG's revenue model springs directly from their assumption of objective, reality-based reporting: Only after fighting hard to prove its competence, honesty, and relevance that TMG decided, only after one years into the game to start online advertising sales and six months after that, Patreon sponsorship.

New Naratif's anti-objective media model

With Thum, Han, and Liew heading New Naratif, the site could easily position itself as a Singaporean or Southeast Asian answer to the New York or London Review of Books: a mashup of literary, academic, and centre-left political interests.

I will make no bones about this: Kirsten Han's declaration of war on objectivity and insistence that the site is only accountable to its paid membership has undermined all the hope and promise entailed in New Naratif. News site or not, it is an incredible contradiction or hypocrisy to proclaim one's relevance to the regional public at large, announce one's ambition to reshape public narratives, and then claim that one is not answerable to that same public.

Han's directives are a good guide to the site's editorial and content policy. She will promote partisan opinion pieces short on objectivity or for that matter fact-based, data-driven articles that more associated with citizen journalism, written by her allies and co-activists. The sort of virtue signalling, two minutes hate against the worst person of the day and issue of the week that Social Justice Warriors would lap up, instead of being critically examined.

Thum will for the most part, focus on the intellectually stimulating task of reprinting the entirety of Living with Myths in Singapore book, itself a cleaned-up collection of the informal seminars that I have reviewed for free on this blog but ironically, you'd have to pay a subscription to access on the New Naratif website. In a time when global academics are moving towards publishing in free, peer-reviewed journals, the leaders of New Naratif are taking a Regressive stance, actively participating in the tragedy of the commons and burning through their reservoir of natural goodwill afforded to them as public intellectuals.

The reality of Singapore's social media landscape

There is no shame in being a personal blogger or a trashy gossip or fake news site. Both categories can thrive comfortably and sometimes profitably on the long tail of the internet.

The problem with Singapore's social media landscape is that people want to set up a full-fledged news or political site. Bertha Henson's The Middle Ground and Breakfast Network was the most traditional effort. The Online Citizen's early incarnation was the epitome of citizen journalism. Moving away from serious news to lifestyle, so are The Independent Singapore, Mothership, and even New Naratif.

Reality check for each of these players, past, present and wannabe: To start a news business, you need a sugar daddy. News, whether online or traditional media, is always a loss leader. To set up a full-fledged news outfit, you need an initial investor or two to take lay down the money and accept the initial losses while you climb up the charted revenue plan.

As a global rule, the mainstream media subsidises news via advertising. When advertising revenues jumped off a cliff in Singapore a decade ago, Singapore Press Holdings subsidised its news via real estate investment. The Online Citizen reports that TMG was set up with funds from an investor who prefers to be anonymous. Mothership was founded with the backing of George Yeo and Philip Yeo. The Independent Singapore was set up by a group of shareholders including Leon Pereira.

It may or may not be true that online media is overly-regulated to the point that no major news site can be economically viable and sustainable. To paraphrase Bertha Henson: Good journalism doesn't come off an assembly line, and neither can it come off a gated community of echo chamber dwellers. It is clearer now under current conditions, Singapore's online landscape is more of a graveyard of empires with poor economic bases.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I disagree. I don't think any site can be "objective"; there actually is no such thing as non-partisan when it comes to news sources. Even "The Middle Ground" has its own point of view - is a "politically centrist position" (which I disagree that the Middle Ground has by the way) not also a position in itself?