It's back to media monopoly

Posted by SEAH CHIANG NEE under Media Watch on 3 October 2004

THREE years after a major restructure, Singapore's two media giants are reversing direction, moving from rivalry to partial merger that will please shareholders more than consumers.

The Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and MediaCorp have announced a merger of their mass-market television and free newspaper operations to stem large losses.

The agreement has effectively ended Singapore's brief era of having two competitors in newspapers and TV stations to provide Singaporeans alternative choices.

Some believe it was also started to smoothen the Free Trade Agreement talks with the United States to placate Washington in case it demanded to see a freer media industry in Singapore.

SPH, which publishes 14 newspapers in four languages, has agreed to buy 40% of the free tabloid TODAY from MediaCorp, which will continue to run it.

Its own free newspaper, Streats, will fold.

A new TV company called MediaCorp TV Holdings will be formed to merge MediaCorp's Channels 5, 8 and TV Mobile and SPH's Channels U and I. Ownership is 80% MediaCorp and 20% SPH.

The restructuring has signalled a failed era, however small or brief, of media competition.

Shares of SPH immediately jumped 32 cents, or 7.32%, to S$4.74. But consumers and advertisers are bound to feel unhappy with the decline in their choices.

"Back to monopoly," exclaimed a banker. More important, however, are changes affecting its flagship, the Straits Times.

After years of stagnation, Singapore's near-monopoly national daily is doing a revamp to lure back young readers who have given up on newspapers.

The paper promised to put on a fresh look from Oct 19 with three magazine supplements on weekdays and improvements of all its sections.

Started in 1845, the city's only broadsheet has won regional awards for graphics and design in recent years but has otherwise not done too well with its market advantage.

To be fair, there's nothing wrong with the Straits Times, which remains one of Asia's top English-language newspapers. It has generally well written content with a superior foreign coverage.

It also performs a superlative role explaining government policies to the public.

But above all, it enjoys a benefit under law that other publishers can only dream about. It is the only broadsheet daily in one of the world's richest cities, with 4.25 million highly educated people.

During the past decade when the population jumped by a million or 30%, the newspaper's circulation rose by only 6.5% to 389,248 copies a day.

In fact sales dropped by 2.4% in 2001 and 0.5% in 2002. Worst of all was the decline in advertising revenue.

These were, of course, dismal economic years. Its sister paper, Business Times, fell by a steeper 12% in the past 18 months from 31,205 to 27,529 copies.

But declining readership is a trend almost everywhere, including the US and Europe, where young readers are turning to TV and Internet news and digital entertainment.

For the Straits Times to achieve a penetration rate of only 35% of the population despite its huge advantages is pretty dismal.

Global trends don't entirely explain its present strait. The major reason lies in the restrictive press laws and the editors' excessive compliance.

Since independence, a whole new generation more demanding, independent-minded and worldly-wise has grown up wanting a freer press. Some demand more serious choices while others want a more credible voice to air opposing views.

At a time of historical transformation, many aspects of life in Singapore are changing. But the media has hardly altered beyond improving journalistic beauty and writing style all these years.

One frequent complaint is that it plays up the good and downplays the bad (and opposition parties) to please the government.

A compliant media had helped Lee Kuan Yew turn Singapore into an advanced city. Voters then were largely supportive, so credibility was less an issue.

In those days, the press merely had to carry the news since few readers were interested in any alternative views.

Now, faced with a different set of readers and problems, an obedient press may not be able to help Lee Hsien Loong succeed in the 21st Century. It has to help him persuade and convince.

One of Hsien Loong's most serious challenges is to involve the youths in nation building and rid them of a boh chap (don't care) attitude. Another is to cut down migration of talent who complain of too much control.

The media cannot help the government if more youths turn away from newspapers or disbelieve what they say.

Worse still if more and more turn to the Internet, weblogs, e-lists and online forums that post news and information on virtually every subject a reader would want.

Some Internet sites also throw up unreliable and motivated views that may mislead youths.

It is not possible for the press to stay the same when everything else is changing. In most public debates on controversial issues, the media is not noted for taking the initiative. Instead it plays a passive role of reinforcing the official line.

Even letters and its own online forums are so heavily censored that an outside watchdog site regularly posts letters that the Straits Times has rejected.

In fact, more alternative views are emerging from government backbenchers in Parliament than from newspaper columnists. Other trendsetters are politicians, academics, think-tank researchers and a few serious online letter writers.

While mature readers want a less compliant press, few of them actually want it to behave like its US counterpart in promoting an antagonistic counter-culture.

Rallying behind the nation and protecting national interests are basic fundamentals they would want the press to keep at all times.

Some years ago before he became Prime Minister, Hsien Loong said he was an admirer of the BBC brand of objective, accurate and balanced journalism.

In time to come, this may become a model here, but it will probably move only in tandem with political decontrol. One won't happen without the other.

Sources and Relevant Links:

The Star It's back to media monopoly 19 September 2004

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