Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Article in Today: Bad news and two myths

Bad news and two myths
by Tan Tarn How

TODAY Weekend, Singapore news

13 September 2008

NEWSPAPERS in Singapore have so far managed to avoid the sorry fate faced by their counterparts in the West: A dramatic decline in circulation and profits.

Still, executives at both newspaper giant Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) as well as MediaCorp, which co-owns this paper with SPH, must be wondering how long this will last.

Their actions reveal more nervousness than confidence. In recent years, for instance, SPH has launched a number of free newspapers as pre-emptive defensive moves against the rise of the free daily Today, which is a long term threat to its cash cow, The Straits Times.

But rival publications are not the only foes of newspapers. SPH’s multiple forays online — from the straight digital versions of its print papers to its “citizen journalism” venture STOMP and the new Razor TV — are all initiatives to stave off a more serious challenge: The Internet.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted recently in his National Day Rally speech, young people are now reading newspapers less in preference over the Internet.

The older generation also use the Internet, now indispensable for work. But they are what have been termed “digital immigrants”, not born into the world of the Internet. They still prefer getting their daily dose of current affairs from an old-style paper with their morning shot of kopi-O.

In contrast, today’s generation are “digital natives”, growing up with a keyboard at their fingertips. If they read news at all, it is usually online in dribs and drabs over the course of a day while doing half a dozen other things on their screen over a latte.

Sometimes, they don’t even get their news via articles. Research in the United States shows that young people are increasingly getting information about current affairs from, would you believe it, comedy talk shows.

The evidence is that people are less and less interested in consuming news: They just have too many other things to do. Thus the enemy of newspapers, indeed of any news organisation, is not one another or even TV, but the lack of time.

There is a standard list of prescriptions for the struggling newspapers in the West: Try to “reconnect” with alienated readers, zoom in on local coverage, get school-going children used to reading a print paper, be more interactive by using forums or via citizen journalism, give more depth to news coverage, provide more “news you can use” information on lifestyle and entertainment.

These have been tried by newspapers here — but the digital natives are not settling down, leaving the media executives still biting their nails. No one knows how it will all work out in the long run.

Amid the bad news, newspapers like to hold on to a few myths about themselves.

quality myth

First is the quality myth. This states that people will still prefer newspapers because they are more credible than online sources. Yes, newspapers are more reliable because they have to be more accountable to the government, shareholders and local laws, but it does not mean that people will prefer it over lower quality content. Besides, one can get a lot of credible news online — and for free — from digital versions of print newspapers. Just look at America which has many highly-respected online sources.

The only bright spot for news companies here is that licensing laws have limited traditional sources of Singapore news to a very few. In cyberspace, competition will be fierce and uncontrollable.

Another side of this quality myth is that people want the greater depth of coverage that newspapers offer. But readership surveys show that most prefer news in short, snappy bits. A minority find depth compelling, but they will not sustain the circulations of the glory days.

eyeball myth

Second is the eyeball myth. This states that if you get people to read the online version of your newspaper, then you are out of the woods. But the hard economic fact is that each pair of eyeballs online pulls in much less advertising revenue than the same pair scanning a printed paper. Also, whatever revenue that digital papers could have earned are often creamed off by search engines such as Google as this is the most frequent way that articles are accessed.

Newspapers will eventually become as peripheral as movie rental shops, CD shops or public telephones. All have been hit because there are better ways of watching a movie, getting a song and making a call. Of course, these remnants of an age past will not die completely. But the business on which they are built will no longer be the money-spinners they used to be. Print newspapers will still exist. But they will cease to be such a part of life as they are today.

The writer researches arts, culture and mediapolicy at the Institute of Policy Studies.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

AIMS Report On New Media: A new assumption and a leap of faith

This appeared in ST last week:

The Straits Times, Review

10 September 2008


A new assumption and a leap of faith

By Arun Mahizhnan & Tan Tarn How

THE report of the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (Aims) has hit more targets than some thought possible, though not as many as others had hoped it would.

The committee did not include a champion of new media. Its chairman, former Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) English and Malay newspapers division editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng, is a distinguished old media veteran. Despite its composition, however, the committee's recommendations were remarkable. They constituted a leap of faith.

The report was issued as a consultation paper. It is still a work in progress, and Aims seeks further comments from the public before it closes the book. There was a time when government-appointed committees would make recommendations, which the Government would then accept in toto. Aims was a welcome departure from this model

The report is titled Engaging New Media: Challenging Old Assumptions. Frankly, it is the subtitle that holds the key to the future.

The Government often invokes the sage saying that a river must be crossed slowly, as we feel our way across it stone by stone. Whatever its validity in the old media world, that approach has little application in the new media world. By the time the state gropes its way across the river, many of our children and civil activists would have leapt across it and gone into the forests on the other side. The state would be left struggling to catch up. The Aims report should help it realise that the new media is a different kind of river and that the state needs different crossing strategies.

Aims addresses some fundamental dilemmas that the new media has thrown up, disturbing the cosy and compliant old media world that the Government and citizens alike have grown accustomed to. One of the earliest edicts laid down by the PAP Government was that the media was not and can never be the watchdog of the Government. It had no mandate to play such a role.

Singapore's old media concurred with that edict without question. Even the old foreign media, such as The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, learnt that no matter how powerful they were as the Fourth Estate in their own or other countries, they had no estate in Singapore because they had no stake here.

