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Subscription model ‘shot to pieces’ in Singapore, no one will pay for content, says The Middle Ground publisher

The Middle Ground's publisher Daniel Yap

The Middle Ground’s publisher Daniel Yap

The paid subscription model for online publishers in Singapore is “shot to pieces” as internet users are no longer willing to pay for content, the publisher of an independent news site said today.

Daniel Yap of recently launched news site The Middle Ground told delegates at the Singapore Publisher Summit this afternoon that he was “fearful for readers” as the quality and objectivity of journalism was under threat because of a lack of desire to fund it.

“The subscription model is shot to pieces. No one is willing to pay [for content] anymore. I’m fearful for readers. Who is willing to pay for content?” he said.

The Middle Ground launched three months ago, set up by the founders of Breakfast Network, an independent news site that closed after declining to get a publishing licence required of it by Singapore’s media regulator.

Yap said that while the conditions for online publishers in Singapore were “challenging”, his company was not motivated by turning a profit.

“We don’t publish stuff to make money. We have to make money to keep doing what we feel is our mission, which is serving our readers,” said Yap, who worked for PR agency Right Hook Communications before joining The Middle Ground in May this year.

Coming from a marketing background, Yap said he understood what marketers are looking for, and they will typically push a publication to find where the line is between advertising and editorial.

“It’s a question for the reader,” Yap said, referring to how content online can be monetised. “Who do you want dictating what you read? It’s a tough line to walk with very little money in between,” he said.

“We are three months in. I’ve got potential advertisers saying I don’t want to be associated with a socio-political site, but we just happen to cover the news,” he said, pointing out a familiar obstacle for independent publishers in Singapore.

“There’s a lack of understanding of what journalism is, both from readers or marketers in Singapore. They don’t understand that we can’t sell them editorial, and they don’t understand why that is good for both of us,” he said.

The Middle Ground has managed to secure funding from investors, Yap shared, stressing that they are “not government investors.”

“They do share our values and are willing to support us over the long term,” he said.

“A lot of people will tell you that you will only break even after two years [in online publishing. You’re burning for two years. But at the end of the day, it [the independent press] is something that the public needs – like Batman,” he joked.

“It really adds value to society. Those of us who have a talent for business development find a way to make money without crossing the line,” he said, referring to how online publishers can make money without sacrificing editorial integrity.

In an earlier session, Bertha Henson, the consulting editor for The Middle Ground and former SPH journalist of 26 years, also talked about the struggle of online publishers in Singapore to make ends meet.

The problem is that advertisers put is “so little money,” she said. “So the [advertising] pie is not big at all.”

“I was involved with Stomp, regrettably,” she said, alluding to her time working at Singapore Press Holdings, which publishes the citizen journalism-cum-gossip site. “They make money, but from a low base.”

“There is no way that an online operation as a business can cover itself. As a business unit [within a traditional media company], there needs to be a lot of handholding to cross-subsidise. It’s worse for us, as we don’t have anything [a parent company] to fall back on.”

“The digital part of it is far smaller than the print of broadcast part,” she suggested.

And if mainstream media doesn’t make much money from online publishing, “what about the rest of us?” she wondered.

“If you pay online journalists well, we can do a better job. Now, there’s not enough money being put into the digital landscape. The tragedy is that it cannot rely on readers alone. Print and broadcast channels have pay-per-view or a licence fee.”

“The day readers are prepared to pay for content is the day we can get better content.”

“We need to make people to pay [for content online] without being aware that they are paying, a bit like paying a phone bill,” she said.

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