Sunday, March 5th, 2000
Life section

Time for creative destruction

Remaining Relevant

While its good to know that Life!'s cover is good enough to be copied,it is also a signal that it is time for a remake to stay ahead of changes

on the Foreign Desk alerted me to it: the features section of the Sunday edition of the Indonesian Observer now has a cover which looks almost exactly like Life!'s.

The Observer is the second-largest English-language newspaper in Indonesia, after The Jakarta Post.

It felt good to know that Life!, or at least its cover, was deemed worthy enough to be copied. But the feeling lasted only two minutes. For us in Life!, it is as good as any a signal that we have to push on in our efforts to remake it.

This is especially so at a time when all the rules for the media, as with those for almost all industries, are being changed, and rapidly so.

The changes are not incremental, as in the industrial past. It is not just about moving the goal-posts, it is about tearing up the whole field. And where's the ball?

As with Life!, so it is with The Straits Times. The situation has never been better for the paper -- both circulation and advertising revenues are rising and look set to keep doing so this year.

Yet, this is the time that my editors have chosen to re-examine their three P's -- product, processes and people -- and they may actually launch into an exercise that is not unlike what an economist has colourfully called "creative destruction".

You destroy the accepted ways of doing things, perhaps destroy even the product itself so that you can make it anew. Because, if you don't, you may end up like IBM in the early 1980s, leader in the mainframe computer field, but with the field pulled from under your feet by a new game in town -- desktop-based computing.

So my editors are looking into multimedia and mass customisation, and are asking questions that were once corporate heresy, like: Do you, our dear reader, want to plough through 200 pages of The Straits Times, even on a Saturday? Or do you really need just 20 pages?

They are also asking: Should we not break up The Straits Times?

And to think that it was only 18 years ago, on the day before his appointment as the executive chairman of The Straits Times (1975) Ltd, that Mr S. R. Nathan was told by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister, that the140-year-old paper was like a bowl of china and he should try not to break it.

FOR the first time in my 25 years as a journalist, I am actually looking at the possible death of the newspaper as we know it. It is very scary, to say the least. I am not speaking on behalf of my editors or colleagues, but I think The Straits Times, as we know it, has maybe 10 years, at most 15, to go.

And we can buy some time only if we begin to reconfigure it now, just when it is most successful. I will be most happy to be proven wrong.

One thought -- which I'm sure is not new -- came to me as I took a long drive during lunchtime yesterday to still myself sufficiently to prepare for this column:

What if we unbundle the different parts of the paper and, instead of producing a one-size-fits-all Straits Times package, produce a small range of Straits Times in different sizes, to suit different groups of readers?

Allow me to offer just a few permutations:

* An eight-page digest for the busy executive who has access to real-time spot news on his cellular phone, which The Straits Times will also provide, of course.

* A 20-page paper for wired households, which will include local and would news and sports. Those households not wired may not want The Straits Times in any permutation.

* A four-page community news section that comes free of charge. In our headlong rush into the networked era, we mustn't forget though that the newspaper is also a vital civic organ. Eat-your-spinach articles are necessary. But people don't want exhortations. So it's how we package them that will ensure that it's not a throwaway section.

A weekly community section can be produced for schools, community clubs and
other civic centres.

* And, of course, Life! You can have an eight-page Life! with customised listings of all your favourite things, or a 16-page Life! Plus, which offers longer and more discursive reads and comes bundled with a free subscription to HBO and Cinemax.

Obviously, there can be many other permutations, with as many tie-ups with services provided by other agencies. But, unlike cable TV or Starbucks coffee, it will be unwise to offer, say, 60 different permutations of the paper. In an age of information overload, people don't want more choice, they want just what is best suited to their needs.

The logistics of distributing different Straits Times to our readers cannot be easy. But, with advances in electronic bar-coding and tagging, it is not impossible.

What do you think? Do you think The Straits Times as it is, with some fine-tuning, will serve your needs for the next five years? Or, would you prefer one that is quite different?

Archive 1

03/12/00 Nice work if you can get it

19/11/00 Simple emotions stalls paperless future

04/11/00 A club of pretencious class

21/10/00 Canby's passion for cinema

16/09/00 Clint still a draw at 70

09/09/00 The inspiring Keppel Men

09/07/00 Time and love wait for no man

25/06/00 Seizing opportunity in old-economy biz

11/06/00 Bad news to have more papers?

14/05/00 When my hostesses didn't show up...

30/04/00 Bellow's betrayal -- or act of friendship?

16/04/00 Alone, you don't get to grow up

02/04/00 New Economy

19/03/00 The Good Life

06/03/00 Time for creative destruction

20/02/00 Meet the new superhuman

30/01/00 OK, I don't have to be rich

16/01/00 An intimation of timelessness

02/01/00 Let's not forget to meet F2F