Opinion

Will The Guardian fly in Asia?

The guardian logoSo, one of the West’s most revered newspapers, The Guardian, is thinking of launching a digital edition in Asia.

Will it work in this part of the world? We asked a few experts…

The media agency view

Mark Heap, CEO, MediaCom Asia Pacific

Mark HeapI think the Guardian’s aspirations are interesting.  They have a bit of a niche journalistic positioning which I certainly believe will appeal to a lot of British expatriates, of which there are many in Australia and increasingly Southeast Asia.

Of course it’s not just British expats who will read The Guardian but it makes sense to think of this as a starting point to build from.  I think they have the right idea when I see them saying “it’s not about countries” and that they are competing with digital news aggregators.  That’s a good place to start.

However the whole conversation of ‘launching in Southeast Asia’ seems to go against the above ideals.  Today’s consumers want their news and entertainment content to be hyper relevant to them and very easy to access.  Compared to many news aggregators, The Guardian have an advantage in that they offer a broad range of content themes (from one source), but with a fairly consistent voice. I believe that if that voice appeals to you then you’ll probably be open to accepting a broad range of content from them, rather than seeking your sports news from one site, entertainment news from another, finance from another, etc.

So if The Guardian can build their profile around a differentiated positioning and voice in a way that connects with people, then deliver relevant content to readers in an easy to consume format, it shouldn’t matter whether their customers are in Singapore, Shanghai or Santiago.  And as long as they’re not charging their readers, good luck to them.

Neil Stewart, global chief client officer, Maxus

Neil StewartThe biggest challenge for any brand entering a well serviced (some may say cluttered) market – is who is my audience?  I am sure those from the UK familiar with the Guardian’s brand may welcome a local Asian version on-line. But is that enough?  As we have seen with the demise /decline of many pan-regional print media over the past decade – non local language news is a well serviced market by many big global players. But hey, making money doesnt seem to be high on the agenda of the Guardian based on your quoted losses – so why not give it a go!

Bharad Ramesh, Head of trading VivaKi Southeast Asia

Bharad RameshClearly, they see the traffic from this region coming into their UK (and possibly the Aussie) site. So they see the potential.

Not sure how the monetisation will pay off. As an advertiser, where do I move money from to this site? The BBC?

Editorially, I am not sure that governments in Southeast Asia will appreciate the kind of reporting that Guardian is know for – I mean, it’s not the liberal democracy ethos of the UK and Australia

Cheuk Chiang, CEO, Omnicom Media Group Asia Pacific

Cheuk ChiangThe Guardian has become a real force over the past three years, both in the UK and beyond through its commitment to open journalism and its pursuit of significant breakthrough stories. This is appealing to the many progressive minded readers we have in Asia.

Its coverage of the News International hacking story in the UK and more recently exposing the NSA/GCHQ data investigations and the wider global liberty vs national security debate have demonstrated the potency of this open approach and it’s this type of journalism that we want in Asia.

The Guardian’s growing reach globally is a real counter point to the paywall model and with its burgeoning digital revenues, the media brand is confounding sceptics. Opening in USA and Australia is a demonstration of the scope of the brand’s ambition and the consumer and cultural need for a progressive, alternative voice in those territories.

Will the Guardian survive in Asia? I certainly think and hope it will. Anyone with a progressive outlook should welcome the prospect of the Guardian in our region.

The PR view

Jonathan Hughes, president, international Golin Harris

Jonathan HughesIt will be interesting to see how The Guardian will handle the balancing act of local versus regional news.  To get mass readership they will need to deliver locally focussed news which is often beholden to local interests and tends to do best in local language.  English is more acceptable for a broader regional format and while there are some Asian online news and views websites none have yet been very successful.  Even well-established media brands such as the FT and WSJA are doing OK but not stunning successes.

The other side of the equation is how they plan to gather that news if it is to be really meaningful and insightful?  Will they simply curate and aggregate content from local bloggers and stringers or will they invest in correspondents to add valuable perspective and credibility?  Will that famously liberal perspective need to be tempered if those correspondents are to build trust with official sources?  This challenge is further compounded by the fact that the Guardian hasn’t had a constant, established presence in Asia in the same way as NY Times, FT and WSJA has.  However, there is always room for a new entrant to innovate and shake things up.

