How to deal with media double whammy

TODAY, Monday • July 9, 2007

P N Balji
Editorial director

VARIOUS reasons have been given for the unabashedly pro-government stand of the Singapore media: Restrictive media and libel laws, journalists who have surrendered to the Government or been convinced by its argument that an unbridled press is not for Singapore, general public support for the Government by readers who believe Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team are always right because they have delivered an economic miracle.

Another reason, not well-documented and hardly articulated in public discussions, is how the media has benefitted from the Government’s delivery of economic growth. Like nearly everything else here, it is money that drives this place. Minister Mentor Lee said as much over the weekend.

“Once you have growth, all problems can be managed,” he said in his pragmatic and straight-talking style about Singapore’s success.

Good economic growth means more advertising dollars for media companies, which means higher salaries for editors and journalists, which means don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg. And which means support a government that delivers.

So far, so good. But last year, something happened that might put a strain on this cosy relationship between economic and advertising growth.

For the first time, a yawning gap between economic and advertising growth has got media owners worried. A double whammy is at work here.

Some of the top advertisers, such as SingTel and Asia Pacific Breweries, are getting more and more of their revenue from outside Singapore.

Advertising dollars are being channelled to countries where these companies are opening up new operations. Why should such companies continue to put all their ad dollars in Singapore?

Then, the new businesses that are coming here are very different in nature, using Singapore as a launching pad to the region.

One example is Olam International, an agricultural commodities firm which is listed here. However, its revenue — 100 per cent of it — comes from outside Singapore.

Why should such outfits advertise in our media?

Throw the slow but pervasive influence of alternative news and information-on-the-go, though not so pronounced and immediate yet, into the pot and you have a media meltdown in the making.

So, what are the media managers doing? Opening up new revenue streams by investing overseas, kick-starting alternative media ventures and wooing expatriate readers who are surging into Singapore now that the floodgates have been thrown wide open.

But these are slow-burn measures, risky and tentative. What is more important is to relook the kind of news in our media.

Today, domestic news coverage has got an over-emphasis on government information, with nearly every item containing a mention of a minister, government policy or view.

The end result is that the news gets predictable and even boring, as one group of young Singaporeans said during a focus group discussion.

“Isn’t there any other news to report?” asked an exasperated 27-year-old woman.

That view reverberated in different tones in other discussions. Many said they are switching off and getting their news fix elsewhere.

With the Government at the centre of nearly every news activity here and with journalists not trying actively and aggressively enough to provide more news and views that are completely off the government news radar screen, you are going to see more deserters.

Before a gaping readership hole takes hold, the media practitioners have got to get a handle on redefining the concept of news.

For a start, regurgitating a VIP’s speech, reporting an event just because a VIP is present, taking one inconsequential story and running with it over a number of pages and over-killing murder stories must stop.

Instead, people, events and issues not on the news radar screens must see more play.

The Sunday Times, with its heavier emphasis on human interest stories, is trying to do that.

The new Weekend Today, with its issue-based stories sprinkled among its news pages, is another effort to move away from the traditional definition of news.

These are work-in-progress efforts. How effective these are and whether more radical attempts are needed rest with the four stakeholders in the business — journalists, readers, advertisers and the Government.

They need to be clear about the dynamics at play, and take on — and be allowed to take on — daring moves and makeovers that will make The Sunday Times and Weekend Today changes look minor.