In Singapore’s online news landscape, what is the alternative?
In the first of a four-part series looking at Singapore's alternative media, experts say that instead of thinking big, online news start-ups could be better served staying small to be sustainable.
SINGAPORE: For a while, it seemed that the online news scene was set to grow and flourish in Singapore.
While the likes of The Online Citizen came online late in 2006, it was joined by a number of new and alternative media start-ups a few years later. Mothership was launched in 2013 before others like Inconvenient Questions (IQ), Six-Six News and The Middle Ground jumped on the bandwagon.
However, not many lasted in what remains a changing and challenging media landscape.
IQ, which was launched in 2015 by former Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan, shuttered in 2016 due to a lack of funds. Six-Six, whose publisher was Mr Kannan Chandran, went down a similar path after less than a year.
Likewise, The Middle Ground, led by former Straits Times associate editor Bertha Henson and publisher Daniel Yap, decided to end its operations in October 2017 in light of the costs needed to maintain a credible news site.
Professor Ang Peng Hwa, who teaches at the Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, admitted that when the new socio-political sites appeared, he thought the local industry was experiencing “a spring”.
Their closure has meant that the media scene here has become “less vibrant”, against a backdrop of a market Prof Ang considers to be “very small”.
“There is no news market for online sites,” he told CNA in an email.
Another media watcher and former journalist, Alan Soon, agreed that the editorial landscape here is “stagnant”. The CEO of Splice Media in an email reply suggested that the big media players are still in the process of working out how to meet changing consumer needs.
“At a time when everyone has a multitude of distractions on their phones - TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook - the big media players haven't evolved to create new products relevant to a generation who's never rushed home to catch the 7pm news, or buy a newspaper.”
NEEDS BETTER MET
Yet, there are others who feel the incumbents have evolved to try and meet the increasingly varied ways that people want to consume news.
Dr Carol Soon, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), agreed that there is a shrinking pool of online-based news sites. And one of the reasons for this is that the mainstream media are “doing a better job” in covering different grounds and topics from myriad perspectives, she said.
“Besides news reports, they are also producing and publishing more commentaries that provide deeper insights into issues that matter to the public,” Dr Soon said. “The implication of this is that it is becoming harder for online news sites to fill an existing gap and carve out a niche.”
Another reason is that the way people consume information has changed, preferring “pithy pieces” and platforms that point the must-reads to them and thus fuelling the rise of social networking sites, she pointed out.
The widespread adoption of social media has also led to the migration of commentaries from blogs and websites to social networking sites, particularly Facebook, Dr Soon said.
“This perhaps signals online news producers’ recognition of the changes in the how’s and where’s in terms of people’s information consumption habits,” the IPS researcher said.
“The eyeballs are still there, they are simply at a different place.”
She added that the proliferation of fake news could have heightened people’s scepticism towards news sources that are not deemed authoritative or have an established reputation for professionalism.
“This may affect their appetite for news from online news sites,” she said.
This observation is corroborated by a study conducted by students from Singapore Polytechnic released in January this year. It found that for respondents who preferred to consume news over the Internet, those who do so primarily using social media had the lowest current affairs knowledge.
One of the SP students behind the study, Sammi Poo, highlighted the issue of credibility raised by Dr Soon.
“It is no doubt that the connectivity of social media makes it easier for users like me to stumble upon news shared by friends. This allows us to stay informed about current affairs indirectly,” the student said in the press release.
“However, it is likely that the news we consume on social media – if it is not from actual news outlets – may not be the most accurate.”
STAYING SMALL NOT A BAD THING
There is, however, still room for news start-ups in Singapore, Dr Soon said, adding that these newcomers will have to understand the market and what people want.
She held up one online news site, Mothership, as a positive example of a relative newcomer doing well as it is able to “package its content in a way that appeals to people”.
“Their offerings have to resonate with the target audience’s needs, as well as evolve with people’s rapidly changing information consumption habits,” the researcher said.
There is also a case to be made for a media start-up to stay small, at least in its formative years.
Dr Soon said: “There would be cases where start-ups have a specific raison d’etre which sees them reaching out to small niche audiences. In those instances, they may have to be prepared to stay small for some time as they build their reputation and reach.”
In fact, Splice’s Soon said that new players should take this route to enter Singapore’s media scene as existing market players are focused on reaching a mass audience and delivering ads to those eyeballs.
“Any new player in the digital space needs to do the opposite: Find a niche audience, a community, a mission that matters, and provide content valuable to that group,” he suggested.
“We've moved from supply-side media, where media companies were optimised to create more content, to demand-side media, where companies have to create content to address specific needs of their communities.”
It is also this space that appears to be witnessing a flowering of options right now.
There are the likes of SGAG, which takes a tongue-in-cheek, meme-driven approach to news, and blogs like The Smart Local, Rice Media and Critical Spectator as well as news websites and aggregators like Mustsharenews and Observer+ - all of which have emerged and gained some traction among readers.
CNA takes a deeper look at three of these to shed some light to the brains behind the outfit, the motivations for being in this space and plans to stand out in an already crowded space.