Anna Goulding, senior consultant, Rice Communications

Anna GouldingI’m from the UK and the Guardian is my favourite read back home, so I’m very pleased to hear it’s expanding into the region.

The Guardian has a good reputation internationally for its high-standards and quality journalism. Other than interesting news and analysis, the paper also has a strong focus on culture and food, which I believe will sit well with readers in Singapore. Obviously any new media title entering a market or markets for the first time is going to have to navigate the different regulations and policies that regulate journalism. This could prove challenging if it intends to cover regional political issues or sensitive domestic matters of a country.

The journalist’s view
Michael O’Neill, digital managing editor, Weber Shandwick Asia Pacific

Michael O'NeillThe immediate question this news raises is why?

If the expansion is about the newspaper providing a more comprehensive global news coverage, then as a long-time reader of the Guardian I welcome this, but at the same time remain skeptical.

To grow beyond the current Asia section on the UK website would require serious commitment and financial investment, with no guarantee of a return. Moreover, it goes against current news publishing trends. The days of heavyweight foreign correspondents stationed in thriving country bureaus in Asia are over, long replaced by stringers and newswires. A quick look at the Guardian’s recently-launched US and Australian online editions  suggest little would change in this regard.

A more likely reason is that the move would help the Guardian grow its business beyond traditional news. Big global players such as the Economist, Forbes, Wall Street Journal Asia and the FT have had much success diversifying their output in Asia to include conferences, events, research, specialist services and more. In a world of shrinking ad revenue, combined with the relative strength of Asian markets, it makes sense for the Guardian to want a piece of this.

However, for this to happen, the newspaper needs to overcome serious branding obstacles. The Guardian lacks the brand gravitas of the Wall Street Journal or FT in Asia and it has little to no legacy among the region’s consumers. We know what to expect from a FT-branded summit or an All Things Digital Asia conference in terms of content and quality. Could the same be said for the Guardian? Do Asian consumers and potential corporate partners know what the Guardian stands for? Do they understand who it speaks to? And even if they do, is it compelling enough to build a successful business model against? I am unconvinced.

The blogger’s view

Kirsten Han, author, #Spuddings, columnist Huffington Post and Yahoo! Singapore
Kirsten HanI think it’s great that the Guardian is thinking of expanding into Southeast Asia. It’s a region that’s not always very well covered, and with the ASEAN economic zone coming up in 2015 it’ll be a region of interest.
The first obstacle that pops into my head in relation to Singapore is if the government goes through with its plans to find some way to license foreign news websites. But if the Guardian keeps up its reputation of high quality journalism I don’t think the government would just ignore them.
The adman’s view
Calvin Soh, former chief creative officer and vice chairman of Publicis Asia Pacific, now running business consultancy Ninety Nine Percent and  discussion group Future Singapore

Calvin SohLet’s take Singapore as one of the place they’re expanding into. It’s timely as the readership of the main paper, The Straits Times, is down. Doesn’t mean people are reading less, just not reading the straits times.

So what are people looking for? There’s an upsurge in websites and bloggers offering alternate views and opinions. That suggests a market there.

I would think the strategy for The Guardian would then be to offer global as well as localised opinion pieces on local topics. Embrace local news and local bloggers. Just curate the bloggers and news pieces. Why reinvent the wheel there?

Then sports, mainly the English Premier League. If Singtel and Starhub fight over it, that’s because it brings a lot of viewers in. So offer EPL exclusives and news stories that are relevant in an Asian context.

Much depends on what their revenue model is. Is it advertising based? Are they making a long-term investment in Asia, which would take off the pressure to turn a profit for a couple of years?

More importantly, they need to understand Asia and what people are looking for now. They need to stand for something, a point of view that people can rally around. Papers around Asia tend to be government mouthpieces, so it’s easy for an independent news brand to stand out. There’s a shift in consumer habits and mindsets that the incumbent papers are slow to realise or more likely, accept.

That’s where the real opportunity lies. In the head.

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