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The future of online media

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By: P N Balji/

As trail of blood gets longer, what is online media’s future?

The wound is healing, the disappointment disappearing and the frustration fading. Yet the sense of betrayal is still palpable. As the founding editor of The Independent of Singapore, I learnt a bitter lesson about how officialdom can, intentionally or otherwise, derail a media start-up’s plans to be a small player in the media market, a market that has been choked by just two big players. A strange accusation was leveled at us even before we began operations four years ago: Foreigners were interested in funding the Independent. How did that become a crime? We told MDA that a shareholders’ agreement signed four months before our launch stated explicitly that we will not seek foreign money. They refused to listen and that insinuation kind of stuck. Even worse was the effect it had on a couple of potential investors. They backed out without an explanation.

Running a news website is a back-breaking effort, working with interns, looking for writers and trying to convince potential investors to put some money in the venture.   The picture is not a pretty one as the trail of blood is getting longer as many in that space have fallen by the way side. The latest victim is The Middle Ground, which followed other high-profile victims like Inconvenient Questions and 6-6 News. The Independent Singapore, after a sputtering start because of a suspicious government, and The Online Citizen, the oldest site here and which has been shamed by the government for its coverage, are still breathing. Mothership is the rare exception showing great resilience and stamina to push forward.

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The toughest nut to crack is that of money. Those who started with money in the pocket dropped out of the race after those funding the operations pulled the plug and refused to spend more. The turning point was the PAP’s unexpected margin of victory in the 2015 elections. IQ and 6-6 News folded up soon after, with those money men behind them happy with having accomplished their mission. The Middle Ground lasted a little longer and tried to scrape the bottom of the money barrel by looking to the public for donations. It managed to get only $2,200 a month and concluded that that kind of money was just not enough to make the venture sustainable.

Emerging from the ashes of these failed websites, a few lessons are worth noting. One, nothing can be done here if you don’t put the government at ease about your venture. This is a suspicious government, especially when it comes to media. It has known only one way: Control. Convince a respected and trusted person to be the patron of the venture. Make sure he has a streak of independence and the connections to talk to officialdom and businesses. You can’t run away from the Singapore truism that the government needs to be convinced about the website’s intentions. One reason why Mothership is bucking the trend is that it it has George Yeo and Philip Yeo as its backers.

Two, find a marketing person who understands the online world intimately. It will be his job to convince advertisers to move their money into your website. This person should know your website’s editorial philosophy and ideology very well. He should know how to exploit the intricacies of the online world and even educate the advertising world of the benefits of advertising online.

Three, those in charge of editorial should avoid grand plans of setting up costly newsrooms which will just become difficult to manage financially. TMG, IQ, 6-6 News  paid a price for taking this route. Keep the cost down by getting retired and retrenched journalists to contribute analyses and commentaries. Remember that ambitious ideas of fighting mainstream media in news coverage will just fail. Avoid doing outdated notions of breaking news, interviews, follow-ups. Small  outfits just can’t sustain this kind of approach in the long-run. Don’t run the marathon like you would a sprint, you will collapse at the 100-metre point. Go for breaking views, not breaking news.

Finally, the journalists running these operations need to discard the baggage they carry. The online media world is a harsh business model. A new model has to be found to mix the sensational with the serious. The New Paper tried that formula in the 1990s and succeeded. Take some time examining what Sam Ford, a MIT research fellow, tells the FT: “Most of the journalism we see today is written in a way that is inaccessible.”  This drives audiences to less dry, more polarizing media voices, he says. “What gets the most traffic? The bloodbaths and the partisan stuff.” Something worth pondering.

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