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The elephant in the room or the golden age? The lessons of Mediacorp’s Today closure

Mediacorp's digitisation efforts have had a mixed success over recent years – while at the same time there have been job losses and high-profile departures – Eleanor Dickinson asks whether the loss of print title Today marks a new era for Singapore's troubled media giant

Mediacorp’s recent decision to cull its printed version of daily tabloid Today seems to have come as no surprise to anyone in the media industry.

In fact, the minute the news came out, you could almost hear the familiar Queen beat of ‘Another One Bites Dust’ as Singapore’s media giant admitted it needed to “better face the new digital-first media landscape”. Who doesn’t these days?

However, as much my heart went out to the 40 members of staff who are being swept aside by Mediacorp’s coldly-termed “strategic digital pivot”, there is no doubt that this move was inevitable – and will be inevitable for many newspapers and magazines to come.

Owned by Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s state-owned sovereign wealth fund, Mediacorp sold a number of stakes in the company to media rival Singapore Press Holdings in 2005. These included a 20 per cent stake in its the company’s TV Holdings, which owns Channels 5, 8 and U and Mediacorp Studios, plus a 40 per cent stake in Mediacorp Press, which operates Today. It was the decision to buy back these assets that seems to have triggered Mediacorp’s move once again to restructure its business.

Nevertheless, Mediacorp has made some attempts to boost its digital offerings in recent years – which has so far proved something of a tumultuous process. In 2015, the media giant hired experienced Australian publishing executive Shane Mitchell as its new head of digital, in what was then described as a “commitment to staying relevant in a changing media landscape.”

At the time, some early efforts to spearhead a new era of digital efficiency were made as Mediacorp underwent a major restructure that saw 33 people retrenched and 50 moved to other parts of the business. Later that year, Today outsourced a chunk of its sub-editing function to an Australian firm. The mantra of “stay agile” was firmly drilled into the undoubtedly anxious workforce at the time.

Yet just two years later, this episode was over: out went Mitchell, chief commercial officer Jack Lim and finally the CEO himself, Shaun Seow. In came Twitter executive Parminder Singh and broadcasting veteran Tham Loke Kheng, who now face the uphill task of revitalising the beleaguered business against the tide of declining advertising revenues and stiff competition from disruptive digital streaming players.

Challenges ahead: Mediacorp’s new CEO Tham Loke Kheng

According to former Bloomberg and CNBC journalist and now CEO of The Splice Newsroom, Alan Soon, Mediacorp could have done more and sooner. He says: “My starting point would have been to look at the editorial team and ask if something could have been done earlier to combine the Today editorial team with Channel News Asia’s? Given the size of the audience and the nature of reporting in Singapore, it didn’t make sense to run them separately.”

Today’s last edition will be printed at the end of September, which gives the publisher just one month to shift its loyal print readership onto its digital edition. That itself will be difficult given that between July 2015 and June 2016, Today had a combined average daily readership of 12.9 per cent, with its print edition reaching 11.4 per cent and the digital version hitting only 1.8 per cent on daily basis, according to Nielsen. That means the newspaper will need to shift nearly 90 per cent of its current readers to digital to maintain its readership.

Under Kheng’s leadership, consolidation between Today and CNAs’ editorial teams is more than likely, says former Straits Times journalist Cherian George. Now a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, George believes that while streamlining is inevitable, it will bring its own trials – plus what he predicts will be a downgrade of journalistic quality.

He said: “We can expect Mediacorp to rationalise Today and CNA. They tried integrating the newsrooms several years ago but it was difficult to meld print and broadcast cultures. With print out of the way, I don’t see management wanting to maintain separate editorial operations.”

The challenges faced by Mediacorp are common to many similar publishers around the world, including compromises around editorial resource as costs are cut to keep products commercially viable. 

“It’s quite possible we will see not just a reduction in the number of titles but also a major decline in journalistic capacity,” said George. “This not about print being substituted with digital, one-for-one. It’s not a simple shift from newspapers to online. Along the way, editorial capacity is being eroded. Even as Singapore changes and gets ever more complex, we’ll have fewer journalists to make sense of it for the public. The public does not want to pay for news, so they will have to be satisfied with public relations spin and marketing instead.”

Meanwhile, former journalist and Click2View chief executive, Simon Kearney says: “Mediacorp has been tweaking the digital side of Today for some time, launching the weekend edition, refining the product obviously with an eye on what was about to happen. If you look at Mediacorp’s advertising offering it’s about shifting non-digital advertisers to digital and offering an omnibus approach to advertising across its media brands.”

“Mediacorp has the market share to do that with advertisers in Singapore – that should be understood and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out with the new CEO.”

Revenue will naturally remain the mot du jour for Mediacorp’s new leadership. Although, as Soon points out, Mediacorp will be able to run its digital-only edition at a fraction of a cost of print production, cutting operational expenditure is only part of the challenge Mediacorp now faces. Digital may be more cost-effective, but the advertising value of a banner is likewise a fraction of what advertisers would previously pay for a full-page ad.

As Facebook and Google continue to eat up the lion’s share of new advertising spend –  the latest report suggests together the internet giants will take more than half the world’s ad spend – and disruptive players such as Netflix and Spotify gain traction in Singapore, the company will need to diversify its model beyond just attempting to monetise content.

One option is the paywall model, which has proved a mixed success for publishers; some such as The Times of London and The New York Times have made progress under the subscription model, while others like The Wall Street Journal have grappled with losses in readership, in particular those directed from Google traffic.

However, for Kearney, the paywall model is likely to be Today’s best option given that the “ad market is just not going to offer revenue security in the foreseeable future”.

Another bright spot could be Brand Studio, Mediacorp’s two-year-old content marketing arm. The company recently bolstered this division by appointing veteran digital publisher and former Axel Springer lead Benjamin Gajkowski to man the ship. It is this area where some opportunity remains for the company, Starcom managing director Ian Loon believes. He said: “All is not lost. Local media owners are still best at recognising nuances and interest of consumers in their home market.

“Apart from moving into auction-based selling of ad-space, there would be a commercial pivot towards areas of local audience understanding, editorial, and programming expertise within the dominating platform, versus creating their own.”

For Soon, Singapore’s print industry has been on downward spiral since at least five years ago – a period when many, largely local, media owners in the United States and the United Kingdom began to get seriously worried about the products’ future. Now it seems, Singapore is catching up.

“The Today move addresses that elephant in the room — that the print model needs to evolve,” he said. “This is truly the golden age of media — we’re able to reach, target and communicate with audiences like never before. And yet we’re missing that opportunity because we’re afraid to ask the questions that need to be asked.”

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