Opinion

Why access not editorial quality is king for Asia’s newspapers

Patrick D'SouzaIn this guest post, Patrick D’souza argues why access rather than editorial quality is the order of the day for newspapers, and why Singapore’s mainstream media should be worried.

A few days ago we read a piece by Paul Gilfeather about what the New York Times’ digital troubles mean for Asia that I thought did a big favour to Singapore’s media industry by making it aware of what awaits a refusal to change. Or an inability to do so, as consumers shift, with little remorse, to options that better fit their preferences.

But a mere decision to adopt a digital path, and to make significant investments in it, as Singapore Press Holdings did recently, does not guarantee success.

I was shocked to read, that ‘The Grey Lady’ [nickname for The New York Times] lost more than half of her traffic, in the last two years alone, to social and aggregation-based platforms.

These platforms were clearly able to more accurately predict, and navigate, the industry’s new definitive factor – mobile.

What is interesting about the fall in fortunes of one of the world’s most esteemed papers is that it was not accompanied by any fall in equity, value or journalistic standards.

What this means is that, for the time being at least, access rather than editorial is taking centre-stage in defining a publication’s success.

But this is in the West.

The Singapore media industry’s issues are as unique as the practice of drinking beer with ice cubes.

The media industry is trapped in a double pincer movement, which consists of four key issues:

1. The economies digital offers over print. This is a no brainer. You simply cannot compete mathematically with a digital organisation that does not suffer the incumbency of print. If you don’t believe this, there is only one thing to do. Prepare to go broke.

2. The changing nature and timing of publishing. We have been used to receiving our news when we wake up, and in some countries with our afternoon cup of tea. These schedules do not compute in the new world. Now we receive news as it happens. This means scheduling, the way the industry used to do it, must go out of the window and in its place a new 24/7 system emerge.

3. News is not dying. It is incarnating in new forms. Sure, the old guard’s very existence is being challenged. But in its place scores of new publications are arising – Quartz, Business Insider, Buzzfeed – the list is strong and healthy. In a digital world, the best of Singapore’s writers have options they never had before. Should they choose to take them, it will leave the industry squabbling over scraps. Which will reduce its influence and cause its readership to further decline over time.

4. Singapore’s standard of journalism leaves a lot to be desired. The standard of reporting in Singapore tends to be childish, and the frequent deletion of articles on social sites and one-sided reporting of key issues suggests that the industry cannot be taken seriously. Over time, this lack of seriousness will wedge itself between publications and their audiences causing the latter to migrate to foreign journals who want something different to the local, dare it be said, more comedic, sources of news.

The industry’s central issue continues to be what is basic to journalism, in whatever state – technological or geographical. Independence, integrity and credibility.

Patrick D’souza is the former MD of OgilvyOne Malaysia and the founder of Insanity, a content marketing consultancy with a presence in Singapore, Sydney, Kuala Lumpur and Mumbai.

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