By Laura Zhang
As we bid adieu to the print version of TODAY, The Independent caught up with the news tabloid’s founding editor P N Balji for his thoughts and visions about the media scene in Singapore, now and in the years ahead.
Decline of the print media
“The print media has declined, and will continue to decline,” says Mr Balji, referring to the world-wide trend brought about by the emergence of online social media. “The figures show why TODAY is going digital. In one year alone, profit has dropped from $10 million to $3 million from 2015 to 2016.”
He suggests that high cost of printing is another factor.
“Print is the highest cost item for the paper, as TODAY does not have a printing press of its own and had to pay a bomb to a private printer, Kim Hup Lee, to get out 200,000 copies a day from Monday to Friday. The weekend edition has already gone fully digital since April.”
TODAY is a unique product
With the experience of working in The Straits Times, New Nation, The New Paper, TODAY and The Independent, there are few people more qualified than Mr Balji to compare the differences of each platform.
The New Paper (TNP) is what he describes as “the university of life” for his journalist career. As the chief editor of TNP for more than 10 years, Mr Balji witnessed the progress of the paper from a daily circulation of 15,000 to 150,000 in 2000.
“No afternoon paper here has done this,” says Mr Balji. “TODAY, on the other hand, was very different.” It was a unique proposition.
“It’s less pro-government as compared to The Straits Times but it continues the tradition of journalism. It’s fighting against a mean monster and, in fact, I was seen as a traitor of SPH (Singapore Press Holdings).
“As TODAY’s paper is free of charge, the entire revenue comes from advertisements. Our goal was to achieve 10 per cent of The Straits Times’, and we made it in four to five years.
However, Mr Balji does not rule out a sizeable group of readers who might be affected.
“Older readers have grown to love print, it’s natural. But we have to find ways to adjust. It doesn’t only apply to newspaper but everything else – things are more automated, and we are going cashless.”
Nonetheless, Mr Balji says print TODAY has ended a lot faster than he has expected.
Mainstream media vs social media
Mr Balji says both types of media are struggling but for different reasons.
“With the social media, the world is on our finger tips. Amidst such a strong and broad competition, the situation of mainstream media is precarious,” he says, noting that readers have become sophisticated and discerning.
“State-led media The Straits Times is pro-government. Increasingly, the reading public has to switch to alternative media to get the whole picture. Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam spoke in NTU (Nanyang Technological University) about Singaporeans are no fools who read the mainstream media blindly.”
He then uses the example of how differently The Straits Times, alternative local media and western media have portrayed Amos Yee in the reports since he first became rumoured. Each has a separate agenda, it would appear.
“News reporting is no longer a privilege. There’s a distinction between information and knowledge – information is facts, raw data; knowledge is the understanding acquired through skills and experiences, such as professional analysis. ST doesn’t differentiate that. If they could, they probably can regain their niche.
“ST has been too protected, by legislation and high barriers to entry. It’s between a rock and hard place now.
“It’s inevitable that the mainstream media earn tremendously less than they used to. At the same time, ad revenue from social media is still miniscule. The entire social media network earns about $100 million per year, with half of which going to Facebook and Google.”
“Fake news will always be there. Citizens must reject fake news and must not jump to conclusions.”
But Mr Balji stresses that social media is here to stay, and is going through an evolving and combating stage. The key issue is “how to monetise”.
“Sponsorships and paid promotions won’t succeed in journalism,” he says but suggests philanthropy journalism can be one of the alternatives.
Finding an unparalleled forte and passion is another key formula.
“Channel NewsAsia can probably specialise in international and regional affairs while letting TODAY take charge of local news.”
Last but not least, Mr Balji emphasises that honesty is of pivotal value to journalism. “It’s harder to verify the truths on the Internet nowadays. But there’s no excuse. One will never know the detrimental effects a few lines of a fabricated story can cause on individuals, or even nations.”
TODAY will go all-digital as part of a deal between Mediacorp and Singapore Press Holdings. Both companies announced on Aug 25 that SPH will divest its stakes in Mediacorp Press, which publishes TODAY, and Mediacorp TV.
Meanwhile, P N Balji has found time to write a book on his life as a journalist. It is entitled “The Reluctant Editor”.