All that worked rather well for a long time - until the Internet arrived. Now, there are many citizen watchdogs and the number is growing. It would be a stretch, even for a much-admired government, to tell citizens they have no mandate. They are the mandate.

And citizen watchdogs now have a media to go along with their mandate. Anyone can be a publisher, broadcaster or public critic today. They don't even have to live in Singapore to engage in domestic politics. Worse, we don't even know who is who. In the online world, you could be a dog or a subversive.

There is understandable concern that the cyber-world is chaotic. There is no government there, no gatekeepers, certainly none who would be accepted as the final arbiter on what is good for Singapore.

We have to learn to live with this reality, not deny its existence. Thus, the question to ask is not if the Government should engage the online world. There is no question it should. The Government has no choice. The real question is how - how to, how not to, how much, etc.

But the 'how' question turns on some fundamental factors: Is the Government willing and able to engage the citizenry in an open and robust public debate? Is it willing to share enough information to enable the citizenry to engage in meaningful exchanges? Is it willing to accept that it may not have the last word, as was possible in the old media world?

Equally, the citizenry has to answer some hard questions too: Does it care enough to engage and express its views on critical issues? Does it accept that solutions may not be reached quickly or to the satisfaction of everyone? Does it understand that consultation by the Government does not necessarily mean compliance with its wishes?

The extent of e-engagement will depend on the answers to such questions. The answers are not self-evident. What is clear is that the old assumptions will not serve us well any more. One such assumption was that Singapore had a nanny state. Hopefully, doing away with that assumption will not involve too great a leap of faith.

The writers are media researchers at the Institute of Policy Studies.

Does modern Singapore need a vision?

This article appeared in Today newspaper:

Does modern Singapore need a vision?

By Tan Tarn How

Today, August 30, 2008

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech at the National Day Rally two Sundays ago was delivered in what has now become his trademark style.

Like his rally performances of his first four years, the Aug 17 disquisition on “Celebrating the Singapore Story” too was a formidable display of his mastery over details, his sheer intellect and his ready sense of humour.

In his speech, the most important of the annual political calendar, he raised important issues that concerned all Singaporeans. It showed that his Government was applying itself to solving them, and in the areas of inflation and babies, was putting its money where its mouth is. All in, he impressed as a man who knows what he is doing.

But, I didn’t get a sense of where we are headed as a nation and what he wants Team Singapore to do to achieve that vision.

The Prime Minister’s forte is as a fixer of things. His official biography for the Cabinet revealingly lists among his hobbies “tinkering with computers”.

(As a geek myself, I totally share his obvious delight when he demonstrated that he could instantly upload to his website a “live” video taken with his mobile phone.) He is a true technocratic Prime Minister. That he led the economy out of the woods in the periods from 1985 to 1986 and 2001 to 2003 attests to his brilliance as a trouble-shooter.

In the last four years, Mr Lee did make two vision-type statements. For a while, they stirred the imagination of the people. In his 2004 inauguration speech as Prime Minister, he promised an “open and inclusive society”. That raised expectation levels among many.

The pessimists among us would say nothing much has come out of that speech. The optimists would argue that following through on that statement takes time, especially in a country which has so many competing forces at work.

The hopefuls would have been surprised at the retention of Section 377A of the Penal Code and the proscriptions on activities such as the annual Indignation gay festival.

Mr Lee’s other vision speech, an address in 2004 to the Harvard Club on “civic society” just before he took over from Mr Goh Chok Tong, also appeared to signal greater accommodation of diversity, even dissent. In retrospect, however, it seemed more a restatement of the status quo than a declaration of impending changes, though the roll back on restrictions on public discourse on the Internet he announced during his rally speech is a big, positive step.

The titles of three of his four previous National Day Rally speeches are “Our Future of Opportunity and Promise” in 2004, “A Vibrant Global City Called Home” 2005 and “City of Possibilities; Home for All” in 2007. (The official transcript for 2006 does not include a title.)

In themselves the titles do articulate certain visions. The phrase “city of possibilities” in particular has a nice ring to it. But, again the realisation of this will take time.

Perhaps a country does not need a vision. Some will point to the headline economic growth figures of the last four years and say they matter most. Some may dismiss the vision thing as mere sloganeering or public relations. Or they may say that Singapore has matured and visions are for those who have not yet arrived.

Or that in this borderless and globalised world, the big idea is a fall back to a past when nationhood and a nation’s notion of itself held more meaning.

Or they may say that in a diverse, even divided, Singapore — note the battle over the criminalisation of homosexuality and the casino debate — no one vision can satisfy everyone, so it is politic not to articulate any even if you have one. Or they may point to the fact some of the self-examination exercises under Mr Goh yielded little.

There is another way of looking at it. Singapore now needs a vision — or at least a debate about a proposed vision — as much as it always has, if not more.

Singapore is at a crossroads. No less than at any time in the last 43 years of its independence, there is today much uncertainty about what kind of nation it is and is becoming.

Increased rates of immigration and influx of temporary workers at all levels, intensified globalisation and the inequality that it has engendered, the rising diversity and divergences in the population — these all call for not just individual policy responses, but also a higher-level conceptualisation or re-conceptualisation of the meaning of Singapore and being Singaporean.

The writer is a researcher with the Institute of Policy Studies.