The Singapore news man putting ‘the pen back in the hand of the writer’

PN BaljiIn a little over a week, a new online newspaper will launch in Singapore that promises to “put the pen back in the hand of the writer”. P N Balji is the consulting editor and director of The Independent.

In this interview, Balji, who is the former CEO and editor-in-chief of TODAY newspaper, talks to Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about how hard his new website will go in its reporting, the decline of mainstream media and why Singapore’s press is better than Malaysia’s.

What makes The Independent different to what else is out there?

If you look at Singapore’s media landscape, at one level you have the Straits Times and the mainstream media which takes ‘responsible reporting’ – and by that I mean writing about government issues – to a ridiculous extreme. On the other level, you have the blogging community, which takes ‘robust reporting’ (taking the government to task) to the other extreme – they tend to take the view that everything the government does is wrong.

There’s a huge space in the centre that is unoccupied, and that’s where we come in. But it’s not easy in this middle ground. As journalists, you need sound judgement and you need to write carefully and skillfully.

What are your rules of thumb for how ‘hard’ you will go with your reporting?

We won’t report anything that encroaches on racial or religious issues or defense matters, which is against the law. We will respect the OB markers.

When reporting about government issues, we will argue the case from both sides and come up with our own conclusion – which will not necessarily be pro-government.

Do you worry that you might get a call from the Independent newspaper in the UK, which shares your name?

The Independent logoLook at news organisations around the world. They all have similar names. We’ve done all our checks and due diligence. One of our partners is a lawyer [Alfred Dodwell is The Independent’s director and legal advisor]. I don’t think we’ll run into any issues concerning our name.

Do you think you’ll find it hard to attract advertisers, given your content will provide an alternative view to the mainstream press?

The Independent's managing editor Kumaran Pillai

The Independent’s managing editor Kumaran Pillai

The online world has always found it difficult to attract advertisers, and the internet is still virgin territory for many. But I’m aware that advertisers are watching us closely.

We are not anti-establishment, so I don’t think we’ll have a problem attracting advertisers. As I said, if the government has done something right, we’ll support it, and in a robust way. But if the government has done something wrong, we’ll oppose it in a robust way. This approach is completely new in Singapore.

We haven’t had serious conversations with advertisers just yet. We’re going with a paid subscription model, although our content will be free to begin with. We’ll see how things go. We don’t have sales staff at this stage, but if the opportunity arises and we get interest from advertisers, we’ll pay sales people on a commission basis.

Being a website, we are able to keep our cost base very low. But we don’t expect journalists to work for us for free. We will pay contributors on a per article basis. There are a lot of seasoned journalists out there we want to work with, and a fair few young people who we want to give us the alternative perspective that we’re looking for.

As for the editing, that will be done myself and the managing editor Kumaran Pillai (the former chief editor of The Online Citizen). We are not getting paid, for now.

What’s your target for building an audience in your first year?

I think that if we can get 1,000 subscribers after a year, I’d be pleased.

You launched TODAY newspaper in 2000. What’s your view on how the newspaper has progressed since then?

It’s 13 years since TODAY launched, and just from looking at the number of ads in the paper now (I don’t have inside knowledge of the commercial side of the business) I’d say it’s progressed very well. TODAY doesn’t have to reveal its financial figures, because it’s not publicly listed. But print is struggling in Singapore. Look at the last quarterly results for Singapore Press Holdings [publisher of the Straits Times]. Circulation and ad revenue are down.

From an editorial point of view, you’ll see the same sort of stories in TODAY that you’ll see in the Straits Times. But TODAY tends to offer more analysis. The ST doesn’t do that so much – it goes for more straightforward reporting.

What’s your view on the tension between the mainstream press and bloggers in Singapore? Who will win in the end?

This is a very anecdotal point of view, but you only have to look at the Straits Times’ circulation decline to see where things are headed. This has never happened before in SPH’s history. People are shifting. Eye balls are going elsewhere.

A lot of it is to do with young Singaporeans and their media habits. They’re going online for news. And older people are starting to read blogs too. The problem is how you make blogs financially viable. I don’t see them attracting much advertising.

The blogging community needs to come together, rather than be five or six disparate voices. Then there’s a better chance that they’ll be credible competition for the mainstream media.

But let me be clear. I don’t think the Straits Times is a bad newspaper. Compare the Singapore media with the Malaysian media. Look what’s happening online in Malaysia. Look at Malaysiakini [the most popular non-government owned paid-news site in Malaysia]. They are making a profit. Why? Because the Malaysian mainstream media is really biased. It’s not covertly pro-government. It’s openly pro-government.

Despite what people think about the Straits Times, if you have a bit of patience and perseverance, you will unearth some gems in this paper. They are better at breadth than depth in their coverage, but they do have good have some very good journalists. The problem is that there is a disconnect between what the public wants and what the ST is giving them.

Who will be the biggest loser if the ST loses ground? The government. Where else can they get their message across?

The ST needs to be given the freedom to be more robust in its reporting. The future of print media in Singapore is in the hands of the government.

What was the inspiration for The Independent? Are you looking to follow a model that has worked elsewhere?

Honestly, no. I’m a big fan of the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, especially the FT Weekend, and the New York Times. But we didn’t have a model in mind when we launched The Independent. We looked at the Singapore media landscape, saw a vaccum in the centre, and are moving into that space.

What’s the best news story you’ve read?
I’m 65 years old. So my memory is not as good as was it once was. But a story I read this week really impressed me. It was a piece about the elections in Japan. The coalition won an impressive victory, and I wanted to find out more. So I read about it in the Straits Times, the Business Times, the Financial Times and the New York Times.

But the best coverage for me was in the Wall Street Journal. They ran a few pieces. One was a page 1 lead, which gave me a good idea of what is at stake, what the election means for Japan. They also ran a side piece, which gave me a measure of the man [Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe], and how he’s a believer in second chances. They used Walt Disney as an example. How it failed a number of times, but bounced back. Japan is a country that does not give people a second chance. The way they told the story used a historical reference and brought it up to the present tense with accuracy and style.


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